Predictive Processing: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mind & Body (Part IV)

In the previous post which was part 3 in this series (click here for parts 1 and 2) on Predictive Processing (PP), I discussed how the PP framework can be used to adequately account for traditional and scientific notions of knowledge, by treating knowledge as a subset of all the predicted causal relations currently at our brain’s disposal.  This subset of predictions that we tend to call knowledge has the special quality of especially high confidence levels (high Bayesian priors).  Within a scientific context, knowledge tends to have an even stricter definition (and even higher confidence levels) and so we end up with a smaller subset of predictions which have been further verified through comparing them with the inferred predictions of others and by testing them with external means of instrumentation and some agreed upon conventions for analysis.

However, no amount of testing or verification is going to give us direct access to any knowledge per se.  Rather, the creation or discovery of knowledge has to involve the application of some kind of reasoning to explain the causal inputs, and only after this reasoning process can the resulting predicted causal relations be validated to varying degrees by testing it (through raw sensory data, external instruments, etc.).  So getting an adequate account of reasoning within any theory or framework of overall brain function is going to be absolutely crucial and I think that the PP framework is well-suited for the job.  As has already been mentioned throughout this post-series, this framework fundamentally relies on a form of Bayesian inference (or some approximation) which is a type of reasoning.  It is this inferential strategy then, combined with a hierarchical neurological structure for it to work upon, that would allow our knowledge to be created in the first place.

Rules of Inference & Reasoning Based on Hierarchical-Bayesian Prediction Structure, Neuronal Selection, Associations, and Abstraction

While PP tends to focus on perception and action in particular, I’ve mentioned that I see the same general framework as being able to account for not only the folk psychological concepts of beliefs, desires, and emotions, but also that the hierarchical predictive structure it entails should plausibly be able to account for language and ontology and help explain the relationship between the two.  It seems reasonable to me that the associations between all of these hierarchically structured beliefs or predicted causal relations at varying levels of abstraction, can provide a foundation for our reasoning as well, whether intuitive or logical forms of reasoning.

To illustrate some of the importance of associations between beliefs, consider an example like the belief in object permanence (i.e. that objects persist or continue to exist even when I can no longer see them).  This belief of ours has an extremely high prior because our entire life experience has only served to support this prediction in a large number of ways.  This means that it’s become embedded or implicit in a number of other beliefs.  If I didn’t predict that object permanence was a feature of my reality, then an enormous number of everyday tasks would become difficult if not impossible to do because objects would be treated as if they are blinking into and out of existence.

We have a large number of beliefs that require object permanence (and which are thus associated with object permanence), and so it is a more fundamental lower-level prediction (though not as low level as sensory information entering the visual cortex) and we use this lower-level prediction to build upon into any number of higher-level predictions in the overall conceptual/predictive hierarchy.  When I put money in a bank, I expect to be able to spend it even if I can’t see it anymore (such as with a check or debit card).  This is only possible if my money continues to exist even when out of view (regardless of if the money is in a paper/coin or electronic form).  This is just one of many countless everyday tasks that depend on this belief.  So it’s no surprise that this belief (this set of predictions) would have an incredibly high Bayesian prior, and therefore I would treat it as a non-negotiable fact about reality.

On the other hand, when I was a newborn infant, I didn’t have this belief of object permanence (or at best, it was a very weak belief).  Most psychologists estimate that our belief in object permanence isn’t acquired until after several months of brain development and experience.  This would translate to our having a relatively low Bayesian prior for this belief early on in our lives, and only once a person begins to form predictions based on these kinds of recognized causal relations can we begin to increase that prior and perhaps eventually reach a point that results in a subjective experience of a high degree in certainty for this particular belief.  From that point on, we are likely to simply take that belief for granted, no longer questioning it.  The most important thing to note here is that the more associations made between beliefs, the higher their effective weighting (their priors), and thus the higher our confidence in those beliefs becomes.

Neural Implementation, Spontaneous or Random Neural Activity & Generative Model Selection

This all seems pretty reasonable if a neuronal implementation worked to strengthen Bayesian priors as a function of the neuronal/synaptic connectivity (among other factors), where neurons that fire together are more likely to wire together.  And connectivity strength will increase the more often this happens.  On the flip-side, the less often this happens or if it isn’t happening at all then the connectivity is likely to be weakened or non-existent.  So if a concept (or a belief composed of many conceptual relations) is represented by some cluster of interconnected neurons and their activity, then it’s applicability to other concepts increases its chances of not only firing but also increasing the strength of wiring with those other clusters of neurons, thus plausibly increasing the Bayesian priors for the overlapping concept or belief.

Another likely important factor in the Bayesian inferential process, in terms of the brain forming new generative models or predictive hypotheses to test, is the role of spontaneous or random neural activity and neural cluster generation.  This random neural activity could plausibly provide a means for some randomly generated predictions or random changes in the pool of predictive models that our brain is able to select from.  Similar to the role of random mutation in gene pools which allows for differential reproductive rates and relative fitness of offspring, some amount of randomness in neural activity and the generative models that result would allow for improved models to be naturally selected based on those which best minimize prediction error.  The ability to minimize prediction error could be seen as a direct measure of the fitness of the generative model, within this evolutionary landscape.

This idea is related to the late Gerald Edelman’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (NGS), also known as Neural Darwinism, which I briefly explored in a post I wrote long ago.  I’ve long believed that this kind of natural selection process is applicable to a number of different domains (aside from genetics), and I think any viable version of PP is going to depend on it to at least some degree.  This random neural activity (and the naturally selected products derived from them) could be thought of as contributing to a steady supply of new generative models to choose from and thus contributing to our overall human creativity as well whether for reasoning and problem solving strategies or simply for artistic expression.

Increasing Abstraction, Language, & New Rules of Inference

This kind of use it or lose it property of brain plasticity combined with dynamic associations between concepts or beliefs and their underlying predictive structure, would allow for the brain to accommodate learning by extracting statistical inferences (at increasing levels of abstraction) as they occur and modifying or eliminating those inferences by changing their hierarchical associative structure as prediction error is encountered.  While some form of Bayesian inference (or an approximation to it) underlies this process, once lower-level inferences about certain causal relations have been made, I believe that new rules of inference can be derived from this basic Bayesian foundation.

To see how this might work, consider how we acquire a skill like learning how to speak and write in some particular language.  The rules of grammar, the syntactic structure and so forth which underlie any particular language are learned through use.  We begin to associate words with certain conceptual structures (see part 2 of this post-series for more details on language and ontology) and then we build up the length and complexity of our linguistic expressions by adding concepts built on higher levels of abstraction.  To maximize the productivity and specificity of our expressions, we also learn more complex rules pertaining to the order in which we speak or write various combinations of words (which varies from language to language).

These grammatical rules can be thought of as just another higher-level abstraction, another higher-level causal relation that we predict will convey more specific information to whomever we are speaking to.  If it doesn’t seem to do so, then we either modify what we have mistakenly inferred to be those grammatical rules, or depending on the context, we may simply assume that the person we’re talking to hasn’t conformed to the language or grammar that my community seems to be using.

Just like with grammar (which provides a kind of logical structure to our language), we can begin to learn new rules of inference built on the same probabilistic predictive bedrock of Bayesian inference.  We can learn some of these rules explicitly by studying logic, induction, deduction, etc., and consciously applying those rules to infer some new piece of knowledge, or we can learn these kinds of rules implicitly based on successful predictions (pertaining to behaviors of varying complexity) that happen to result from stumbling upon this method of processing causal relations within various contexts.  As mentioned earlier, this would be accomplished in part by the natural selection of randomly-generated neural network changes that best reduce the incoming prediction error.

However, language and grammar are interesting examples of an acquired set of rules because they also happen to be the primary tool that we use to learn other rules (along with anything we learn through verbal or written instruction), including (as far as I can tell) various rules of inference.  The logical structure of language (though it need not have an exclusively logical structure), its ability to be used for a number of cognitive short-cuts, and it’s influence on our thought complexity and structure, means that we are likely dependent on it during our reasoning processes as well.

When we perform any kind of conscious reasoning process, we are effectively running various mental simulations where we can intentionally manipulate our various generative models to test new predictions (new models) at varying levels of abstraction, and thus we also manipulate the linguistic structure associated with those generative models as well.  Since I have a lot more to say on reasoning as it relates to PP, including more on intuitive reasoning in particular, I’m going to expand on this further in my next post in this series, part 5.  I’ll also be exploring imagination and memory including how they relate to the processes of reasoning.

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Conscious Realism & The Interface Theory of Perception

A few months ago I was reading an interesting article in The Atlantic about Donald Hoffman’s Interface Theory of Perception.  As a person highly interested in consciousness studies, cognitive science, and the mind-body problem, I found the basic concepts of his theory quite fascinating.  What was most interesting to me was the counter-intuitive connection between evolution and perception that Hoffman has proposed.  Now it is certainly reasonable and intuitive to assume that evolutionary natural selection would favor perceptions that are closer to “the truth” or closer to the objective reality that exists independent of our minds, simply because of the idea that perceptions that are more accurate will be more likely to lead to survival than perceptions that are not accurate.  As an example, if I were to perceive lions as inert objects like trees, I would be more likely to be naturally selected against and eaten by a lion when compared to one who perceives lions as a mobile predator that could kill them.

While this is intuitive and reasonable to some degree, what Hoffman actually shows, using evolutionary game theory, is that with respect to organisms with comparable complexity, those with perceptions that are closer to reality are never going to be selected for nearly as much as those with perceptions that are tuned to fitness instead.  More so, truth in this case will be driven to extinction when it is up against perceptual models that are tuned to fitness.  That is to say, evolution will select for organisms that perceive the world in a way that is less accurate (in terms of the underlying reality) as long as the perception is tuned for survival benefits.  The bottom line is that given some specific level of complexity, it is more costly to process more information (costing more time and resources), and so if a “heuristic” method for perception can evolve instead, one that “hides” all the complex information underlying reality and instead provides us with a species-specific guide to adaptive behavior, that will always be the preferred choice.

To see this point more clearly, let’s consider an example.  Let’s imagine there’s an animal that regularly eats some kind of insect, such as a beetle, but it needs to eat a particular sized beetle or else it has a relatively high probability of eating the wrong kind of beetle (and we can assume that the “wrong” kind of beetle would be deadly to eat).  Now let’s imagine two possible types of evolved perception: it could have really accurate perceptions about the various sizes of beetles that it encounters so it can distinguish many different sizes from one another (and then choose the proper size range to eat), or it could evolve less accurate perceptions such that all beetles that are either too small or too large appear as indistinguishable from one another (maybe all the wrong-sized beetles whether too large or too small look like indistinguishable red-colored blobs) and perhaps all the beetles that are in the ideal size range for eating appear as green-colored blobs (that are again, indistinguishable from one another).  So the only discrimination in this latter case of perception is between red and green colored blobs.

Both types of perception would solve the problem of which beetles to eat or not eat, but the latter type (even if much less accurate) would bestow a fitness advantage over the former type, by allowing the animal to process much less information about the environment by not focusing on relatively useless information (like specific beetle size).  In this case, with beetle size as the only variable under consideration for survival, evolution would select for the organism that knows less total information about beetle size, as long as it knows what is most important about distinguishing the edible beetles from the poisonous beetles.  Now we can imagine that in some cases, the fitness function could align with the true structure of reality, but this is not what we ever expect to see generically in the world.  At best we may see some kind of overlap between the two but if there doesn’t have to be any then truth will go extinct.

Perception is Analogous to a Desktop Computer Interface

Hoffman analogizes this concept of a “perception interface” with the desktop interface of a personal computer.  When we see icons of folders on the desktop and drag one of those icons to the trash bin, we shouldn’t take that interface literally, because there isn’t literally a folder being moved to a literal trash bin but rather it is simply an interface that hides most if not all of what is really going on in the background — all those various diodes, resistors and transistors that are manipulated in order to modify stored information that is represented in binary code.

The desktop interface ultimately provides us with an easy and intuitive way of accomplishing these various information processing tasks because trying to do so in the most “truthful” way — by literally manually manipulating every diode, resistor, and transistor to accomplish the same task — would be far more cumbersome and less effective than using the interface.  Therefore the interface, by hiding this truth from us, allows us to “navigate” through that computational world with more fitness.  In this case, having more fitness simply means being able to accomplish information processing goals more easily, with less resources, etc.

Hoffman goes on to say that even though we shouldn’t take the desktop interface literally, obviously we should still take it seriously, because moving that folder to the trash bin can have direct implications on our lives, by potentially destroying months worth of valuable work on a manuscript that is contained in that folder.  Likewise we should take our perceptions seriously, even if we don’t take them literally.  We know that stepping in front of a moving train will likely end our conscious experience even if it is for causal reasons that we have no epistemic access to via our perception, given the species-specific “desktop interface” that evolution has endowed us with.

Relevance to the Mind-body Problem

The crucial point with this analogy is the fact that if our knowledge was confined to the desktop interface of the computer, we’d never be able to ascertain the underlying reality of the “computer”, because all that information that we don’t need to know about that underlying reality is hidden from us.  The same would apply to our perception, where it would be epistemically isolated from the underlying objective reality that exists.  I want to add to this point that even though it appears that we have found the underlying guts of our consciousness, i.e., the findings in neuroscience, it would be mistaken to think that this approach will conclusively answer the mind-body problem because the interface that we’ve used to discover our brains’ underlying neurobiology is still the “desktop” interface.

So while we may think we’ve found the underlying guts of “the computer”, this is far from certain, given the possibility of and support for this theory.  This may end up being the reason why many philosophers claim there is a “hard problem” of consciousness and one that can’t be solved.  It could be that we simply are stuck in the desktop interface and there’s no way to find out about the underlying reality that gives rise to that interface.  All we can do is maximize our knowledge of the interface itself and that would be our epistemic boundary.

Predictions of the Theory

Now if this was just a fancy idea put forward by Hoffman, that would be interesting in its own right, but the fact that it is supported by evolutionary game theory and genetic algorithm simulations shows that the theory is more than plausible.  Even better, the theory is actually a scientific theory (and not just a hypothesis), because it has made falsifiable predictions as well.  It predicts that “each species has its own interface (with some similarities between phylogenetically related species), almost surely no interface performs reconstructions (read the second link for more details on this), each interface is tailored to guide adaptive behavior in the relevant niche, much of the competition between and within species exploits strengths and limitations of interfaces, and such competition can lead to arms races between interfaces that critically influence their adaptive evolution.”  The theory predicts that interfaces are essential to understanding evolution and the competition between organisms, whereas the reconstruction theory makes such understanding impossible.  Thus, evidence of interfaces should be widespread throughout nature.

In his paper, he mentions the Jewel beetle as a case in point.  This beetle has a perceptual category, desirable females, which works well in its niche, and it uses it to choose larger females because they are the best mates.  According to the reconstructionist thesis, the male’s perception of desirable females should incorporate a statistical estimate of the true sizes of the most fertile females, but it doesn’t do this.  Instead, it has a category based on “bigger is better” and although this bestows a high fitness behavior for the male beetle in its evolutionary niche, if it comes into contact with a “stubbie” beer bottle, it falls into an infinite loop by being drawn to this supernormal stimuli since it is smooth, brown, and extremely large.  We can see that the “bigger is better” perceptual category relies on less information about the true nature of reality and instead chooses an “informational shortcut”.  The evidence of supernormal stimuli which have been found with many species further supports the theory and is evidence against the reconstructionist claim that perceptual categories estimate the statistical structure of the world.

More on Conscious Realism (Consciousness is all there is?)

This last link provided here shows the mathematical formalism of Hoffman’s conscious realist theory as proved by Chetan Prakash.  It contains a thorough explanation of the conscious realist theory (which goes above and beyond the interface theory of perception) and it also provides answers to common objections put forward by other scientists and philosophers on this theory.

Darwin’s Big Idea May Be The Biggest Yet

Back in 1859, Charles Darwin released his famous theory of evolution by natural selection whereby inherent variations in the individual members of some population of organisms under consideration would eventually lead to speciation events due to those variations producing a differential in survival and reproductive success and thus leading to the natural selection of some subset of organisms within that population.  As Darwin explained in his On The Origin of Species:

If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

While Darwin’s big idea completely transformed biology in terms of it providing (for the first time in history) an incredibly robust explanation for the origin of the diversity of life on this planet, his idea has since inspired other theories pertaining to perhaps the three largest mysteries that humans have ever explored: the origin of life itself (not just the diversity of life after it had begun, which was the intended scope of Darwin’s theory), the origin of the universe (most notably, why the universe is the way it is and not some other way), and also the origin of consciousness.

Origin of Life

In order to solve the first mystery (the origin of life itself), geologists, biologists, and biochemists are searching for plausible models of abiogenesis, whereby the general scheme of these models would involve chemical reactions (pertaining to geology) that would have begun to incorporate certain kinds of energetically favorable organic chemistries such that organic, self-replicating molecules eventually resulted.  Now, where Darwin’s idea of natural selection comes into play with life’s origin is in regard to the origin and evolution of these self-replicating molecules.  First of all, in order for any molecule at all to build up in concentration requires a set of conditions such that the reaction leading to the production of the molecule in question is more favorable than the reverse reaction where the product transforms back into the initial starting materials.  If merely one chemical reaction (out of a countless number of reactions occurring on the early earth) led to a self-replicating product, this would increasingly favor the production of that product, and thus self-replicating molecules themselves would be naturally selected for.  Once one of them was produced, there would have been a cascade effect of exponential growth, at least up to the limit set by the availability of the starting materials and energy sources present.

Now if we assume that at least some subset of these self-replicating molecules (if not all of them) had an imperfect fidelity in the copying process (which is highly likely) and/or underwent even a slight change after replication by reacting with other neighboring molecules (also likely), this would provide them with a means of mutation.  Mutations would inevitably lead to some molecules becoming more effective self-replicators than others, and then evolution through natural selection would take off, eventually leading to modern RNA/DNA.  So not only does Darwin’s big idea account for the evolution of diversity of life on this planet, but the basic underlying principle of natural selection would also account for the origin of self-replicating molecules in the first place, and subsequently the origin of RNA and DNA.

Origin of the Universe

Another grand idea that is gaining heavy traction in cosmology is that of inflationary cosmology, where this theory posits that the early universe underwent a period of rapid expansion, and due to quantum mechanical fluctuations in the microscopically sized inflationary region, seed universes would have resulted with each one having slightly different properties, one of which that would have expanded to be the universe that we live in.  Inflationary cosmology is currently heavily supported because it has led to a number of predictions, many of which that have already been confirmed by observation (it explains many large-scale features of our universe such as its homogeneity, isotropy, flatness, and other features).  What I find most interesting with inflationary theory is that it predicts the existence of a multiverse, whereby we are but one of an extremely large number of other universes (predicted to be on the order of 10^500, if not an infinite number), with each one having slightly different constants and so forth.

Once again, Darwin’s big idea, when applied to inflationary cosmology, would lead to the conclusion that our universe is the way it is because it was naturally selected to be that way.  The fact that its constants are within a very narrow range such that matter can even form, would make perfect sense, because even if an infinite number of universes exist with different constants, we would only expect to find ourselves in one that has the constants within the necessary range in order for matter, let alone life to exist.  So any universe that harbors matter, let alone life, would be naturally selected for against all the other universes that didn’t have the right properties to do so, including for example, universes that had too high or too low of a cosmological constant (such as those that would have instantly collapsed into a Big Crunch or expanded into a heat death far too quickly for any matter or life to have formed), or even universes that didn’t have the proper strong nuclear force to hold atomic nuclei together, or any other number of combinations that wouldn’t work.  So any universe that contains intelligent life capable of even asking the question of their origins, must necessarily have its properties within the required range (often referred to as the anthropic principle).

After our universe formed, the same principle would also apply to each galaxy and each solar system within those galaxies, whereby because variations exist in each galaxy and within each substituent solar system (differential properties analogous to different genes in a gene pool), then only those that have an acceptable range of conditions are capable of harboring life.  With over 10^22 stars in the observable universe (an unfathomably large number), and billions of years to evolve different conditions within each solar system surrounding those many stars, it isn’t surprising that eventually the temperature and other conditions would be acceptable for liquid water and organic chemistries to occur in many of those solar systems.  Even if there was only one life permitting planet per galaxy (on average), that would add up to over 100 billion life permitting planets in the observable universe alone (with many orders of magnitude more life permitting planets in the non-observable universe).  So given enough time, and given some mechanism of variation (in this case, differences in star composition and dynamics), natural selection in a sense can also account for the evolution of some solar systems that do in fact have life permitting conditions in a universe such as our own.

Origin of Consciousness

The last significant mystery I’d like to discuss involves the origin of consciousness.  While there are many current theories pertaining to different aspects of consciousness, and while there has been much research performed in the neurosciences, cognitive sciences, psychology, etc., pertaining to how the brain works and how it correlates to various aspects of the mind and consciousness, the brain sciences (though neuroscience in particular) are in their relative infancy and so there are still many questions that haven’t been answered yet.  One promising theory that has already been shown to account for many aspects of consciousness is Gerald Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection (NGS) otherwise known as neural Darwinism (ND), which is a large scale theory of brain function.  As one might expect from the name, the mechanism of natural selection is integral to this theory.  In ND, the basic idea consists of three parts as read on the Wiki:

  1. Anatomical connectivity in the brain occurs via selective mechanochemical events that take place epigenetically during development.  This creates a diverse primary neurological repertoire by differential reproduction.
  2. Once structural diversity is established anatomically, a second selective process occurs during postnatal behavioral experience through epigenetic modifications in the strength of synaptic connections between neuronal groups.  This creates a diverse secondary repertoire by differential amplification.
  3. Re-entrant signaling between neuronal groups allows for spatiotemporal continuity in response to real-world interactions.  Edelman argues that thalamocortical and corticocortical re-entrant signaling are critical to generating and maintaining conscious states in mammals.

In a nutshell, the basic differentiated structure of the brain that forms in early development is accomplished through cellular proliferation, migration, distribution, and branching processes that involve selection processes operating on random differences in the adhesion molecules that these processes use to bind one neuronal cell to another.  These crude selection processes result in a rough initial configuration that is for the most part fixed.  However, because there are a diverse number of sets of different hierarchical arrangements of neurons in various neuronal groups, there are bound to be functionally equivalent groups of neurons that are not equivalent in structure, but are all capable of responding to the same types of sensory input.  Because some of these groups should in theory be better than others at responding to some particular type of sensory stimuli, this creates a form of neuronal/synaptic competition in the brain, whereby those groups of neurons that happen to have the best synaptic efficiency for the stimuli in question are naturally selected over the others.  This in turn leads to an increased probability that the same network will respond to similar or identical signals in the future.  Each time this occurs, synaptic strengths increase in the most efficient networks for each particular type of stimuli, and this would account for a relatively quick level of neural plasticity in the brain.

The last aspect of the theory involves what Edelman called re-entrant signaling whereby a sampling of the stimuli from functionally different groups of neurons occurring at the same time leads to a form of self-organizing intelligence.  This would provide a means for explaining how we experience spatiotemporal consistency in our experience of sensory stimuli.  Basically, we would have functionally different parts of the brain, such as various maps in the visual centers that pertain to color versus others that pertain to orientation or shape, that would effectively amalgamate the two (previously segregated) regions such that they can function in parallel and thus correlate with one another producing an amalgamation of the two types of neural maps.  Once this re-entrant signaling is accomplished between higher order or higher complexity maps in the brain, such as those pertaining to value-dependent memory storage centers, language centers, and perhaps back to various sensory cortical regions, this would create an even richer level of synchronization, possibly leading to consciousness (according to the theory).  In all of the aspects of the theory, the natural selection of differentiated neuronal structures, synaptic connections and strengths and eventually that of larger re-entrant connections would be responsible for creating the parallel and correlated processes in the brain believed to be required for consciousness.  There’s been an increasing amount of support for this theory, and more evidence continues to accumulate in support of it.  In any case, it is a brilliant idea and one with a lot of promise in potentially explaining one of the most fundamental aspects of our existence.

Darwin’s Big Idea May Be the Biggest Yet

In my opinion, Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was perhaps the most profound theory ever discovered.  I’d even say that it beats Einstein’s theory of Relativity because of its massive explanatory scope and carryover to other disciplines, such as cosmology, neuroscience, and even the immune system (see Edelman’s Nobel work on the immune system, where he showed how the immune system works through natural selection as well, as opposed to some type of re-programming/learning).  Based on the basic idea of natural selection, we have been able to provide a number of robust explanations pertaining to many aspects of why the universe is likely to be the way it is, how life likely began, how it evolved afterward, and it may possibly be the answer to how life eventually evolved brains capable of being conscious.  It is truly one of the most fascinating principles I’ve ever learned about and I’m honestly awe struck by its beauty, simplicity, and explanatory power.

An Evolved Consciousness Creating Conscious Evolution

Two Evolutionary Leaps That Changed It All

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, human biological evolution has led to the emergence of not only consciousness but also a co-existing yet semi-independent cultural evolution (through the unique evolution of the human brain).  This evolutionary leap has allowed us to produce increasingly powerful technologies which in turn have provided a means for circumventing many natural selection pressures that our physical bodies would otherwise be unable to handle.

One of these technologies has been the selective breeding of plants and animals, with this process often referred to as “artificial” selection, as opposed to “natural” selection since human beings have served as an artificial selection pressure (rather than the natural selection pressures of the environment in general).  In the case of our discovery of artificial selection, by choosing which plants and animals to cultivate and raise, we basically just catalyzed the selection process by providing a selection pressure based on the plant or animal traits that we’ve desired most.  By doing so, rather than the selection process taking thousands or even millions of years to produce what we have today (in terms of domesticated plants and animals), it only took a minute fraction of that time since it was mediated through a consciously guided or teleological process, unlike natural selection which operates on randomly differentiating traits leading to differential reproductive success (and thus new genomes and species) over time.

This second evolutionary leap (artificial selection that is) has ultimately paved the way for civilization, as it has increased the landscape of our diet and thus our available options for food, and the resultant agriculture has allowed us to increase our population density such that human collaboration, complex distribution of labor, and ultimately the means for creating new and increasingly complex technologies, have been made possible.  It is largely because of this new evolutionary leap that we’ve been able to reach the current pinnacle of human evolution, the newest and perhaps our last evolutionary leap, or what I’ve previously referred to as “engineered selection”.

With artificial selection, we’ve been able to create new species of plants and animals with very unique and unprecedented traits, however we’ve been limited by the rate of mutations or other genomic differentiating mechanisms that must arise in order to create any new and desirable traits. With engineered selection, we can simply select or engineer the genomic sequences required to produce the desired traits, effectively allowing us to circumvent any genomic differentiation rate limitations and also allowing us instant access to every genomic possibility.

Genetic Engineering Progress & Applications

After a few decades of genetic engineering research, we’ve gained a number of capabilities including but not limited to: producing recombinant DNA, producing transgenic organisms, utilizing in vivo trans-species protein production, and even creating the world’s first synthetic life form (by adding a completely synthetic or human-constructed bacterial genome to a cell containing no DNA).  The plethora of potential applications for genetic engineering (as well as those applications currently in use) has continued to grow as scientists and other creative thinkers are further discovering the power and scope of areas such as mimetics, micro-organism domestication, nano-biomaterials, and many other inter-related niches.

Domestication of Genetically Engineered Micro and Macro-organisms

People have been genetically modifying plants and animals for the same reasons they’ve been artificially selecting them — in order to produce species with more desirable traits. Plants and animals have been genetically engineered to withstand harsher climates, resist harmful herbicides or pesticides (or produce their own pesticides), produce more food or calories per acre (or more nutritious food when all else is equal), etc.  Plants and animals have also been genetically modified for the purposes of “pharming”, where substances that aren’t normally produced by the plant or animal (e.g. pharmacological substances, vaccines, etc.) are expressed, extracted, and then purified.

One of the most compelling applications of genetic engineering within agriculture involves solving the “omnivore’s dilemma”, that is, the prospect of growing unconscious livestock by genetically inhibiting the development of certain parts of the brain so that the animal doesn’t experience any pain or suffering.  There have also been advancements made with in vitro meat, that is, producing cultured meat cells so that no actual animal is needed at all other than some starting cells taken painlessly from live animals (which are then placed into a culture media to grow into larger quantities of meat), however it should be noted that this latter technique doesn’t actually require any genetic modification, although genetic modification may have merit in improving these techniques.  The most important point here is that these methods should decrease the financial and environmental costs of eating meat, and will likely help to solve the ethical issues regarding the inhumane treatment of animals within agriculture.

We’ve now entered a new niche regarding the domestication of species.  As of a few decades ago, we began domesticating micro-organisms. Micro-organisms have been modified and utilized to produce insulin for diabetics as well as other forms of medicine such as vaccines, human growth hormone, etc.  There have also been certain forms of bacteria genetically modified in order to turn cellulose and other plant material directly into hydrocarbon fuels.  This year (2014), E. coli bacteria have been genetically modified in order to turn glucose into pinene (a high energy hydrocarbon used as a rocket fuel).  In 2013, researchers at the University of California, Davis, genetically engineered cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae) by adding particular DNA sequences to its genome which coded for specific enzymes such that it can use sunlight and the process of photosynthesis to turn CO2 into 2,3 butanediol (a chemical that can be used as a fuel, or to make paint, solvents, and plastics), thus producing another means of turning our over abundant carbon emissions back into fuel.

On a related note, there are also efforts underway to improve the efficiency of certain hydro-carbon eating bacteria such as A. borkumensis in order to clean up oil spills even more effectively.  Imagine one day having the ability to use genetically engineered bacteria to directly convert carbon emissions back into mass-produced fuel, and if the fuel spills during transport, also having the counterpart capability of cleaning it up most efficiently with another form of genetically engineered bacteria.  These capabilities are being further developed and are only the tip of the iceberg.

In theory, we should also be able to genetically engineer bacteria to decompose many other materials or waste products that ordinarily decompose extremely slowly. If any of these waste products are hazardous, bacteria could be genetically engineered to breakdown or transform the waste products into a safe and stable compound.  With these types of solutions we can make many new materials and have a method in line for their proper disposal (if needed).  Additionally, by utilizing some techniques mentioned in the next section, we can also start making more novel materials that decompose using non-genetically-engineered mechanisms.

It is likely that genetically modified bacteria will continue to provide us with many new types of mass-produced chemicals and products. For those processes that do not work effectively (if at all) in bacterial (i.e. prokaryotic) cells, then eukaryotic cells such as yeast, insect cells, and mammalian cells can often be used as a viable option. All of these genetically engineered domesticated micro-organisms will likely be an invaluable complement to the increasing number of genetically modified plants and animals that are already being produced.

Mimetics

In the case of mimetics, scientists are discovering new ways of creating novel materials using a bottom-up approach at the nano-scale by utilizing some of the self-assembly techniques that natural selection has near-perfected over millions of years.  For example, mollusks form sea shells with incredibly strong structural/mechanical properties by their DNA coding for the synthesis of specific proteins, and those proteins bonding the raw materials of calcium and carbonate into alternating layers until a fully formed shell is produced.  The pearls produced by clams are produced with similar techniques. We could potentially use the same DNA sequence in combination with a scaffold of our choosing such that a similar product is formed with unique geometries, or through genetic engineering techniques, we could modify the DNA sequence so that it performs the same self-assembly with completely different materials (e.g. silicon, platinum, titanium, polymers, etc.).

By combining the capabilities of scaffolding as well as the production of unique genomic sequences, one can further increase the number of possible nanomaterials or nanostructures, although I’m confident that most if not all scaffolding needs could eventually be accomplished by the DNA sequence alone (much like the production of bone, exoskeleton, and other types of structural tissues in animals).  The same principles can be applied by looking at how silk is produced by spiders, how the cochlear hair cells are produced in mammals, etc.  Many of these materials are stronger, lighter, and more defect-free than some of the best human products ever engineered.  By mimicking and modifying these DNA-induced self-assembly techniques, we can produce entirely new materials with unprecedented properties.

If we realize that even the largest plants and animals use these same nano-scale assembly processes to build themselves, it isn’t hard to imagine using these genetic engineering techniques to effectively grow complete macro-scale consumer products.  This may sound incredibly unrealistic with our current capabilities, but imagine one day being able to grow finished products such as clothing, hardware, tools, or even a house.  There are already people working on these capabilities to some degree (for example using 3D printed scaffolding or other scaffolding means and having plant or animal tissue grow around it to form an environmentally integrated bio-structure).  If this is indeed realizable, then perhaps we could find a genetic sequence to produce almost anything we want, even a functional computer or other device.  If nature can use DNA and natural selection to produce macro-scale organisms with brains capable of pattern recognition, consciousness, and computation (and eventually the learned capability of genetic engineering in the case of the human brain), then it seems entirely reasonable that we could eventually engineer DNA sequences to produce things with at least that much complexity, if not far higher complexity, and using a much larger selection of materials.

Other advantages from using such an approach include the enormous energy savings gained by adopting the naturally selected economically efficient process of self-assembly (including less changes in the forms of energy used, and thus less loss) and a reduction in specific product manufacturing infrastructure. That is, whereas we’ve typically made industrial scale machines individually tailored to produce specific components which are later assembled into a final product, by using DNA (and the proteins it codes for) to do the work for us, we will no longer require nearly as much manufacturing capital, for the genetic engineering capital needed to produce any genetic sequence is far more versatile.

Transcending the Human Species

Perhaps the most important application of genetic engineering will be the modification of our own species.  Many of the world’s problems are caused by sudden environmental changes (many of them anthropogenic), and if we can change ourselves and/or other species biologically in order to adapt to these unexpected and sudden environmental changes (or to help prevent them altogether), then the severity of those problems can be reduced or eliminated.  In a sense, we would be selecting our own as well as other species by providing the proper genes to begin with, rather than relying on extremely slow genomic differentiation mechanisms and the greater rates of suffering and loss of life that natural selection normally follows.

Genetic Enhancement of Existing Features

With power over the genome, we may one day be able to genetically increase our life expectancy, for example, by modifying the DNA polymerase-g enzyme in our mitochondria such that they make less errors (i.e. mutations) during DNA replication, by genetically altering telomeres in our nuclear DNA such that they can maintain their length and handle more mitotic divisions, or by finding ways to preserve nuclear DNA, etc. If we also determine which genes lead to certain diseases (as well as any genes that help to prevent them), genetic engineering may be the key to extending the length of our lives perhaps indefinitely.  It may also be the key to improving the quality of that extended life by replacing the techniques we currently use for health and wellness management (including pharmaceuticals) with perhaps the most efficacious form of preventative medicine imaginable.

If we can optimize our brain’s ability to perform neuronal regeneration, reconnection, rewiring, and/or re-weighting based on the genetic instructions that at least partially mediate these processes, this optimization should drastically improve our ability to learn by improving the synaptic encoding and consolidation processes involved in memory and by improving the combinatorial operations leading to higher conceptual complexity.  Thinking along these lines, by increasing the number of pattern recognition modules that develop in the neo-cortex, or by optimizing their configuration (perhaps by increasing the number of hierarchies), our general intelligence would increase as well and would be an excellent complement to an optimized memory.  It seems reasonable to assume that these types of cognitive changes will likely have dramatic effects on how we think and thus will likely affect our philosophical beliefs as well.  Religious beliefs are also likely to change as the psychological comforts provided by certain beliefs may no longer be as effective (if those comforts continue to exist at all), especially as our species continues to phase out non-naturalistic explanations and beliefs as a result of seeing the world from a more objective perspective.

If we are able to manipulate our genetic code in order to improve the mechanisms that underlie learning, then we should also be able to alter our innate abilities through genetic engineering. For example, what if infants could walk immediately after birth (much like a newborn calf)? What if infants had adequate motor skills to produce (at least some) spoken language much more quickly? Infants normally have language acquisition mechanisms which allow them to eventually learn language comprehension and productivity but this typically takes a lot of practice and requires their motor skills to catch up before they can utter a single word that they do in fact understand. Circumventing the learning requirement and the motor skill developmental lag (at least to some degree) would be a phenomenal evolutionary advancement, and this type of innate enhancement could apply to a large number of different physical skills and abilities.

Since DNA ultimately controls the types of sensory receptors we have, we should eventually be able to optimize these as well.  For example, photoreceptors could be modified such that we would be able to see new frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation (perhaps a more optimized range of frequencies if not a larger range altogether).  Mechano-receptors of all types could be modified, for example, to hear a different if not larger range of sound frequencies or to increase tactile sensitivity (i.e. touch).  Olfactory or gustatory receptors could also be modified in order to allow us to smell and taste previously undetectable chemicals.  Basically, all of our sensations could be genetically modified and, when combined with the aforementioned genetic modifications to the brain itself, this would allow us to have greater and more optimized dimensions of perception in our subjective experiences.

Genetic Enhancement of Novel Features

So far I’ve been discussing how we may be able to use genetic engineering to enhance features we already possess, but there’s no reason we can’t consider using the same techniques to add entirely new features to the human repertoire. For example, we could combine certain genes from other animals such that we can re-grow damaged limbs or organs, have gills to breathe underwater, have wings in order to fly, etc.  For that matter, we may even be able to combine certain genes from plants such that we can produce (at least some of) our own chemical energy from the sun, that is, create at least partially photosynthetic human beings.  It is certainly science fiction at the moment, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility of accomplishing this one day after considering all of the other hybrid and transgenic species we’ve created already, and after considering the possible precedent mentioned in the endosymbiotic theory (where an ancient organism may have “absorbed” another to produce energy for it, e.g. mitochondria and chloroplasts in eukaryotic cells).

Above and beyond these possibilities, we could also potentially create advanced cybernetic organisms.  What if we were able to integrate silicon-based electronic devices (or something more biologically compatible if needed) into our bodies such that the body grows or repairs some of these technologies using biological processes?  Perhaps if the body is given the proper diet (i.e. whatever materials are needed in the new technological “organ”) and has the proper genetic code such that the body can properly assimilate those materials to create entirely new “organs” with advanced technological features (e.g. wireless communication or wireless access to an internet database activated by particular thoughts or another physiological command cue), we may eventually be able to get rid of external interface hardware and peripherals altogether.  It is likely that electronic devices will first become integrated into our bodies through surgical implantation in order to work with our body’s current hardware (including the brain), but having the body actually grow and/or repair these devices using DNA instruction would be the next logical step of innovation if it is eventually feasible.

Malleable Human Nature

When people discuss complex issues such as social engineering, sustainability, crime-reduction, etc., it is often mentioned that there is a fundamental barrier between our current societal state and where we want or need to be, and this barrier is none other than human nature itself.  Many people in power have tried to change human behavior with brute force while operating under the false assumption that human beings are analogous to some kind of blank slate that can simply learn or be conditioned to behave in any way without limits. This denial of human nature (whether implicit or explicit) has led to a lot of needless suffering and has also led to the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution.

Humans often think that they can adapt to any cultural change, but we often lose sight of the detrimental power that technology and other cultural inventions and changes can have over our physiological and psychological well-being. In a nutshell, the speed of cultural evolution can often make us feel like a fish out of water, perhaps better suited to live in an environment closer to our early human ancestors.  Whatever the case, we must embrace human nature and realize that our efforts to improve society (or ourselves) will only have long term efficacy if we work with human nature rather than against it.  So what can we do if our biological evolution is out-of-sync with our cultural evolution?  And what can we do if we have no choice but to accept human nature, that is, our (often selfish) biologically-driven motivations, tendencies, etc.?  Once again, genetic engineering may provide a solution to many of these previously insoluble problems.  To put it simply, if we can change our genome as desired, then we may be able to not only synchronize our biological and cultural evolution, but also change human nature itself in the process.  This change could not only make us feel better adjusted to the modern cultural environment we’re living in, but it could also incline us to instinctually behave in ways that are more beneficial to each other and to the world as a whole.

It’s often said that we have selfish genes in some sense, that is, many if not all of our selfish behaviors (as well as instinctual behaviors in general) are a reflection of the strategy that genes implement in their vehicles (i.e. our bodies) in order for the genes to maintain themselves and reproduce.  That genes possess this kind of strategy does not require us to assume that they are conscious in any way or have actual goals per se, but rather that natural selection simply selects genes that code for mechanisms which best maintain and spread those very genes.  Natural selection tends toward effective self-replicators, and that’s why “selfish” genes (in large part) cause many of our behaviors.  Improving reproductive fitness and successful reproduction has been the primary result of this strategy and many of the behaviors and motivations that were most advantageous to accomplish this are no longer compatible with modern culture including the long-term goals and greater good that humans often strive for.

Humans no longer exclusively live under the law of the jungle or “survival of the fittest” because our humanistic drives and their cultural reinforcements have expanded our horizons beyond simple self-preservation or a Machiavellian mentality.  Many humans have tried to propagate principles such as honesty, democracy, egalitarianism, immaterialism, sustainability, and altruism around the world, and they are often high-jacked by our often short-sighted sexual and survival-based instinctual motivations to gain sexual mates, power, property, a higher social status, etc.  Changing particular genes should also allow us to change these (now) disadvantageous aspects of human nature and as a result this would completely change how we look at every problem we face. No longer would we have to say “that solution won’t work because it goes against human nature”, or “the unfortunate events in human history tend to recur in one way or another because humans will always…”, but rather we could ask ourselves how we want or need to be and actually make it so by changing our human nature. Indeed, if genetic engineering is used to accomplish this, history would no longer have to repeat itself in the ways that we abhor. It goes without saying that a lot of our behavior can be changed for the better by an appropriate form of environmental conditioning, but for those behaviors that can’t be changed through conditioning, genetic engineering may be the key to success.

To Be or Not To Be?

It seems that we have been given a unique opportunity to use our ever increasing plethora of experiential data and knowledge and combine it with genetic engineering techniques to engineer a social organism that is by far the best adapted to its environment.  Additionally, we may one day find ourselves living in a true global utopia, if the barriers of human nature and the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution are overcome, and genetic engineering may be the only way of achieving such a goal.  One extremely important issue that I haven’t mentioned until now is the ethical concerns regarding the continued use and development of genetic engineering technology.  There are obviously concerns over whether or not we should even be experimenting with this technology.  There are many reasonable arguments both for and against using this technology, but I think that as a species, we have been driven to manipulate our environment in any way that we are capable of and this curiosity is a part of human nature itself.  Without genetic engineering, we can’t change any of the negative aspects of human nature but can only let natural selection run its course to modify our species slowly over time (for better or for worse).

If we do accept this technology, there are other concerns such as the fact that there are corporations and interested parties that want to use genetic engineering primarily if not exclusively for profit gain (often at the expense of actual universal benefits for our species) and which implement questionable practices like patenting plant and animal food sources in a potentially monopolized future agricultural market.  Perhaps an even graver concern is the potential to patent genes that become a part of the human genome, and the (at least short term) inequality that would ensue from the wealthier members of society being the primary recipients of genetic human enhancement. Some people may also use genetic engineering to create new bio-warfare weaponry and find other violent or malicious applications.  Some of these practices could threaten certain democratic or other moral principles and we need to be extremely cautious with how we as a society choose to implement and regulate this technology.  There are also numerous issues regarding how these technologies will affect the environment and various ecosystems, whether caused by people with admirable intentions or not.  So it is definitely prudent that we proceed with caution and get the public heavily involved with this cultural change so that our society can move forward as responsibly as possible.

As for the feasibility of the theoretical applications mentioned earlier, it will likely be computer simulation and computing power that catalyze the knowledge base and capability needed to realize many of these goals (by decoding the incredibly complex interactions between genes and the environment) and thus will likely be the primary limiting factor. If genetic engineering also involves expanding the DNA components we have to work with, for example, by expanding our base-four system (i.e. four nucleotides to choose from) to a higher based system through the use of other naturally occurring nucleotides or even the use of UBPs (i.e. “Unnatural Base Pairs”), while still maintaining low rates of base-pair mismatching and while maintaining adequate genetic information processing rates, we may be able to utilize previously inaccessible capabilities by increasing the genetic information density of DNA.  If we can overcome some of the chemical natural selection barriers that were present during abiogenesis and the evolution of DNA (and RNA), and/or if we can change the very structure of DNA itself (as well as the proteins and enzymes that are required for its implementation), we may be able to produce an entirely new type of genetic information storage and processing system, potentially circumventing many of the limitations of DNA in general, and thus creating a vast array of new species (genetically coded by a different nucleic acid or other substance).  This type of “nucleic acid engineering”, if viable, may complement the genetic engineering we’re currently performing on DNA and help us to further accomplish some of the aforementioned goals and applications.

Lastly, while some of the theoretical applications of genetic engineering that I’ve presented in this post may not sound plausible at all to some, I think it’s extremely important and entirely reasonable (based on historical precedent) to avoid underestimating the capabilities of our species.  We may one day be able to transform ourselves into whatever species we desire, effectively taking us from trans-humanism to some perpetual form of conscious evolution and speciation.  What I find most beautiful here is that the evolution of consciousness has actually led to a form of conscious evolution. Hopefully our species will guide this evolution in ways that are most advantageous to our species, and to the entire diversity of life on this planet.

Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View

At least since the time of Hippocrates, people began to realize that the brain was the physical correlate of consciousness and thought.  Since then, the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and several inter-related fields have emerged.  There have been numerous advancements made within the field of neuroscience during the last decade or so, and in that same time frame there has also been an increased interest in the social, religious, philosophical, and moral implications that have precipitated from such a far-reaching field.  Certainly the medical knowledge we’ve obtained from the neurosciences has been the primary benefit of such research efforts, as we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the brain works, how it is structured, and the ongoing neuropathology that has led to improvements in diagnosing and treating various mental illnesses.  However, it is the other side of neuroscience that I’d like to focus on in this post — the paradigm shift relating to how we are starting to see the world around us (including ourselves), and how this is affecting our goals as well as how to achieve them.

Paradigm Shift of Our World View

Aside from the medical knowledge we are obtaining from the neurosciences, we are also gaining new perspectives on what exactly the “mind” is.  We’ve come a long way in demonstrating that “mental” or “mind” states are correlated with physical brain states, and there is an ever growing plethora of evidence which suggests that these mind states are in fact caused by these brain states.  It should come as no surprise then that all of our thoughts and behaviors are also caused by these physical brain states.  It is because of this scientific realization that society is currently undergoing an important paradigm shift in terms of our world view.

If all of our thoughts and behaviors are mediated by our physical brain states, then many everyday concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making can take on entirely new meanings.  To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly mention the well known “nature vs. nurture” debate.  The current consensus among scientists is that people (i.e. their thoughts and behavior) are ultimately products of both their genes and their environment.

Genes & Environment

From a neuroscientific perspective, the genetic component is accounted for by noting that genes have been shown to play a very large role in directing the initial brain wiring schema of an individual during embryological development and through gestation.  During this time, the brain is developing very basic instinctual behavioral “programs” which are physically constituted by vastly complex neural networks, and the body’s developing sensory organs and systems are also connected to particular groups of these neural networks.  These complex neural networks, which have presumably been naturally selected for in order to benefit the survival of the individual, continue being constructed after gestation and throughout the entire ontogenic evolution of the individual (albeit to lesser degrees over time).

As for the environmental component, this can be further split into two parts: the internal and the external environment.  The internal environment within the brain itself, including various chemical concentration gradients partly mediated by random Brownian motion, provides some gene expression constraints as well as some additional guidance to work with the genetic instructions to help guide neuronal growth, migration, and connectivity.  The external environment, consisting of various sensory stimuli, seems to modify this neural construction by providing a form of inputs which may cause the constituent neurons within these neural networks to change their signal strength, change their action potential threshold, and/or modify their connections with particular neurons (among other possible changes).

Causal Constraints

This combination of genetic instructions and environmental interaction and input produces a conscious, thinking, and behaving being through a large number of ongoing and highly complex hardware changes.  It isn’t difficult to imagine why these insights from neuroscience might modify our conventional views of concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  Prior to these developments over the last few decades, the brain was largely seen as a sort of “black box”, with its internal milieu and functional properties remaining mysterious and inaccessible.  From that time and prior to it, for millennia, many people have assumed that our thoughts and behaviors were self-caused or causa sui.  That is, people believed that they themselves (i.e. some causally free “consciousness”, or “soul”, etc.) caused their own thoughts and behavior as opposed to those thoughts and behaviors being ultimately caused by physical processes (e.g. neuronal activity, chemical reactions, etc.).

Neuroscience (as well as biochemistry and its underlying physics) has shed a lot of light on this long-held assumption and, as it stands, the evidence has shown this prior assumption to be false.  The brain is ultimately controlled by the laws of physics since every chemical reaction and neural event that physically produces our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, have never been shown to be causally free from these physically guiding constraints.  I will mention that quantum uncertainty or quantum “randomness” (if ontologically random) does provide some possible freedom from physical determinism.  However, these findings from quantum physics do not provide any support for self-caused thoughts or behaviors.  Rather, it merely shows that those physically constrained thoughts and behaviors may never be completely predictable by physical laws no matter how much data is obtained.  In other words, our thoughts and behaviors are produced by highly predictable (although not necessarily completely predictable) physical laws and constraints as well as some possible random causal factors.

As a result of these physical causal constraints, the conventional perspective of an individual having classical free will has been shattered.  Our traditional views of human attributes including morality, choices, ideology, and even individualism are continuing to change markedly.  Not surprisingly, there are many people uncomfortable with these scientific discoveries including members of various religious and ideological groups that are largely based upon and thus depend on the very presupposition of precepts such as classical free will and moral responsibility.  The evidence that is compiling from the neurosciences is in fact showing that while people are causally responsible for their thoughts, choices, and behavior (i.e. an individual’s thoughts and subsequent behavior are constituents of a causal chain of events), they are not morally responsible in the sense that they can choose to think or behave any differently than they do, for their thoughts and behavior are ultimately governed by physically constrained neural processes.

New World View

Now I’d like to return to what I mentioned earlier and consider how these insights from neuroscience may be drastically modifying how we look at concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  If our brain is operating via these neural network dynamics, then conscious thought appears to be produced by a particular subset of these neural network configurations and processes.  So as we continue to learn how to more directly control or alter these neural network arrangements and processes (above and beyond simply applying electrical potentials to certain neural regions in order to bring memories or other forms of imagery into consciousness, as we’ve done in the past), we should be able to control thought generation from a more “bottom-up” approach.  Neuroscience is definitely heading in this direction, although there is a lot of work to be done before we have any considerable knowledge of and control over such processes.

Likewise, learning seems to consist of a certain type of neural network modification (involving memory), leading to changes in causal pattern recognition (among other things) which results in our ability to more easily achieve our goals over time.  We’ve typically thought of learning as the successful input, retention, and recall of new information, and we have been achieving this “learning” process through the input of environmental stimuli via our sensory organs and systems.  In the future, it may be possible to once again, as with the aforementioned bottom-up thought generation, physically modify our neural networks to directly implant memories and causal pattern recognition information in order to “learn” without any actual sensory input, and/or we may be able to eventually “upload” information in a way that bypasses the typical sensory pathways thus potentially allowing us to catalyze the learning process in unprecedented ways.

If we are one day able to more directly control the neural configurations and processes that lead to specific thoughts as well as learned information, then there is no reason that we won’t be able to modify our personalities, our decision-making abilities and “algorithms”, etc.  In a nutshell, we may be able to modify any aspect of “who” we are in extraordinary ways (whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing is another issue entirely).  As we come to learn more about the genetic components of these neural processes, we may also be able to use various genetic engineering techniques to assist with the necessary neural modifications required to achieve these goals.  The bottom line here is that people are products of their genes and environment, and by manipulating both of those causal constraints in more direct ways (e.g. through the use of neuroscientific techniques), we may be able to achieve previously unattainable abilities and perhaps in a relatively miniscule amount of time.  It goes without saying that these methods will also significantly affect our evolutionary course as a species, allowing us to enter new landscapes through our substantially enhanced ability to adapt.  This may be realized through these methods by finding ways to improve our intelligence, memory, or other cognitive faculties, effectively giving us the ability to engineer or re-engineer our brains as desired.

Neuroscience Arms Race

We can see that increasing our knowledge and capabilities within the neurosciences has the potential for drastic societal changes, some of which are already starting to be realized.  The impact that these fields will have on how we approach the problem of criminal, violent, or otherwise undesirable behavior can not be overstated.  Trying to correct these issues by focusing our efforts on the neural or cognitive substrate that underlie them, as opposed to using less direct and more external means (e.g. social engineering methods) that we’ve been using thus far, may lead to much less expensive solutions as well as solutions that may be realized much, much more quickly.

As with any scientific discovery or subsequent technology produced from it, neuroscience has the power to bestow on us both benefits as well as disadvantages.  I’m reminded of the ground-breaking efforts made within nuclear physics several decades ago, whereby physicists not only gained precious information about subatomic particles (and their binding energies) but also how to release these enormous amounts of energy from nuclear fusion and fission reactions.  It wasn’t long after these breakthrough discoveries were made before they were used by others to create the first atomic bombs.  Likewise, while our increasing knowledge within neuroscience has the power to help society improve by optimizing our brain function and behavior, it can also be used by various entities to manipulate the populace for unethical reasons.

For example, despite the large number of free market proponents who claim that the economy need not be regulated by anything other than rational consumers and their choices of goods and services, corporations have clearly increased their use of marketing strategies that take advantage of many humans’ irrational tendencies (whether it is “buy one get one free” offers, “sales” on items that have artificially raised prices, etc.).  Politicians and other leaders have been using similar tactics by taking advantage of voters’ emotional vulnerabilities on certain controversial issues that serve as nothing more than an ideological distraction in order to reduce or eliminate any awareness or rational analysis of the more pressing issues.

There are already research and development efforts being made by these various entities in order to take advantage of these findings within neuroscience such that they can have greater influence over people’s decisions (whether it relates to consumers’ purchases, votes, etc.).  To give an example of some of these R&D efforts, it is believed that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans may eventually be able to show useful details about a person’s personality or their innate or conditioned tendencies (including compulsive or addictive tendencies, preferences for certain foods or behaviors, etc.).  This kind of capability (if realized) would allow marketers to maximize how many dollars they can squeeze out of each consumer by optimizing their choices of goods and services and how they are advertised. We have already seen how purchases made on the internet, if tracked, begin to personalize the advertisements that we see during our online experience (e.g. if you buy fishing gear online, you may subsequently notice more advertisements and pop-ups for fishing related goods and services).  If possible, the information found using these types of “brain probing” methods could be applied to other areas, including that of political decision making.

While these methods derived from the neurosciences may be beneficial in some cases, for instance, by allowing the consumer more automated access to products that they may need or want (which will likely be a selling point used by these corporations for obtaining consumer approval of such methods), it will also exacerbate unsustainable consumption and other personal or societally destructive tendencies and it is likely to continue to reduce (or eliminate) whatever rational decision making capabilities we still have left.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, neuroscience has the potential to (and is already starting to) completely change the way we look at the world.  Further advancements in these fields will likely redefine many of our goals as well as how to achieve them.  It may also allow us to solve many problems that we face as a species, far beyond simply curing mental illnesses or ailments.  The main question that comes to mind is:  Who will win the neuroscience arms race?  Will it be those humanitarians, scientists, and medical professionals that are striving to accumulate knowledge in order to help solve the problems of individuals and societies as well as to increase their quality of life?  Or will it be the entities that are trying to accumulate similar knowledge in order to take advantage of human weaknesses for the purposes of gaining wealth and power, thus exacerbating the problems we currently face?

Technology, Evolution, and the Fate of Mankind

Introduction

One could easily argue that human technology is merely a by-product of evolution, or to be more specific, a by-product of natural selection, since any animal possessing a brain and body capable of manipulating their environment to such a high degree is likely to have a higher survival rate than those that do not.  Technology can also be seen as an external evolving feature of the human race, that is, it is changing over time based on environmental pressures that exist, yet it is evolving somewhat independently of our own physical evolution.  Environmental pressures aside, it is clear that our technology has also evolved as a result of our own desire for convenience, entertainment, and pure novelty.  Throughout this post, I plan to discuss our intimate relationship with technology, its evolutionary effects, and also how this may affect the future of our species.

Necessity for Survival?

While technology has provided us with many conveniences, it has also become something that many have come to rely on for their survival (albeit to varying degrees).  Certainly one of our largest problems as a species is our unprecedented reliance on so much technology, not to mention the lack of sustainability for its use.  We have so much infrastructure utilizing enormous amounts of non-renewable fossil fuels, and a host of other interconnected electro-mechanical technologies required for the operation of our civilized world.  We also have medicine and other medical devices that so many depend on, whether to survive an accident, to combat a chronic illness, or to compensate for any number of genetic shortcomings.  Whether it’s a need for prescription glasses, anti-biotics, or a dialysis machine, it is clear that there are a large number of people that couldn’t live without many of these technologies (or would be much less likely to survive without it).

Genetic Change Induced by Technology and Society

I find it interesting to think about how the gene pool has changed as a result of our technology.  There are a considerable number of people living with various life-threatening illnesses, poor eye-sight, obesity, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, etc., due in part to the fact that various synthesized pharmaceuticals and medical advancements have allowed many of these people to live long enough and reproduce.  Not long ago, many people living with these types of impairments would have died young and their genes would have been eradicated.  Now it goes without saying that any advancements we’ve made in terms of genetic engineering or gene therapy, that is, any advancements that actually increase our fitness genetically (and can thus be passed on to future offspring), are not an issue.  Rather, it is all of the other advancements that have merely provided a band-aid approach in order for the genetically less-endowed individuals to survive and reproduce.

Now granted, many of the health problems we encounter in society are largely a result of environmental circumstances (caused by technology or otherwise) transpiring ontogenically as opposed to those which are largely inherited genetically.  There are also a large number of conditions surfacing simply because we’ve increased our life expectancy in such a short amount of time.  Regardless, the gene pool has indeed been affected by a plethora of heritable factors resulting from our technologically pampered society.

It must be said that our gene pool has seen this genetically sub-par influx partly due to the fact that the previous environmental pressures that would have eradicated these genes has been replaced with a technologically savvy super-organism that values human life regardless of how much each life contributes to, or detracts from, the longevity of our species.  Unlike most species, we are at least self-aware, and many of us fully understand the possibility that some of our choices may lead to the extinction of our species (as well as others).  However, I believe that this possibility of extinction hasn’t been taken very seriously and thus there hasn’t been enough invested in evaluating the direction we are heading as a species, let alone the direction we are heading as an entire planet.

Engineered Selection

Now it may be that one day our technology will allow us to understand and manipulate our genome (or that of any other species) such that we can prevent and/or cure any disease or handle any environmental change, effectively eliminating our form of natural selection from the evolutionary equation.  After all, if we could simply modify our gene pool in order to survive any environmental change that is otherwise out of our control, then the gradual course for natural selection and the mutations previously required to make it an effective mechanism, would be replaced by what I would call an “engineered selection”.

We’ve already greatly altered natural selection (relative to other animals) by manipulating our own environmental pressures via technology.  We’ve also created artificial selection (i.e. selective breeding) and utilized this to domesticate various plants and animals, as well as to create breeds possessing traits we find advantageous.  If we actually managed to complement this with a mastery in genetic engineering technology, we would potentially be able to “select” our own species (and the future species we’d become) indefinitely.  The key would be in understanding genetic causal relationships, even if this knowledge required the use of complex genetic evolutionary simulations, supercomputers, etc.

I definitely think that the most significant change for our species lies in this field of genetic engineering, as opposed to any other technological niche.  The possibilities provided by mastering genetic engineering are endless.  We may use it in order to design future offspring with genetic traits that we’re already familiar with (preferably to increase their fitness in the present environment as opposed to superficial motivations), we may add traits from other species (e.g. ability to re-grow limbs, develop wings so we can fly, etc.), or we may even employ some method of integrating communication devices or other deemed “synthetic” technologies into our bodies such that they are biologically grown and repairable, etc.  Humans may use this to genetically engineer brains such that the resulting consciousness has completely different properties, or they may be able to use genetic engineering to create consciousness in a biological “robot”.  If genetically engineered brains result in a more beneficial form of consciousness, higher intelligence, etc., then genetic engineering may end up as a sort of cognitive-evolutionary/technological catalyst thus allowing us to exponentially increase our capacities to solve problems and build ever more advanced technologies.  That is, our enhanced brains and the resulting technology produced would help us to further enhance our brains and technology ad infinitum.  The possibilities are endless if we manage to acquire enough knowledge, acquire the ability to produce engineered DNA sequences, and potentially acquire a way to accelerate the ontogenic evolution of anything produced in order to verify experimental hypotheses/theories in the absence of sufficient computer simulation capabilities.

Fate of Mankind

We are definitely on the cusp of a potentially dramatic evolutionary change for our species.  However, we are also at a very vulnerable stage, for much of our technology has caused our gene pool to regress in terms of physical fitness within a society that could one day be deprived of much of this technology.  Technology has also led to an incredible population explosion, mainly due to agriculture and the fossil-fuel-catalyzed industrial revolution.  This population explosion has helped us in some ways by providing an increase in idea collaboration (thus leading to an exponential increase in technological evolution), but it has also led to much more disastrous effects on the environment including an increased difficulty in sustainability.

Now from an evolutionary perspective, one could argue that currently, our technology is but an extension of ourselves, and our well-developed brains have more than compensated for our physical regression.  While this claim has some truth to it (at the moment anyway), if we lost our ability to mass-produce the technology required for industrialized agriculture, running water, medicine, transportation, sanitation, etc., whether caused by depleting our non-renewable energy sources or even caused by something like a solar-induced electro-magnetic pulse that takes out our power distribution systems (i.e. the entire electrical grid), how many would perish as a result?  In my opinion, the ideal level of evolutionary progression should be such that removing any non-renewable energy source or other vulnerable technology isn’t catastrophic to the survival of our species.  This way our species is less vulnerable to anything that forces us to take a step backwards.  Currently, if we did lose our non-renewable infrastructure, I believe it would be catastrophic and it would be the hunter-gatherers and/or smaller-scale agrarians (i.e. those that are completely off the grid) that would survive, rise up and once again dominate the gene pool as was the case with our ancestors.

Will we survive until an exclusively “engineered selection” is attained?  Or will we simply fall off the evolutionary cusp and potentially extinguish ourselves with the very technology that led to civilization in the first place?  The answer may depend on our level of respect and caution for the technology we so often take for granted.