Monday, April 26, 2010

Membrains, rocks and spiders

Real living things have a membrane-bound existence, with the membrane separating the content of self from its complement, non-self. Though its a permeable membrane.

Innovative fictional living things often do not lead a membrane-bound existence - in fact surprisingly often not. Think of SkyNet from the Terminator movies - spontaneously coming into existence when the defense network achieved consciousness - a single amorphous network-based life form with no clear physical boundary between self and not self.

Or Fred Hoyle's Black Cloud.

Or the machine intelligences of the Matrix.

Or HAL, distributed over the space-ship subsystems in 2001

Star Trek had its share of weird distributed cloud-like intelligences.

But I can't think of any real substantial living thing that does not lead a membrane bound existence.

Furthermore, not only physically, but psychologically we can establish our existence as a distinct individual self, only if there is some abstract membrane that distinguishes....opinions we hold from those we do not, tastes that are ours from those that are not, actions that we would perform from those we would reject on moral grounds. So that our sentient existence is also a kind of membrane-bound existence. And I suppose with the points on the membrane boundary itself being indeterminate....."do I like that or do I not - I am really not sure ?" - these are the boundary layer opinions, tastes, moral actions.

Hence the sense of disorientation and bleakness that one experiences after a major failure - say, a betrayal of one's moral code - it is like an existential infection or poisoning - we have allowed some foreign action to cross the membrane between self and not-self. That boundary between self and not self is redrawn and weakened ever so slightly, every time some action or event or run of misfortune crosses it.

Hence also perhaps the psychopathic behaviour generally attributed to distributed sentiences such as HAL , SkyNet, etc - these non-membrane-bound beings ultimately have no vested interest in choosing to do some actions but rejecting others - as we do because these distinctions define us as "selves". In a sense these machines have no existence as selves in the way we membrane-bound beings do, so it is not possible for them to truly act morally - ultimately they will execute a moral random walk. ("They will execute a random walk....?" - it is not even clear there is a "them" to which the "they" in that phrase refers ! HAL and Skynet are stochastic processes that sometimes appear to act in an intelligent way....despite claims to the contrary from some AI / computational neuroscience hard-liners, we true membrane-bound living things are not that ! We have membrains !)

Its useful to remember that we are membrane-bound sentiences, at 5:00am in the morning when you wake up and "see the darkness" (ref Johnny Cash)...you know the kind of occasional 5:00am thing ....the general and very-clearly-in-the-darkness-of-pre-dawn fragility of one's prospects and position, the probable fundamental absurdity of much of the day to come, the real silliness of some plan that seemed extremely cunning as you thought about it drifting off to sleep the night before...

The thing is - for a membrane-bound sentience, whats outside the membrane doesn't really have to make sense, in fact lets face it , it definitely doesn't make sense. Our only job is to keep the bilge-pumps working across that membrane, pumping out whatever chaos we can, and pumping in whatever of the orderly good stuff we can - just making a difference at the margin, maintaining just enough of that voltage difference across the membrane which keeps things ticking along for ourselves and our pet rock and the big spider which lives a good life snug and dry in our mailbox thanks to us.

And its no mystery that we wake up today at 5:00am disappointed that we have no more idea of a decent solution to our problems, than we had at 5:00am yesterday morning, or the morning before.....despite all the progress we thought we made on each of those days, and how confident and snug we felt as we drifted off to sleep the night before, with several cunning plans and rationlisations seemingly securely in hand. That's because there is no final solution, and even though we pump out the bilges each day, the membrane leaks so we'll need to pump them out again tomorrow.

Whereas for a non-membrane-bound sentience - like HAL, or Skynet - or maybe slightly ourselves when we are younger and the world is also the oyster and we still have tidy minds that expect things to make sense - where there is less or no clear distinction between self and non-self, then either everything has to make sense and be resolved, or nothing can be - potentially the whole world has to be pumped dry and cleaned up and made to make sense, because there is a less well defined existential membrane available to distinguish self from non-self and other-selves, but which when stronger allows us to just concentrate on the limited task of pumping up just enough membrane voltage that we need and no more; keeping a bit of the chaos out and the order in, just enough for ourselves and a rock and a spider or two.

4 comments:

Amanda said...

The only thing thats slightly worrying me about this post.... and there are quite a few to choose from .... is the reference to Johnny Cash! Are you OK?

向霖 said...

我對自己的信心已超越別人對我的評價..............................

珮均 said...

blog is great~~祝你人氣高高~........................................

又陽 said...

rain before seven; fine before eleven.......................................................