For those of you who are not familiar with this fascinating project, and should you think to yourself: What the heck is a “Blue Brain,” here’s a very short introduction: It is an attempt to create a virtual brain in a supercomputer by reverse-engineering the mammalian brain, no less, and therefore not simply an artificial neural network, but a biologically realistic model of neurons.
“Humans are the stuff of the cosmos examining itself”
Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain project, is a professor and brilliant neuroscientist with dual South African – Israeli citizenship, now working at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland.
Later on in this article, you will find an interview with Markram, but first let me tell you about my personal Odyssey.
I am an atheist, – and “militant ” at that, – but like scores of fellow atheist, I am having certain scruples.
As far as considering the belief in supernatural beings to be bordering on the idiotic, I am fine. Also, I totally and emphatically reject the notion that atheism in any way equals immorality.
[ In fact, if you will excuse my French, it makes my hemorrhoids itch to learn from The Skeptic’s Dictionary, that according to Article IX, Sec. 2, of the Tennessee constitution, “No Atheist shall hold a civil office.” Ok, – I can’t imagine this article has any practical implications in this day and age.
Anyone out there to tell me otherwise. ]
I can go along also, with notions of a purposeless Universe, existing in and of itself, seemingly having come into existence out of “nothing”. I am not, however, an atheist as defined by English poet Francis Thompson, a man who believes himself an accident. Well, actually, “I,” as defined by individual self, may very well be an “accident”, and one lucky son of a gun, but here you should understand “himself” less as any one being, and more as awareness per se.
Over the years, and as a student of psychology, I developed an allergy towards New Age woo-woo, although, initially, I thought it was only a matter of time before evidence would emerge, to the effect that consciousness constitutes the ground of being.
However, the more I probed this mystery, the more skeptical I became, and eventually I rejected philosophical idealism. As for philosophical materialism / physicalism, according to which consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon, having accidentally come into existence, this position has always appeared to me as the dumbest of all. I mean, what is the point of there being a Universe, not knowing it is a Universe, – in fact, unaware of existing at all?
That’s just it, you tell me, there is no point, and you may well be right, despite this being counter-intuitive to the innermost feelings of most of us.
I am not a dualist either. I will not go into philosophical detail about why that is, – let’s just say I simply dislike the idea of a playground for God and Angels, the spiritual realm, and a less subtle, material world for lesser creatures. That may be an oversimplification of dualism, and there are other dualisms, e.g. Platonic, Taoist, – but that is another story.
So, – not (philosophical) idealism, not physicalism, not dualism. My working hypothesis, instead, is to view consciousness as being somehow hardwired into the fabric of nature and as being the inevitable “end-result” of existence, – a part of the “genetic” setup of the “physical” world “out there”, from the “beginning.”
( Excessive use of citation marks meant to emphasize the necessity / unavoidability of speaking in space-time dependent vocabulary. )
This essential role of consciousness in the Universal setup may then be understood not necessarily as an indispensable player in the Universal scheme from the beginning, but more as a top-down causation potential, a “hardwired” potential, meaning: Because of the very potential of there being awareness, it was guaranteed and destined to “happen” / evolve.
Thus, the emergence of consciousness in the physical world may be viewed, not as “most surprising and incomprehensible, because we know no reason that nature would not have remained forever unconscious and motionless” – (Louis De Broglie, in “New Perspectives in Physics”), – but as inevitable and a Universal birthright.
To be sure, we have yet to explain “the easy problems of consciousness” (Chalmers), or, if you like, the “how” problems. The “hard problem” / “why”– problem turns out to be the easiest: There is self-awareness simply because the Universe is naturally inclined to become conscious.
Anyway, even after having consulted with the founding fathers of quantum physics, many of whom thought deeply about the ( fundamental.) role of consciousness in the physical world, – I came to the conclusion, that no credible evidence for this was anywhere to be found. At the end of the day, I was left with one single argument , – the absurdity of a Universe unaware of itself: Without awareness, no joy, no appreciation.
Granted, – no misery either.
Ok, – so this is of course in no way a scientifically valid argument, but I cannot help thinking: Would a Universe totally unaware of itself and devoid of any meaning not be such an incredible waste.
It was pleasing to my ears, and indeed my heart and soul, therefore, when I heard no other than Henry Markram suggesting in a video, that “The Universe may have evolved the brain to see itself, to become aware of itself”.
Now, it is perhaps a bit surprising to hear a modern-day top scientist speculate along such metaphysical lines, which left me thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if he himself would elaborate on this fascinating thought, which, to me, makes perfect sense. It certainly poses a lot of questions too, but if true, it would allow me to be just the kind of atheist I wish to be: A non-believer of Deities, but humble observant of the Universe’s apparent natural inclination towards self-awareness, towards progress, and, possibly, perfection?
With encouragement from Hank Pellissier, I emailed Henry Markram, asking if he would briefly answer a few questions, and whilst busy chasing carrots to fund the Blue Brain project, he kindly responded as follows.
JP: How is the idea of the Universe evolving consciousness to become aware of itself compatible with a purposeless, accidental Universe, as seems to be the most common belief among scientists?
HM: Purposeless things can accidentally result in something interesting as well and when they do, they take on a purpose that did not exist before.
JP: How is the idea of the Universe evolving consciousness to become aware of itself compatible with the view of consciousness as simply needed in order to manage an increasing number of complex and competing neural sub-populations?
HM: I doubt consciousness is needed for guiding anything lower level. It is a consequence. It does however create a bubble around each of us that acts as a straight jacket for assigning causality and meaning to interactions and ignoring most of the universe.
JP: Besides being useful – e.g. better and less costly ways of treating brain diseases – is it outlandish to see your project as an extension / expansion of the-Universe-becoming-aware-of itself?
HM: No, it is not outlandish, it is the most evolved thing humans can possibly do.
JP: You are building a model of the brain within 10 years, and a complete virtual brain within how many years?
HM: I said 10 years some years ago, because I believe it is technically and scientifically possible. It however depends on getting enough funding. If we don’t, it will take much longer. We are moving fast, but no where as fast as we could be moving. It is all possible by around 2020 if we have enough funding.
JP: Can you give us an update on your current progress?
HM: We believe we understood many key principles of how the brain is designed and put together that now allow us to build larger and more detailed unifying models, faster and faster. We are just making it easier and easier to replicate the biological brain in software. I am wasting a lot of time chasing carrots to fund the project.
Now, my interpretation of what Henry Markram is saying is something like: Never mind if the Universe is / was pointless and just sort of “happened”, ‘cause that is no longer the case. Purposeless things – (random quantum fluctuations.) – have a potential for meaningfulness, and anyway, we, as sentient human beings, are taking charge! – and we will read purpose , meaningfulness and value into existence as we please.
Come to think of it, is that not the essence of being a transhumanist.
In an article in Seed Magazine, Markram is quoted for saying, cryptically: “If we build this brain right, it will do everything” – which prompted me to ask him, in a second mail, if he would also answer my 30 million dollar question…
JP: I regret not having asked you more directly, whether Blue Brain will attain self-awareness. I believe you’ve said something like: “Given sufficient complexity, consciousness will somehow emerge”? You are also quoted for saying: “When I say everything, I mean everything” !?
HM: This is misunderstood. I mean everything that we can measure and describe can and should be integrated into unifying model.
What I said was that “if consciousness emerges from a model of the brain that captures all the detail that we can measure, then we will understand how the brain gives rise to consciousness. If not, then we will know that it takes more. Very pragmatic.
Again, a somewhat cryptic answer, but my interpretation is this: Yes, it is possible to put a ghost into a machine, – Blue Brain will attain self-awareness, – it is “only” a question of what it takes.
It all makes sense. If human self-awareness has emerged from electrochemical interactions in our heads, – in other words: if we are just a pack of neurons, it would seem logical that we can also put a ghost into a machine. Paradoxically, this apparent debunking of consciousness is also what makes it plausible that Blue Brain will become aware of itself, precisely because there IS no such thing as an immaterial ghost there in the first place!
If, on the other hand, – as noted by Tom Lehrer, author of the Seed Magazine article, – we assume that some sort of ‘soul’ pervades the brain, – the Blue Brain project will fail.
In any case, a self-aware Universe seems assured.
* hero image http://spacecollective.org/Chelsea/2789/the-brain-and-magnetic-structures