The Illusion of Consciousness!

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley

Recently I have come to discover that there are so many great movies that I have been missing all these years. I am particularly referring to the Alien film franchise starring Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, an officer who is in an endless battle with an alien species in all the four installations of the movie. I can’t help wonder why I didn’t bother to watch this great movie so far. Today I finished watching the fourth installation and I must admit that I feel inspired by her character. I would certainly like being an officer like her in a spacecraft on a deep space mission. Anyway, the one thing especially in the fourth movie that caught me thinking is the resurrection part. Ripley was resurrected through cloning using the blood sample collected before she kills herself in Alien 3.

I am perfectly okay with cloning Ripley to resurrect her using her blood samples. But what puzzles me is that she possesses the memories of her past life once the process is complete. That simply doesn’t make sense. There was no way the memory could have gotten stored in her DNA. Obviously the memories weren’t stored in any retrieval unit either because there was no mention of that in the film. My problem is not whether she had her old memories or not. My problem is with the concept of consciousness. Let’s take cloning itself for example. If I clone myself completely and then transfer all my memories into this new person, he will lead his life thinking that he is me unless of course the final memories which contains information about the cloning is transferred as well. Even then there will be a confusion as to who is the “real me“.

Quantum Teleportation in Star Trek

Quantum Teleportation in Star Trek

So, unlike the villain’s point of view in the movie The 6th Day, we don’t get to live forever as our clones are the ones who look and feel exactly the same way as we do and also can possess our memories through transfer. But they are still not us.  A similar problem exists with Quantum Teleportation. The information of me is first transferred to the destination. For that the quantum states of all the particles that in my body must first be retrieved and stored into the teleportation system. Then I should be destroyed at the source. The information transferred will then be used to recreate “me” at the destination just like in Star Trek. Again it is a problem because the person at the destination will be my copy and not me. If the process fails to destroy me then I will be here at the source and to make matters worse, there will be another person who looks exactly like me and having my memories created at a destination thousands or even millions of miles away.

Atoms and Consciousness

Atoms and Consciousness

I don’t know how can the people who say this is not a problem justify it. However, when I think about it, the person sitting and typing this blog post right now is really not “me” either. Since my birth, the atoms in my body has been replaced through life’s processes such as consuming food, expelling waste, taking bath and so on. It is entirely possible that none of the atoms that originally made up my body in 1984 exists in my body today. But I still have the feeling of self or the feeling of consciousness about myself. That is quite hard to explain. Why do I feel this “uniqueness” about myself? So much that creating a clone of myself will not assure me immortality. It only assures the existence of another person like me.

Most of us are afraid of death as it brings to an end all the beautiful experiences that life offers us. Being truly immortal thus would mean keeping alive all the cherished memories and experiences forever. With more advanced technologies, the time is not far before we can backup our own memories. But will there be a way to store and retrieve the feeling of “self“? If I transfer my awareness of self to a computer, will the “self” leave me to enter the computer or will I still have it? If I still have the feeling of self then what is it that got transferred to the computer? These are not easy questions to answer and I am not sure whether theology can answer them any better because of the problems I just described.

Future Spacecraft to The Stars

Future Spacecraft to The Stars

I have a lot of faith in science. I feel that some day science will understand what exactly it means to be self-aware and also find a way to transfer this consciousness of self into a machine or a clone without creating the paradoxical situation mentioned above. I wish such a breakthrough happens during my lifetime. When the human race leaves Earth and starts to colonize other planets and reach distant stars in the future, I would certainly like to have a piece of that action. I seriously don’t wish to be in a situation where my consciousness dies with me and I miss all the great things the future human race will achieve. I would want my consciousness of self with all its memories to live forever either in a being like me or as a sentient being if the technology of the future allows.

The Imperfect Design – Evidence for Evolution!

Image of a beatufiul eyeOf all the species in the world, the evolution of human beings is the most controversial. People, especially religious ones cannot stand the idea that humans don’t have a divine origin and existence and that we are related to the other animals. For fans of creationism or intelligent design, it is hard to accept that humans underwent the process of evolution to reach the current state. They often site the human body especially the eye as a perfect example of design as our body is too complicated to have evolved naturally according to them. Well, I am okay with it provided when a trained person looks at this so called “design”, he should not be puzzled as to why certain parts are in a particular way because when we look carefully at the human body, that is precisely what we feel.

Therefore I would like to call on the scientific and engineering outlook of the reader in this article because I am going to site a few examples where it is required for you to think as to whether we are actually designed or not. Let me first talk about design as we understand from our lives. Any good designer would design a machine or a drawing with the minimal amount of defects. Further he or she would make sure that the design is simple and optimized enough so that troubleshooting is easy later on. Furthermore, he or she would make sure that there is a logic behind putting a component in a particular place. Therefore a good designer can easily make out whether a machine’s design is defective or illogical in some way by looking at it.

I request you to look at the following few examples to have an insight into what I mean:

  1. The Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve – It is a nerve that supplies motor function to the larynx and travels from the brain to the larynx. However, it does not take a direct route. Instead it goes all the way to the heart, wraps around a major artery and then goes up to the larynx. It is puzzling as to why the nerve takes such a detour for no reason. In fact, in giraffes, the nerve travels 15 feet to the heart and then goes up to the larynx which doesn’t make sense. If we were designed, then the designer would simply put the nerve in a direct route from the brain to the larynx. It’s as simple as that. What really happened is that  the fish like ancestors of modern tetrapods had the nerve direct as the heart was above the gills, as it is in modern fishes. But over the course of evolution, as the neck extended, the heart became lower in the body and unfortunately the laryngeal nerve got caught on the wrong side of the heart. A designer’s eye would easily dismiss this as a bad design. In the following video, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins will demonstrate the detour of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in a giraffe.
  2. The Human Eye – This is cited as the most perfect example of intelligent design.  But from an engineering perspective, it is not perfect at all. A person who make a camera will make sure that all the wiring is at the back of the film and not in front of it. Similarly if a eye is designed, then obviously all the nerves should be behind the retina. Unfortunately in human eyes, the nerves are in front of the retina. And where the optic nerve leaves the eye, there is a hole that creates a blind spot, which is the reason why our eyes jiggle. We don’t have a functional reason for our eyes to be this way except that historically the common ancestor of all vertebrates did not have a better retina available to work with. Now, those of you who want to bring in God’s “divine purpose” behind this should know that an octopus’s eye doesn’t have this problem. All the wiring is behind the retina for the octopus. In fact, the octopus eye is a much better “design” compared to humans. This link will tell you exactly what I mean by blind spot. The famous German psychologist Hermann von Helmholtz once said that if an engineer had given him the human eye, he would send it back. The video here would show you how the eye can actually evolve naturally without any divine intervention.
  3. Vestigial Structures – An engineer or designer would want his design clean. He wouldn’t want an unwanted component in the machine without serving a purpose. As in the human body and in other species, there are plenty of structures that do not serve any particular purpose. Right from the DNA to visible organs, one wonders why a designer would put them there. The answer as to why these vestigial structures such as the pelvis in snakes, human appendix, the male nipples, the tail bone etc. exist comes from evolution. These are relics from a common ancestry where these structures once had a function. As humans evolved, some of these functions either stopped or changed thereby creating these vestiges. Not only in the organs but also in the DNA we find vestiges. There are several genes that form part of what is called genetic junk. The only reason they are there is because evolution didn’t clean it up properly.
  4. Fatal Errors  – Image of Ectopic Pregnancy - Courtesy Mayo FoundationThere are some really fatal mistakes in the human body. Only because of modern medical care that we can counter death caused by these flaws. For instance,  in women, the fertilized egg can mistakenly implant into the fallopian tube, cervix or ovary instead of the uterus  causing ectopic pregnancy because of a cavity between the ovary and the fallopian tube. Before modern surgery, this used to kill both the woman and her baby. In men, the testes develop first in the abdomen and then migrate to the scrotum. This creates weak points in the abdominal wall where hernias can form in future and without modern surgery, it is a sure way to die. The human pharynx is yet another design flaw. It is the passage used for both ingestion and respiration, which increases the risk of choking. And as mentioned above the appendix is a vestigial organ that serves no known purpose. However, if you get appendicitis, it is a sure shot way to die. 

These are just a few examples of imperfections in the seemingly perfect human body. There are hundreds of such examples and in some cases the design flaw is so much that it can be fatal as described above. A designer with any level of logic or common sense would never create a body like this. Therefore the only conclusion that can be made is that either there is no designer or the designer is a very bad designer. Everything from top to the bottom in our body is trade-offs that came about through millions of years of evolution. It’s an undeniable fact.

When we played outside – A Retrospect!

Computers may eventually turn us into machines!

Computers may eventually turn us into machines!

A few days ago I had a conversation with my friend. Season 4 of The Big Bang Theory was out and we just finished watching Episode 4. We exchanged views about how the series had gone down in popularity recently because it seemed the public got a hang of what the characters could do and the jokes have become trite. He asked questions about my new company and its environment and I described it in detail.

Then all of a sudden I said, “I somehow feel that Internet is getting a boring place to be.” He just smiled. I continued, “I think we should go out and play than lock ourselves up in air-conditioned rooms with a machine in front of the eyes.” He smiled again.

The Psychic Vortex

A Scene from the TBBT Episode – The Psychic Vortex

There was something that prompted me to say this. In TBBT, there is an episode called “The Psychic Vortex.” In that Koothrapalli tries to persuade Sheldon by saying, “Come on, Sheldon. I want to go outside, let’s go outside. Outside is good.” to which Sheldon responds, “If outside is so good, why has man spent thousands of years perfecting inside?

Despite the humorous intend of this dialog, there is a deeper meaning in it. I felt like we are losing out on a physical part of ourselves and I wanted to discuss it.

I started first by describing my school days which I miss so much. Many of my current friends think that I hate sports. But I was not always like that. Long back, during school, I used to play football, cricket, kabbadi, volleyball, kho-kho etc. Also I was involved in all sorts of mischiefs that children commit when they are young and hyperactive like fighting, running, jumping, falling etc. We played Kallanum Policum for almost 8 years continuously. My friend agreed that those days are something he too missed because he used to play them as well.

There are a lot of incidents of my school days that I would like to share and I will be posting about all of them subsequently.

School Days

A reminder of the good old days…

When we compare our school days with our present life, most of the time the weltschmerz sets in. It is true that we can’t have that life again. But there are certain parts of it that can still be part of our present life. It is just that we don’t bother to include them. It is one of those that I wanted to discuss with him. The physical aspect.

I started my description of school days with some weird games that we used to play which he was not aware of.

The first game I explained was called “Dhaaba Dhoobi.”  It was introduced by the North Indians in our class. The game starts by creating a ball using paper, plastic and rubber band. It is smaller than a cricket ball. Then we team up. And we will throw this ball at the ass of any of the guys in the other team. And then they will try to throw back. It pains nicely when it hits hard and people run around to avoid being hit. We played this game from about 4th to 8th standard. Four years of exhilarating experience playing the great Dhaaba Dhoobi!

My friend commented that this game was gay. I just laughed because there were more at my disposal awaiting description.

Keeping what he commented in mind, I started with the next game which we called “Ba Ba Ba.” Actually the term originated from my brother and I used it to name this game. It was a fighting game of the wrestling genre. The winner wins by making the loser’s ass touch the ground. So everybody tries to force his opponent to sit on the ground. Initially it was hand on the ground but the rule was later changed and hand was replaced by ass. This was played for about a year or two between 5th and 7th standards.

Wrestling

This is how we used to win in Ba Ba Ba!

Again my friend asked whether I was gay and I told him that we didn’t know that such a thing called gay existed back then.

Anyway, I started with the third game . It was more intricate than the previous ones and only existed for about a year during the 6th standard. It was named again by the North Indians as “Ghoda Gaadi”. As the name suggests, there was a horse involved. But not a real horse. A guy will assume the role of a horse and another guy will assume the role of the soldier who sits on the horseback. Teams are divided and the horse-soldier pair of one team has to fight with the horse-soldier pair of the opposite team.

An example of the Human Horse

The Ghoda Gaadi looks similar to this

Winning or losing was depended upon whether the pair fell down or whether the soldier climbed down his horse before the fight ended. I learned about the power of momentum long before it was taught from this game though I didn’t know that it was called momentum. This game belonged to the hand fighting genre because the legs were held by the horse to prevent the soldier from falling.

My horse was Naveen and I named him Chetak after I got “inspired” by a Vinod Khanna movie. We had comparable sizes but he was stronger than me. We were a very famous pair because we used to win most of the time despite our small size compared to our competitors. The mystery was in the physics involved which we subconsciously exploited. This was particularly true when we fought against Sandeep-Shyamlal pair(yeah, there was another Sandeep). This Sandeep was strong and stout but Shyamlal was thin. Both were taller than me. Sandeep was Shyamlal’s horse.

Initially we used to lose the fights until I found a way around. What I did was, I will grab Shyamlal when he approaches and ask Naveen to rotate. Once we reach a sufficient speed and I start feeling the centripetal force, I simply let Shyamlal go and the pair will move under their own momentum to their inevitable fall.

This game was fun but often ended up being a real fight if the losers don’t admit defeat. I had tried biting my opponents a couple of times but then when the opponents too started doing it, I stopped.

Sandeep said that it was a very weird game. I told him that out of the three, I liked “Ba Ba Ba” and “Ghoda Gaadi”.  He commented again saying that I liked the gay ones because they were all about ass. Anyway I didn’t care what he said because those games were the best we ever played in school.

Then there were general fights in the class, in the ground, in the bus stops and practically anywhere we found “fightable”. There were two main teams in our class. The Hindi Team and Malayalee Team. And the Malayalee team had two factions viz Rijith Team and Binil Team. From 5th Standard Harilal took over Binil Team. All these teams fight for every other reason they have. There were occasional jumps that people did from one team to another following a dispute. Often these kind of disputes were settled in “the ancient way”. A one-on-one fighting tournament takes place with the team members standing around encouraging the fight.

An example of a School Fight

An example of a School Fight

There was a competence to fight and win when we were in teams. We used to send spies in order to find out the strategy of the other team before the PT period so that we can have an edge over them in football or cricket.

Football disputes were sometimes settled by the cane of Paulose sir if it reached him. Since cricket was played after the school timings, disputes were settled by ourselves.

The reason I wanted to talk about all this violence is because there is something we lack now a days. The fighting spirit. We lock ourselves in air-conditioned rooms in front of computers trying to make a living. It is not that we shouldn’t do that. But we hardly go outside and play. We don’t engage ourselves in combat. The reason I took over martial arts training at 16 was because I wanted to get that fighting spirit back. I still go to my instructor’s place and get some practice whenever I have time.

The fighting spirit is something we need to have throughout our lives. It is a fundamental nature of us. In the olden days people got involved in physical activities throughout their lives. But now it is different and it is that aspect that one should nurture. We need to regain that spirit which has been lost in the ravages of time!

The Vivekananda Decomposition – A New Type of Destructive distillation!

Destructive Distillation
Destructive Distillation of Coal

We learned about charcoal and coke during 8th grade but we didn’t learn how they are produced until 10th grade  when  our beloved Prema madam taught us the process of destructive distillation. I kind of liked the idea since the process reminded us of another experiment I conducted with my brother at home. Most ordinary light bulbs have a component inside that  resembles a miniature test tube which we have used to conduct experiments on projectile motion.

Filament
Inside of a light bulb

We found at an early age that the inflammable material at the tip of a match stick can be utilized to launch projectiles. My brother and I were introduced to the test tube like thing by our neighbors. We put the inflammable stuff inside it thing and compressed it from outside. When we applied heat at the open end of the tube, it shot forward like a bullet.

I thought that this tube could also be used for destructive distillation. Science freaks like my friend Shyamlal and I used to sit  in the class and mock spiritual concepts. In Hindi we were taught many lessons depicting stories of Buddha and Vivekananda. This is about an incident centered around a biographical lesson on Vivekananda and his contributions in our 10th grade Hindi text book.

Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda

The lesson was nice and at the end of it , there was a couple of paragraphs about his death. It was written that his body which was made of panch bhoot or five elements (earth, ether, fire, water and air) finally got separated from its soul and disintegrated into the earth. I was puzzled and asked Shyamlal who sat next to me “What does that even mean?”. He joked saying, “May be we can do a destructive distillation of his body to find out whether he is composed of panch bhoot!”. I stared at him for a while thinking about what to say.

It was a funny incident but it raised some fundamental questions in our minds. For instance, “Why do we still believe in pseudoscience even though we know that real science says something else?” “Why is it that yoga instructors and Ayurveda practitioners still preach about the vata, pitta and kabha doshas when the actual explanation of the symptoms in the body is different?”

My friend’s joke didn’t decompose Vivekananda. It instead decomposed our views on pseudo-scientific notions about the world around us! And now I like Vivekananda who caused this initiation.

Lack of apt expressions!

Lack of apt expressions can be though of as a great source of frustration among people. I recently saw a movie in which a psychiatrist explains expressiveness. He says, if we are angry, we have to express it. If we are sad, we have to express it. Same thing applies to happiness, determination and all sorts of other emotions we have. But, it can be fatal to a relationship if we don’t contain those expressions within socially acceptable limits. Hence the term “apt expression”.

Coming back to the topic, we are remarkably intolerant of others now a days. We fail to express ourselves properly and we get irritated when someone else expresses. I recall incidents were people have displayed silly attitude which are are carcinogenic to the mind. It becomes a cancer and eats the whole psyche. In fact I know a friend of mine who has been the victim of her own psychic cancer.

Are we biologically evolved to be selfish? I think we are. That is a survival instinct. But as Dr. Dawkins mentioned in his remarkable book “The Selfish Gene”, there is something called meme which is a unit of social awareness that also evolves overtime. And that meme has brought more insight into our minds than ever before. We are now able to surpass our own biological predispositions in order to have total control over our lives and our future.

But does this ability that evolved for the survival of society will eventually cut at the roots of humanity? May be if we let the meme evolve in anyway it likes. Am I prejudiced? I think yes and everyone I know are prejudiced one way or the other. The difference is that I admit it and others don’t. And that brings us back to the beginning of the discussion. Are we really expressing ourselves?

I must let the readers know that it is perfectly okay to be prejudiced. What is not okay is to express the prejudice in manners that are not acceptable. You can express your prejudice in subtle languages that others can accept. Thinking that another person will be offended and not expressing ourselves is unhealthy. It does not mean that we should blurt out at others in public. May be we can have a private conversation on the phone so that no one else has to know.

Expressions can have negative effects and are highly volatile if not handled properly. We were taught about adult ego during our personality development training program. It speaks about maintaining proper composure while talking to people. Whether this is practical or not is something I leave to the readers. But mind you, there are civilizations on Earth where people do follow etiquettes of respecting one another and obviously that civilization is not part of the Indian subcontinent.