Reality

While I was cleaning up the kitchen tonight, I got another big piece of the puzzle. There is a module called the Reality Module which is responsible for creating my experiences. This is how it works inside my head.

I have senses which receive the data I call the primitive data types. These include (and there may be more):

  • Images (this is the primary sense in humans)
  • Sounds
  • Tastes (a complex subject, more later)
  • Smells (ditto)
  • Touch experiences
  • Sexual experiences (different from touch, more later)
  • A time-based datatype I call the Moment
  • Pain, itching, and other discomforts
  • Body awareness other than pain (includes things like sneezing, urinating, etc.)
  • Emotions (probably the most interesting, more later)

These various sensory datatypes are tied to pieces of hardware in the human body. Things like ears, eyes, touch sensory organs in the skin, and so forth. I have a dedicated Module in my HCP which processes each of these input streams. Each sensory module feeds the output of that process to the Reality Module.

Think of the Reality Module as a kind of Master Control Program (remember Tron?). All other Modules in the HCP (pretty much) run inside the Reality Module. This module takes the input it receives from the sensory modules and maps it onto a filter. I call this filter the Context.

Assume for the moment that there is an objective, absolute, reality. I still maintain that this idea is unproven, and unprovable. The world may be an illusion, nothing more. But for purposes of this discussion, please assume that there is an objective reality. Let’s call that reality the sum total of the environment around me. We will refer to this reality as the variable R.

R is constantly changing, though, as reality flows along the temporal stream. And so I as an organism in the environment am receiving a constant stream of input reflecting an image of that objective reality. This is the first distortion: My senses are far from perfect, and so I see only an image (constantly darkening as I age) of whatever R actually is. Call that reality S, for sensory reality. And S<R, always, because S has the distortion of my physical body, with my limited, failing hardware.

Then comes the big distortion: Reality takes that input and maps it onto all other modules in the entire HCP. Again, the Context. This is effectively the set of assumptions in the form of culture that I possess as a human. The value of S will then again take a big swack, and we get the state that I call D, for delusional.

Yes, oddly I know that I am still delusional. And I always will be, as long as I am running this piece of software in my head. The best I can do, from what I can tell, is to optimize the process. As I told my wife that I want on my tombstone:

Maturity consists in accurately perceiving reality and appropriately responding to that perception

A practical example may help. I have a module running in my head I call Marriage. All humans have this module, pretty much. It is a fundamental nature of humans to be married. All cultures have their particular take on marriage. But everyone gets married, pretty much. Given that, this module looks to me to be a built-in, i.e. instinctive module.

Now, my particular culture has a form of marriage referred to as Monogamy, but in practice is much more like polygamy. Essentially, my wife and I enter into a fiction in which we both agree to behave in a manner in which we believe that we will both be completely faithful and loving to each other. And then we are able to make the assumption that we will each be there for each other no matter what.

As I told my wife tonight, this is obviously complete hogwash. All I would have to do is to be sufficiently insufferable, cruel, arbitrary, dishonest, and just plain mean, and my wife would flee from me. I know this utterly. However, by living inside a Context which contains this particular form of Marriage, I am able to pretend that the outcome of my life does not depend on me. That I cannot blow it sufficiently to completely drive away my wife. This reduces my stress and allows me to behave in a much more calm manner in all of my interactions with my wife. Unless, of course, I let go of that particular delusion. Then what happens?

Well, that one turns out to be pretty interesting.

More later.

Memes vs. Modules

I have been studying a bit on the area of brain science, much of which explores the idea that human consciousness is best understood as a piece of software. A good example is Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett lays out a theory that religion is a meme, basically a self-replicating idea which propagates in human culture in a manner similar to a gene. Dennett thinks that human consciousness can best be thought of as a collection of memes. This idea was first proposed (at least so far as I know) by Richard Dawkins’s seminal work The Selfish Gene.

I find that I do not agree entirely with Dennett’s analysis, though. Based upon my own experience, I still believe that the cultural phenomenon we refer to as religion has a genetic basis. I call this basis the Faith Module. I refer to the units of design within human consciousness as modules, and some of these modules (the Instinctive Modules) have a genetic basis. One of these, I believe, is the Faith Module.

In my own personal experience, my Faith Module fired, big time, when I was 28 years old. Prior to this point in my life, I had dabbled a bit in religion, largely as a result of influence from my wife at the time. But I regarded religion as a social club. I did not take any of the ideas of religion any more seriously than I took  the science fiction books which I loved to read at the time.

Until my mid-twenties, I had a serious case of what psychology calls infantile omnipotence. This is the idea that I am invincible. Then a series of traumas hit me. The first trauma was my daughter who was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 4 (although she had been an undiagnosed autistic for two years). This was followed by the death of my sister who committed suicide at the age of 28 (when I was 26).

And then very quickly, I lost my job by getting fired for being stupid, and had to move to a city where I knew no one in order to find work. As a result of all of this, I was simultaneously emotionally devastated and socially isolated. Also, my entire sense of invincibility had collapsed, and I was at an all time low in terms of self confidence and self esteem. At that time, an older man approached me and showed an interest in my life.

I was desperate. The deal was simple: Believe, truly believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, died on the cross for my sins, and rose from the dead and is at the right hand of God the Father. Then accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. At that point, I will be saved, and Jesus will take over my life. Although I will be aware, my life will now belong to Jesus.

And the unspoken part of the deal: By accepting these historical facts on Faith (i.e., complete, uncritical, uncompromising adherence to the truth of these tenets, with never ever even admitting to a shred of doubt), I would have access to the love and support of my new friend, plus his entire social group. I would obtain all kinds of emotional and physical support as part of the deal.

No problem. I had nothing to lose. I took the deal. Big time. And I did this without reservation. That is, I completely believed these propositions. As I result, I became seriously buzzed by religion, and this buzz lasted for years.

When I say buzzed, I mean high. You know, euphoria, pleasure, whatever you want to call it. Anyone who says that Faith does not make you high has never experienced Faith, in my opinion. In any event, the Faith Module flooded my brain with all kinds of positive emotional sensations continuously until my delusions began to collapse. But it took a good 4 or 5 years for that to begin, during which period I had a very good time, believe me. I did make some terrible decisions during that period, though.

I found the experience of Faith very similar to my experience with believing in Santa Claus. In many respects, I think that Santa Claus can be thought of as a religion with training wheels. Certainly, believing the fiction about Santa Claus comes with very real benefits. And all I had to do was convince my parents that I had been good this year. Not that hard, assuming fairly loving parents.

Have you ever noticed how parents speak to their children when teaching them about Santa Claus, fairy tales, or similar things? There is a special voice I call the Faith Voice. I certainly did this with my own children. This voice for me is a little breathier. It has more variation in tone than normal, kind of sing-songy. And my Faith Voice is always accompanied with a loving smile that’s difficult to resist.

My children bought into a bit of my Faith Voice, but ultimately the Faith Module only really fired in one of them: My daughter. Both of my sons never really had the Faith experience, at least not up to this point in their lives. But they’re young. Who knows what the future holds?

So Faith is a module which enables me to believe something that my senses may disagree with. Certainly, during my normal daily life, I did not see a lot of folks who looked like Santa Claus and did the things he supposedly did. Thus, the story of Santa Claus can be thought of as astronomically improbable. I certainly reached that conclusion very early, much earlier than I let on to my parents. But remember those benefits? Believing in Santa Claus (or pretending to believe) is a really good deal.

But Faith is qualitatively different than believing in Santa Claus as well. In the case of Faith, if it truly fires (and I readily admit that many, many so-called Christians have never truly had a Faith experience), then my entire identity and survival becomes bound up with the idea of Faith. I would truly and sincerely die for my Faith, willingly and without reservation. If I am willing to sacrifice my life and potential to reproduce for something, then there must be a very, very good reason for this.

And I think I understand the reason fairly well. Again, evolution only favors reproduction. And we have established that Faith dramatically enhances one’s chances for reproduction. Enough said on that score.

On the meme vs. modules debate, I think the difference matters. (Again, technically the distinction is that a meme is merely an idea, whereas a module may have a genetic basis.) The difference matters because of the outcome in terms of how I approach life and society. One of the areas where I think Richard Dawkins is completely full of crap is the idea that we should make teaching children about God illegal. Aside from being fascist and ugly, it wouldn’t work: Assuming that Faith has a genetic basis, then trying to stop Faith from spreading would be stupid, evil, wrong-headed, crazy, etc. By assuming that religion is merely an idea, Dawkins goes down a very ugly and negative path.

Having said that, the Faith Module can be trained. As I have experienced in my own life, it is possible to unlearn the lessons of religion. A few years ago, I took the things that I believed on Faith and placed them on a mental shelf. I had figured out that being religious wasn’t working for me. I needed to do something else. So I evaluated and deconstructed the things I believed on Faith. Once I began to examine these beliefs, I found the evidence for them wanting. Eventually, I came to the state I am in now: I could no longer believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, etc., than I could fly to the moon of gossamer wings. Physically impossible.

More later.

Temporal Module

In an earlier post, I referred to my idea that human consciousness consists of a highly evolved piece of software, which I like to call the Human Consciousness Program (HCP). As I also expressed earlier, I believe that the HCP consists of modules. An example of a module would be Marriage, which I believe to be an instinctual module. Another would be Hearing, a module responsible for the processing of sound information. Many of these modules also have a bit of hardware associated with them. For example, Hearing obviously has some hardware in the form of the ears, auditory nerve, and sound processing center of the brain.

The most basic of all of the modules, though, is the Temporal Module. This guy also has a piece of hardware: The Temporal Processor. Functionally, the Temporal Processor observes the passage of time. The mechanism whereby the brain is able to do this is poorly understood, but we know that it is associated with the part of the brain known as the Temporal Lobe, because if this part of the brain becomes damaged, that poor person is no longer able to experience the passage of time. Bummer! Also, the way I perceive of the passage of time is closely linked to my age: The older I am, the faster it seems time passes to me.

The reason I consider the Temporal Module to be so foundational is because all human perception is ultimately temporal: Every experience either becomes a memory – or it doesn’t. In which case that experience is lost. In either case, the term “experience” is defined as the output of a module (say, Eating) which is running in the Foreground at the time.

Here’s how it works, at least in my head. My brain focuses on one or more things in an area I refer to as the Foreground. If I am really paying attention (as I am right now as I write this blog), then I pretty much only experience one thing. However, I can (as I did tonight) simultaneously eat and watch TV. This means my awareness is at least partially on both. Although I may remember less of both the black berries with Greek Gods Honey Vanilla yoghurt and the movie One For the Money with Katherine Heigl as a result of giving less attention to both.

The “one or more things” that my brain focuses on are, of course, modules as well. Take Eating. Definitely an instinctual module, i.e. a built-in. I certainly did not have to be taught to eat. I had to be taught how to eat, that’s table manners. I also had to be taught to cook, that’s cuisine. Both table manners and cuisine are examples of human culture. But eating? It’s not that hard: Just put nutrients in my mouth, chew and swallow. Repeat often and so forth.

The form of entertainment I was enjoying, though, that’s Art. There is an Art Module, of course. Every human on planet Earth makes art in some way every day of their lives, even if it’s only a PB&J. But Art gets turned into more varied and wonderful forms of culture than any other module that I know of.

Anyway, I take the output from modules like Eating and Art. These flow through the Foreground Processor. Intimately associated with this is the perception of time, again the Temporal Processor.

These experiences are eventually stored in two places: Short term memory and Long term memory. These are two of the most fascinating parts of the brain of all. I have spent a lot of time observing the way my memory works and how I learn. Basically, what I see is a rather small storage space for short term memory. The exact size of this space is variable, depending on a lot of factors, including fatigue, overall health, genetics, etc. It can also be trained. I find that I am able to dramatically enhance the size of short term memory by simply using it a lot. I engage in games like Scrabble which exercise this part of the brain for this reason.

About 90% of my experiences are stored in my short term memory, and I am told that’s pretty good. Then the Short Term to Long Term Memory Module (ST2LTMM) kicks in. This guy is interesting: It’s his job to sift through my short term memory and decide what’s important enough to keep. About 99% of all of my experiences simply get chucked.

I heard a fascinating piece on NPR about folks who have a photographic memory. These guys (and gals) can literally repeat a narrative of every experience they have ever had (at least after long term memory starts work at around 3 or 4). In fact they talked about that on the piece: These folks literally remember when their long term memory started firing, because that’s the first experience they can remember.

This condition can be thought of as a dysfunction of the LT2STMM, because it simply stores everything in long term memory. (Probably folks with this condition have a redundant short term memory, but the ST2LTMM simply copies everything into long term memory.) This works because the human brain is vastly over-sized for the amount of data I need to store. The estimate in this article is around 2.5 PB of space, enough for around 300 years of experiences, even assuming all of them are stored.

Anyway, as my experiences in long term memory age, they decay over time. Refreshing them again by washing another similar set of experiences through short term memory helps make them retain longer. Eventually, if I repeat the same data stream often enough (like watching the movie Gladiator 20 times), I know the whole thing by heart.

That’s just how the Foreground stuff works. I used to think the Foreground was one experience at a time, effectively single threaded. But now I know there is limited multi-threading. Still the number of modules I can run in the Foreground at a time is very small, maybe 2 or 3 max. And some of them effectively steal your entire awareness. Sex for example. Ever tried to have a conversation, eat, watch TV or anything else, while having sex? Impossible. Sex takes full and complete control of my entire Foreground space, which is one reason why it is so enjoyable.

There are also a class of modules I call Awareness Stealers. These modules are constantly clamoring for my attention. Examples include things like Itching, Pain, Worry, and so forth. Sex is also an Attention Stealer, assuming that I am randy.

In the Background space there are hundreds (possibly thousands) of modules all running at the same time. I am still in the process of figuring out many of these, and the task is rather daunting. Lots of background modules are completely autonomic, although they also respond to commands from the brain.

An excellent example of this type of module is the Immune System, which has lots of dedicated hardware, but definitely also responds to commands from the brain. That’s the reason why the placebo effect works, of course. I think that the saw palmetto that I am taking is going to help my seasonal allergies. And lo and behold: It does! That’s because my brain fired a module called Faith. Faith allows me to believe things which my senses may not agree with at the moment. I may think saw palmetto is hokey, but if I exercise my faith, I might just catch a healing!

Other deep background modules include Heartbeat, Breathing, Sweating, UV Response, and others. Heartbeat is a fun one. Of course the brain controls my heartbeat: We all know that! But Heartbeat can actually be trained. I have done a bit of this, and have met folks who have done far more. Practitioners of Buddhist meditation obtain some limited control over their heart rate. Thus, Heartbeat has at least a bit of conscious control, since it can be trained.

I am trying to develop a system to diagram all of this. If any of my readers has a handle on the best way to diagram the structure of modules in the human brain, please let me know.

More later.

Conscious Inspiration

The various bits and pieces suddenly fit together perfectly in my mind today as I was walking my Yorkie, Diogee. I had a moment (well, several moments actually) of inspiration.

Please remember that I have been attempting to decompile the piece of evolved software that I refer to as the Human Consciousness Program (HCP). I have spent a lot of time (hundreds of hours I would suppose) simply listening to my own thoughts. I know this may strike you as an odd activity. You need to remember two things:

  • I have been practicing Buddhist style meditation for most of my adult life
  • I am married to a woman whom I find devastatingly attractive, and thus will lie in the bed with her cuddling for hours, and not get bored by this.

Thus, I lay in my bed and listened, perfectly awake, to the sounds of my own thoughts. And I did this for a long, long time.

Anyway, I have been working on a overall framework for understanding the HCP, and today, three big pieces came together.

1. Awareness vs. Background

OK, first the HCP has two main areas: The foreground (what I refer to as the Point of Awareness) and the background (I call this the Dark Place). Now, originally, I thought that the Point of Awareness was a single threaded thing, whereas the Dark Place was massively parallel. Now I understand that this is merely a range.

Frequently I can pay attention to more than one thing at a time. For example, I can eat and watch television at the same time. That’s because the mechanics of both activities are very familiar to me, and I do not require my full attention to be devoted to either of them.

On the other hand, if I am attempting to learn something new, say a musical instrument or a foreign language, then I probably can’t do much other than really, really concentrate on that activity. Or else I simply won’t make much progress.

The first insight today, then, was this thing: I can be (slightly) multi-tasking in the foreground, and I also have things of which I am partially aware. I can have a limited number of these, but that number can be varied, depending on how distracted I am, and how much attention I need to pay to any particular thing.

2. Instinctive Modules vs. Combination Modules

OK, then. It’s time to define the “thing” I am talking about when I referred to how much attention I need to pay to “any particular thing”. I call these things modules.

Let’s take for example my Check Timer. I have a module that contains a timer. When I don’t know where my wife is, this timer begins a countdown. When that timer expires, if I don’t know where my wife is, then the Check Timer module fires another module called Worry. Worry in turn fires an emotional module called Anxiety. That creates a form of discomfort (emotional stress) that I then have to pay attention to.

At that point, I have to take action to alleviate that discomfort. This usually takes the form of my walking around so that I can figure out where my wife is, and make sure that she’s OK. Once I have done that, then the Check Timer module resets, and I go back to whatever I was doing.

The Check Timer contains a variable numeric value. For me, when my wife and I are at home, this value is set to about 10 to 15 minutes. However, this is a tunable. If my wife tells me that she needs space and wants to talk to her friend on the phone for a while, I will reset the Check Timer variable to around an hour or so.

And it’s even situationally specific. If I am on a business trip and 3 timezones away from my wife, I may decide that I can set the Check Timer variable to around 24 hours. And I can even adjust that to various situations. Thus, I am actually in control (whatever that means) of this to some extent.

Now, the specific insight that I had today while walking Diogee was that some modules are built ins: I don’t have to learn anything in order to have those modules. They are Instinctual. A good example is Insect Avoidance. I had a module when I was born which causes me to avoid insects. If an insect flies at me, lands on me or the like, I have an automatic reaction. I think most people have this same module.

Some folks, however, choose to be involved in professions or hobbies (like beekeeping or butterfly collecting) which require close contact with insects. So even an instinctive module can be unlearned.

But back to my insight. Some modules are Instinctive. These modules were in me when I was born. At some point in my development, these modules fired. At that point, I had those abilities.

Other modules are created by a process of learning, through a combination of the Instinctive Modules. An example would be the module Music, which is a Combination Module consisting of the Instinctive Modules: Hearing, Art, Logic and Reasoning, and, of course, the Temporal Module. (All modules include the Temporal Module in some form, as all of this is about human experience which occurs in a temporal framework, and no where else. However, Music includes the Temporal Module in a more direct way, since music really is all about time.)

Anyway, I can now categorize modules as either Instinctive or Combination, and most of the time I can get pretty close to coming up with the module stack. At the base of the stack are always Instinctive Modules.

One interesting side effect of all this is that I can now watch myself actually writing these modules in my own mind. Weird!

3. Data Storage

The third insight had to do with something that I have mentioned already: Modules contain data. For example, as I have already alluded to, the Check Timer module contains a value I called the Check Timer variable. This is effectively a timer which tells me when to check on my wife. That’s obviously a data structure.

Given that modules contain data, that makes a module look pretty similar to the object-oriented programming construct known as an object. I am pretty familiar with object-oriented programming, which as I recall was invented for this very reason: Object oriented program emulates the way we think about the real world. It should be unsurprising, then, that the human mind (at least my mind, remember please that I am the subject of the experiment) resembles objects in a sense.

Anyway, some modules are entirely about data storage. For example, there are modules related to Memory. That’s a really interesting one. Memory contains two spaces of data storage: Short Term Memory and Long Term Memory. Short Term Memory is a variable amount of storage (depending on the individual, the situation, state of health, etc.). Generally, though, Short Term Memory is good for about 24 hours. After that the Short Term to Long Term Memory Module kicks in. It is the job of the ST2LTM to sift through my short term memory, decide what is important, and transfer that to the Long Term storage area. The rest gets chucked. That means I remember maybe 1% of what I experience. Oh well. Remember that stuff about the human condition? Yeah. Big time.

Anyway. Bottom line: I have data storage in variables inside my head. Go figure.

More later.

Rethinking How We Think

Human consciousness is a piece of software. Highly evolved, messy, counter-intuitive, massively patched, and so forth, yes. But still a piece of software nonetheless. I have observed this before, but as I decompile the HCP (Human Consciousness Program, please keep up), and as I figure out more and more about it, the more interesting this idea becomes to me.

Take inebriation. I have been an alcoholic during several periods of my life. Now, I barely touch the stuff and it does not appeal to me. Largely eliminating alcohol from my lifestyle has had huge health benefits for me. I have lost around 90 pounds, and many of my chronic health care problems have simply resolved since I made this simple lifestyle change. Which leads to the question: Why does mankind consume alcohol since it is obviously harmful to our health?

Simple: The force of evolution favors one thing, and one thing only: Reproduction. Inebriation leads to sexual activity, which leads to reproduction. Hence, mankind loves alcohol, marijuana, opiates and all the rest. Anything that makes us less inhibited, more inclined to relax, that will be preferred in evolutionary terms, because those who get inebriated will breed the teetotalers out of existence.

It gets gnarly when you talk about things like marijuana and opiates. Marijuana is also referred to as cannibis, and we actually have physical structures in our brains called canniboid recepters. These puppies receive the THC released by marijuana and causes the effects of marijuana which we experience: Increased sensory sensation, euphoria and all the rest. That same thing is true with opiates: We have opioid receptors in our brains as well.

So, obvious question: Why do we have these structures at all? I mean, again, inebriation is harmful, right?

Wrong: Inebriation using marijuana definitely increases sexual activity. So do opiates. Given two proto-humanoid primate family groups, one with canniboid receptors and the other without, assuming that both have access to cannibis, the group with canniboid receptors will breed the other group into oblivion.

Hence: Evolution favors anything that increases reproduction. Nothing more.

Which leads to my original thesis: The HCP is a piece of software. That piece of software includes features like inebriation, all of which got built in for various reasons, all related to enhancing chances for reproduction. Survival at least until successful reproduction, and rearing of viable offspring.

Here’s the problem: The HCP is based upon incorrect assumptions. Like any piece of software that becomes obsolete over time, it needs to be fundamentally rewritten. The assumptions of the HCP are the ancestral environment: Paleolithic, pre-agricultural man. Hunter gathers, in other words. We are about as far away from that as you can possibly imagine.

It reminds me of the Chicago project. During the mid-1990s, Microsoft launched a project they called Chicago. At that time, Microsoft was one of the largest and most successful businesses in the history of planet Earth, largely based upon the success of one product: Windows. Despite this, Microsoft made the odd, counter-intuitive decision to completely rewrite Windows from scratch, starting with a relatively clean slate. In the process, Microsoft somewhat trashed the work they had done before on the existing version of Windows.

The result of the Chicago project was Windows NT, which eventually led to Windows 2000, and ultimately the versions of Windows we have now. This was the most successful and profitable software project in the history of Microsoft, and maybe the entire world. But it was based upon one simple reality: Windows was dying. It was crippled by an obsolete architecture based upon assumptions that were no longer correct: Memory was scarse and expensive, networks were slow and tiny, disk space was cramped, CPUs were terribly slow, and so forth. The IT industry even has a word for this type of software: They call it “crufty”. Crufty means a piece of software that is old, obsolete, difficult to rewrite, and just needs to be scrapped.

The HCP is crufty. We need to rewrite it.

More later.