--Laurie Bartolini, MacMurray College Library, Jacksonville, IL
The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Sizeby Tor Norretranders, Tor Nrretranders
As John Casti wrote, "Finally, a book that really does explain consciousness." This groundbreaking work by Denmark's leading science writer draws on psychology, evolutionary biology, information theory, and other disciplines to argue its revolutionary point: that consciousness represents only an infinitesimal fraction of our ability to process/b>
As John Casti wrote, "Finally, a book that really does explain consciousness." This groundbreaking work by Denmark's leading science writer draws on psychology, evolutionary biology, information theory, and other disciplines to argue its revolutionary point: that consciousness represents only an infinitesimal fraction of our ability to process information. Although we are unaware of it, our brains sift through and discard billions of pieces of data in order to allow us to understand the world around us. In fact, most of what we call thought is actually the unconscious discarding of information. What our consciousness rejects constitutes the most valuable part of ourselves, the "Me" that the "I" draws on for most of our actionsfluent speech, riding a bicycle, anything involving expertise. No wonder that, in this age of information, so many of us feel empty and dissatisfied. As engaging as it is insightful, this important book encourages us to rely more on what our instincts and our senses tell us so that we can better appreciate the richness of human life.
--Laurie Bartolini, MacMurray College Library, Jacksonville, IL
Norretranders begins with a history of information theory, leading up to a distinction between the quantity of information (number of bits) transmitted and the quality of communication. A good conversation consists of much more than just the words exchanged: There is context, body language, tone, expression, an entire spectrum of information. Our conscious mind can process only perhaps a few dozen bits per second of that information. Millions of bits are processed by the senses in the same amount of time, choosing what the consciousness considers important. A road sign displaying a curved line is all a driver needs to see to slow down; by the time he could absorb a detailed history of the accidents caused by excessive speed on the curve ahead, it would be too late. In short, conscious and linear discourse is only a fraction of what our mind perceives. In partial explanation Norretranders adopts the metaphor of consciousness as the equivalent of the "user interface" of a computer system: The user sees only the screen icons that trigger commands inside the machine, largely unaware of the actual machine language in which those commands are written. Some researchers even postulate that consciousness is a relatively new mental process; according to one interpreter, the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey appear to act completely without self-awareness. Consciousness may indeed be nearing its end; only a few generations from now it may be obsolete. This leads to speculations on what is likely to follow, although naturally without firm conclusions. Butthe author sees no great loss; better to understand the territory than to read the map.
Clearly written speculations on a highly provocative subject; food for serious thought about thought itself. Highly recommended.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 3: Infinite Algorithms
If science can attain its goal, then Maxwell's demon can also attain its goal: toknock holes in the most fundamental law of nature discovered by science.
In reality, this is the consequence of the question Wojcieh Zurek posed in1988: If the only reason Maxwell's demon does not work is that the demonexpends masses of energy on forgetting everything it has learned, the demoncould simply summarize its knowledge in a few formulae it would not cost muchto forget again. Then it would be able to cash in on almost the entire benefit ofknowing the world at the molecular level-it would be able to extract heat from thenight frost at no cost. The second law of thermodynamics would be violated, theperpetual motion machine possible-and the natural science view of the worldwould be in deep trouble.
So it must be impossible for the demon to "compress" its knowledge into afew simple formulae and data that tell the whole history of the molecules in thecontainer in which the demon operates.
But if it is impossible for the demon to do so, surely it must be impossible forhuman beings? The goal of science has always been to draw up the mostconcise description of the world possible. But there must be limits as to howconcisely the world can be described. Or there will be problems with Maxwell'sdemon.
That is the consequence of Wojcieh Zurek's question: If we can prove thatwe can describe the whole world in an arbitrarily concise form, the mostfundamental assertion in our perception of the world breaks down: the secondlaw will be breached.
Maxwell's demon is not just a prandthermodynamics Maxwell's demon is a problem for our entirecosmography unless the notion that the entire world can be described in all itsdetails by just a few brief equations of almost divine beauty is incorrect.
It is. This was proved in 1930 in a study of the most basic problems in thefoundation of mathematics. It was a realization that totally transformed thesituation of the mathematicians and logisticians; a realization that forcedscientists to admit that they would never be able to prove everything in thisworld, that human understanding of the world will forever contain intuitiveinsights that cannot be proved; that human beings know more about the worldthan they can explain via a formal system.
This realization, understandably called the most profound proof ever carriedout, concerns the limits of the certainty of human knowledge, the limits of whatwe can prove. It is proof that we cannot prove everything, even when we know itis true.
That this should be remotely connected to thermodynamics and theimpossibility of building perpetual motion machines can hardly have occurred tomathematician Kurt Gödel when he published his proof of a theorem in January1931. It took another half century, and it came almost as a relief, to realize that itwas precisely Gödel's theorem that led to the explanation of why Maxwell'sdemon did not work.
For in Gödel's theorem we simply come to grips with the very limits of allformal knowledge -- and thereby, in one sense, the only certain knowledge we willever possess: An infinity of truth can never be embraced by a single theory.
Only the world is big enough to understand the w ever be made that includes everything, unless the map is theterrain itself, in which case, of course, it is not a map.
Modern mathematics' account of its own foundations was annihilated at astroke. The dream of certitude withered.
"Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen." "This was the great mathematicianDavid Hilbert's conclusion to his great summarizing lecture whenhis native town, Königsberg, made him an honorary citizen on 9 September1930. "We must know. We shall know."
For decades, David Hilbert had been the great spokesman for the possibilityof a clear, definitive account of the logical foundations of mathematics In 1900,he had listed the problems yet to be solved before the foundations ofmathematics were under complete control. It had to be shown that mathematicalscience comprised a coherent, uncontradictory, exhaustive logical system.
Again and again during the early decades of the twentieth century, Hilbertemphasized that such an absolute clarification of the foundations ofmathematics was in sight, that there was sense in the belief that anymathematical problem could be solved. "We are all convinced of that," he said,and went on to describe the mathematician's dream. After all, one of the thingsthat attract us most when we apply ourselves to a mathematical problem isprecisely that within us we always hear the call: Here is the problem, search forthe solution; you can find it by pure thought, for in mathematics there is noignorabimus [we shall not know]."
In 1930, when Hilbert was sixty-eight and retired from his professorship inGöttingen, capital of German mathematics, one of especially gratifying: honorary citizenship of his native town. Theceremony was to take place in the autumn, when the Gesellschaft deutscherNaturforscher und Arzte (German Society of German Scientists and Physicians)was to have its ninety-first convention in Königsberg, which has played a veryspecial role in the intellectual history of Germany because the philosopherImmanuel Kant lived and worked all his life there.
David Hilbert decided to give a grand lecture on the occasion of hisinvestiture: a lecture in which he would be able to forge the link back to Kant,regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of modern times, if not thegreatest. Under the title Naturerkennen und Logik, he directed sharp butpolitely formulated criticism at Königsberg's great son.
At the end of the 1700s, Kant had realized that human knowledge was basedon a number of preconditions that precede experience. We can know the worldonly because our knowledge is based on a series of concepts or categories,such as time and space, that themselves cannot be known. We see through veryspecific spectacles, which we cannot question, for they themselves constitutethe precondition forour being able to see at all. Kant talked about the a priori of knowledge, conceptsand categories that are preconceived prerequisites to any understanding.
Hilbert did not agree. "Kant has greatly overestimated the role and the extentof the a priori," he said in his address. "We see now: Kant's a priori theorycontains anthropomorphic dross from which it must be freed. After we removethat, only that a priori will remain which also is the foundation of puremathemat words, his project was to anchor mathematics in a handful of logical,mathematical principles from which anything could be proved in a final,conclusive fashion. This meant that logic would be able to explain most of humanintuition, so there would be no need for Kant's a priori -- things in ourunderstanding that we cannot account for rationally, so that in the final analysisthe explanation of understanding rests in the fact that we are what we are and weperceive the world the way we do. Hilbert wanted to do away with this illogical apriori. He wanted a thoroughly transparent explanation of our knowledge.
In the 1800s, the French philosopher Auguste Comte founded positivism, thephilosophical school which says we must stick to knowledge that can bepositively underpinned -- i.e., through experience or logical and mathematicalproofs. Anything else is unscientific. Comte's was an attitude highly critical ofKant.
But positivism did not go far enough for Hilbert. In his address, he referred toComte and his discussion of the problem of unsolvable problems (which is aproblem for any philosophy that will accept only knowledge the correctness ofwhich can be proved).
Hilbert stated, "In an effort to give an example of an unsolvable problem, thephilosopher Comte once said that science would never succeed in ascertainingthe secret of the chemical composition of the bodies of the universe. A few yearslater, this problem was solved.... The true reason, according to my thinking, whyComte could not find an unsolvable problem lies in the fact that there is no suchthing as an unsolvable problem."
There are no limits to thought, everything can be unders understood. Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.
A local radio station received a visit from Hilbert that day. Twomathematicians from Königsberg had arranged for him to repeat the conclusionof his address in the studio, so his words would go out on the air and berecorded for posterity. ...
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