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Exploring the edge.
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The Global Brain
"It is not guilty pride but the ceaselessly reawakened instinct of the game which calls forth new worlds." (Heraclitus Reloaded)
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    All the ways about here belong to me! The Red Queen in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ by Lewis Carroll


    Back, here, at square one… In the course of thousands of years of human thought, almost everything that could have been said about the mind, had already been said and in more than one way. With the guidance of the red queen (she wished me to mention her other famous quote...) which hides in its utter simplicity a quite profound reflection on the power of narratives, I found that it will be impossible to even start to sketch a framework for a new model without making some far reaching detours which might seem, at first, sidetracking the subject. We need to find some ways that do not belong...

    Let us start with the question about the kind of relations that can be described between mind and embodiment. How does the mind arise? Or, a different way to ask this question: what are the processes and interactions by which mind takes form as sensations ideas, emotions, memories etc, or, mind is being made into form as sense impressions, experiences, insights etc. A somewhat simplified version of this same question (is it is the same question?) might be the well known mind-body problem: how do phenomenal states i.e. experiential states and mental states in general arise from the neural activity of our organic brains? Making the brain and the nervous system the context of asking the question, is indeed a great simplification compared to a wider, more abstract, and less presuming context. Yet, it is an unwarranted one considering that it is the thinking organ itself which is under investigation here.

    It seems fair to assume that minds are necessarily embodied. This, however, does not automatically come to mean that minds are physically embodied. Embodiment and physicality are not synonymous. Physical embodiment is only one option and not necessarily the most aesthetic one as I will try to show further ahead. The issue of embodiment is in fact very abstract and it strongly resonates with another deep question regarding the nature of reality. Hence our first detour, which we will soon see is only the first in a sequence.

    Fred Tomaselli, Untitled, 2002

    Why do we need to address the nature of reality? When we try to better understand embodiment, we have relate to a certain ontological background. We use words and linguistic gestures to form descriptions that represent certain states of affairs. But as I wrote in a previous post, the manner by which we relate to mind cannot possibly be separated from the manner of minding the nature of reality at large. We must attend to what is the case (after L. Wittgenstein), we must somehow ground our conceptions (ground=embodiment). Moreover, without subscribing to at least a provisional belief about the nature of reality we cannot even start to figure (figure=embodiment) what embodies what: is the mind embodied in a wider reality which is basically independent of it? Or is it the other way around: it is the mind that embodies reality. This is difficult and even confusing because mind and embodiment do not seem anymore as distinct as one usually might think about them.

    To make things just a bit simpler but not really, let us briefly explore such provisional beliefs. Here are two options: the first option is a belief that forms have an independent existence, and the content present in our minds (or as our minds) is basically impressions, or representations, or shadows of those forms. In this option a mind is a kind of a screen or a mirror (or even a clay-like malleable stuff) on which forms are being rendered.

    It is interesting to note that both idealism and materialism that seem to be so widely removed from each other in the virtual atlas of human thought, are merely particular flavors of this option. The difference between materialism and idealism is in the particular kind of substance intrinsic to reality. While materialism is the belief that the substance intrinsic to reality is physical, i.e. matter, energy, space and time, etc, idealism is the belief that the substance intrinsic to reality is rooted in the realm of (platonic) abstract concepts. In a particular and very popular version of this same belief, it is the mind of a god, or its presence, or its emanation which is the substance intrinsic to reality that by divine intent is shaped into all forms. In all the different versions of this belief, however, there exists a kind of primal substance intrinsic to reality that embodies (yes, same concept again) all forms.

    The second option is that forms do not have an independent existence (in Mahayana Buddhist tradition this option is referred as conditioned arisal or conditioned origination). One might already have asked even earlier: independent of what? Plainly speaking, it is independent (or not) from the subject of experience, the observer, me, or the mind that experiences, perceives, relates, represents, describes etc [another detour invites itself here: is it justified at all to describe ‘mind’ and ‘me’ as distinct, and if so how do we describe a mind(s) which is ‘other’? We will get to it ahead]. This option boils down to the belief that the intrinsic nature of reality arises as relations and necessarily depends on the mind. In other words which I find clearer: reality (all forms) arises in the course of minding, or reflecting, the dynamic relation of a universal mind with itself. Or, in other words that might make this idea more accessible: there is no observer independent reality. No forms exist independently and there is no substance intrinsic to them. Forms are (merely?) relations, empty, dreamlike. They arise as the undulations of an undifferentiated nothingness, not unlike the Taoist concept of the Tao. Out of Tao forms and order arise, pulled out, so to speak, as minding, the on going process that brings forth an insubstantial instance of a dream-reality, our dynamic remembered present, the universe we know to be real.

    Andrew Carnie, Things Happen (part of), 2005

    These options (understandably there is much more to them than said here), are in fact highly accomplished and sophisticated thought systems, or more precisely, species of thought systems which, figuratively speaking, embody major branches in the evolutionary tree of human thought.
    In as much as they are different, there is one thing fundamentally common to both species: it is an underlying concept of truth. The primacy of the concept of truth deserves of course a detour in itself. We might get to it further along our investigation. Meanwhile, I would propose to provisionally relate to truth as a kind of an overarching selective principle. Unlike the relatively simple and ad-hoc way it is used in qualifying facts and logical reasoning, truth, when applied to fundamental beliefs in one’s worldview, carries an emotional value and therefore is intimately involved in the shaping of motives and initiation of action. Again, without digging too deep into the issue, truth is a belief’s instrument to effectively assert its own distinctiveness. While we usually imagine truth as embodied by this or that belief, like a flag on the top of a castle (castle topples, flag is taken… Protect! Protect!), truth is actually a kind of funny stuff found between beliefs and drives them apart to become distinct from each other. It is a repulsive kind of force (like dark energy), localizing and excluding. This kind of truth is nothing but a carefully refined brand of good old Neolithic territorialism brought to the heights of abstract thought.

    The face of Truth as captured recently by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP)
    a spacecraft which measures differences in the temperature of the Big Bang's remnant radiant heat - the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation - across the full sky.

    Regaining our temporary theme after this swift detour towards the truth, let us turn back to our original detour. I hope that in the course of reading the last few paragraphs you gained at least a preliminary sense of what embodiment is (incarnation, realization, manifestation, expression, representation, actualization, symbol, model, quintessence, exemplification, example, exemplar, ideal, instance...). Embodiment is necessary for meaning. Without embodiment of any kind (very hard to imagine such state of affairs), nothing would make sense to us. The very expression ‘makes sense’ is about embodiment, about bringing something into a tangible form, understanding and experiencing something which is intangible in terms of other things which are tangible. The mind is continuously busy in embodying its intangible aspects into tangible ones. This is an ongoing dynamic and evolving process of our metaphor machine. It is a fundamental activity of our minds – a continuous process of embodying. Again, the relation mind-embodiment seem to gain even a deeper intimacy as if minding and embodiment are less and less distinct. As we look closer, it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins.

    In their landmark work “Metaphors we live by”. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson introduce a novel and expanded approach to the concept metaphor:

    The most important claim we have made so far is that metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. We shall argue on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical. This is what we mean when we say that the human conceptual system is metaphorically structured and defined.

    The metaphorical machine that progressively makes the contents of our mental states tangible is anchored in a yet deeper level of processes which are not accessible to us. When we feel excited, or angry, or interested, when we see a flower, or bump into a (transparent) wall, when we suddenly remember a vivid dream that we had, or think a thought that just came up (up from where?), the underlying cognitive processes that produce all these are transparent (unseen) to us. This transparency is perhaps one of the most paradoxical aspects of minding. It makes a world appear to us as ultimately unmediated, while, simultaneously, our mental space seems to be enclosed within itself and entirely disassociated from any world whatsoever. It is as if we sit at a restaurant table and these experiences are served to us as elaborately prepared dishes. How the food is cooked and how the dishes are prepared is entirely out of sight. Being creatures of theories and explanations that we are, we vaguely (and somewhat reflexively) guess that these dishes come from somewhere, that there is a kitchen (entirely hidden from us), where the food is being prepared. But in this case, the kitchen is so hidden that it becomes a true mystery and we start to suspect whether it exists at all. Or, alternatively, we start to believe that there is only a kitchen and us, eating, is just an elaborate illusion.

    Jericho Santander, Own World, Illustration made for

    For modern neuroscience the kitchen is the brain but the embarrassing riddle is still with us: The ingredients the kitchen works with and the dishes we are served are made of entirely different kinds of stuff. In the brain we have biochemical reactions and electrochemical signaling. In our minds we have voices, colors, words, shapes, emotions, choices, desires etc. We know that these are somehow connected, at least correlated, for every dish which is served, the kitchen is producing something quite distinct and for every preparation of the kitchen there is a dish being served. Yet, the kitchen and the eating hall, our minds and our brains, seem to inhabit entirely different realms. We seem to be creatures of multiple worlds… How could this be? This riddle does not seem to be a riddle of neuroscience. It does not seem to be a scientific riddle at all. It is a riddle that touches the very foundations of how our minds operate and how minds arise in the first place. It is a riddle sitting at the very core of our model; a place where all our stories originate from, yet itself still untold. It is so mysterious that we fail even to ask the proper questions about it or come up with really useful (digestible) metaphors.

    When we realize that our metaphor machine fails us, we know that we have reached a reality limit and we are in need for a new narrative. Even this wouldn’t be good enough because what we really need is a new kind of narrative, a new kind of knowing, of telling our stories. We must return and re-examine the origin of forms and the very nature of reality. In search of a new model I will write next about abstract self organizing forms, meta-evolution and emergent universes and of course about minds being multiply embodied and yet at one.

    To be continued…
    Sat, Jul 25, 2009  Permanent link

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    Yet another augmented prologue

    It took me a while to figure how to continue from here. There are many potential threads waiting to be unfolded and many ideas to weave. I thought however to dedicate another short post to reiterate what is it all about. The goal of writing about the mind, in itself being the subject of an intensive, quasi chaotic, process of iterative clarification, is not a philosophical investigation per se. It is not even a goal but rather a response to an inner call of sorts; an emerging yet not entirely formed imperative, private in nature and of intimate, unmediated, clarity.

    Mind is a great puzzle but it also may become a key. We, the conscious reflecting animals that we are - we are born, we live and we die in our minds. The mind is certainly the nexus of our humanity, and still in an almost mystical way it encompasses much more than our humanity; as if it enwombs the vastness of our potential humanity and not only the humanity that is.

    In this very sense, being quite removed (but not alien) from the noble endeavor to merely understand, mind is perhaps to be appreciated as a very potent metaphorical vehicle - a metaphor for an open-ended humanism. To know the mind becomes synonymous to knowledge that evolves, to image that transforms, to concept as a process of ever extracting its own context while bringing forth its transitory (persistent momentary) instances. You might sense the vacuum’s throbbing pulse underneath the words – a remote echo not entirely unfamiliar.

    Birth of a Thought 2- Susan Aldworth (2007)

    In modern philosophical discourse, post-humanism comes to explore what possibly might come after the human. But the human is but an image in its own mind and this mind is but an image within an image… There is no way to dodge this inevitable circularity so we have to look into it and surf it without falling into the vortex of infinite recurs. That is why I prefer open-ended humanism upon post humanism.

    Open-ended humanism carries no implicit trace of temporality (it is not ‘post’ to something else). More importantly, open-ended humanism involves no covert act of (so called) semantic aggression in delimiting the concept ‘human’ in hope of conquering a new conceptual territory. Open-ended humanism can be considered as a conceptual sibling to Wildcat’s Polytopia. Both are conceived with the same understanding of non-aggressive open-endedness. Yet, I do not want to see any of them reach the status of fully developed mature concepts (an elaborate invention anyway). Why? Because both explore a novel kind of distinctiveness which is inherently a-territorial and incomplete.

    Therefore I will not make open-ended humanism the subject of a discourse or investigation here; at least not explicitly. I would rather explore the unknown shores of a worthy metaphor, an archipelago of emergent meaning. In doing so, the ‘humanity’ in ‘open ended humanity’ will never take too deep roots in this or that image, this or that idea, this or that sentiment or emotional disposition; not even in what we might realize emotions, ideas and images to be at any given stage of our evolution. After all, realization in itself is an open ended process. Eventually, this h word (or h+ or h++) will fade out, leaving us, whatever we might become, open-ended _, incomplete, yet with absolutely no sense of loss.

    We will become free from our humanity, which paradoxically is the deepest sense of fulfilling it.

    To be continued...
    Sat, Jul 18, 2009  Permanent link
    Categories: Open-ended humanism
    Sent to project: Polytopia
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    "We do not really know what the human being truly is today, although our awareness and understanding should instruct us in this matter. How much less would we be able to guess what a human being is to become in future! However, the curiosity of the human soul grasps with great eagerness for this far distant subject and strives to put some light on such unilluminated knowledge."

    Immanuel Kant: Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens

    What is a model? Scratching the surface...

    Models are a wonderful invention. In very simple terms whenever we describe something in terms of something else, we engage in creating a model or at least an element of a model. A simple example is the well known smiley mad smileys standing for a smiling face, which, depending on context, stands for a particular state of mind, an expressed emotion, or a behavioral response etc. A model is generally a simplified approximate representation of a complex object, a phenomenon, a process and so on. At the basis of creating a model is an act of discrimination. We discriminate and extract those features and properties of the modeled entity which are significant and therefore need to be included in the model from those features and properties that can be discarded. A good model captures everything which is remarkable and interesting about the phenomenon being modeled and yet is significantly more simple and accessible. A good model is fit to replace the object or phenomenon being modeled within a designated context. A good model highlights that which is interesting and leaves everything else hidden.

    It is very important to note that nothing in the features or properties of an object or phenomenon are in anyway instructive as to whether or not they should be incorporated into their models. The discriminations that underlie every model are the product of how the modeled object is perceived by the author of the model and the particular biases involved in the process of modeling. Beliefs, images, assumptions, expectations, past experiences and the vast repertoire of other already available models are all primary ingredients of every model. A model is always an emergence of generative interactions of an observer with the objects being modeled. Generative here means that these interactions bring forth, actually generate, the differentiations that embody the model. It is the interactions and not the seemingly separate existence of either the observer or object that give rise to the contents of a model.

    What is truly fascinating about models is that generally and quite often we replace objects with their models and forget that we did just that. This so called forgetfulness is rooted in deeper cognitive processes of the brain. When we see a red rose or a charging tiger, we are not, we cannot be aware to the intricate neural processes involved in creating these complex visual experiences. If such processes would become part of our immediate perception, we would experience a fragmented, confused, incoherent nonsense. Luckily enough this is not the case. We do not experience a distance from the images we perceive, the voices we hear or other sensory modalities involved in our perception. The very fact of all these being mere representations totally escapes us. As far as perception is involved the map is the territory.

    Likewise, at higher levels of our conscious lives, we create models and representations and soon after creating them, or even while creating them, the very fact of an elaborate authoring taking place simply disappears from our remembered present. It is rarely, if at all, that aspects of such process are hinted in the periphery of our so called unmediated experience of reality. As we create models recursively, that is models of models of models, the fact that models are constructions becomes even more obscure. We find that in the course of their emergence our models and representations become entirely transparent.

    Transparency is perhaps the most essential and most evanescent property of our mental life. It is rooted in our cognitive paradigm but it pervades all aspects and all modalities of our mental activity (especially our linguistic activity). Transparency seems to be one of the most sophisticated tricks ever devised by evolution. Many generations of philosophers and thinkers invested their whole lives to decipher the riddle of being. What does it mean to be? How is it that the objects of our senses, our innermost dreams, the thoughts and sensations that arise in our minds, appear to be, just be: immanent, unmediated, non originated, irreducible? Even more mysterious is this riddle when it addresses the subject of such experiences, the so called ‘I’. It feels almost foolish to stand in front of this respectable assembly of giant minds of all ages and claim that the riddle of being may find its final peaceful resolution in realizing the full impact of transparency. The objects of experience appear to be, to have an inherent, independent existence, because of their transparency, because the process that brings them forth is hidden and ultimately inaccessible while it takes place.

    Modeling is how our mind space emerges as a dynamic virtual – existential space. Virtual because every single bit of it is a constructed representation. Existential because the transparency of its fabric brings forth a seemingly immanent, unmediated, immersive reality. This inescapable virtual existence or existential virtuality is perhaps what the old eastern teachings related as Maya – the great dreaming of a reality.

    A model of mind is unlike any other model because it must, at least in part, go beyond transparency, to try and access the authoring processes that underlie it. Mind is both highly abstract and unmediated. Unlike other models which are basically representations, a model of the mind is both generating and being generated by the mind. This apparent combination of circularity and transparency makes the mind the impenetrable riddle that it is. No feat of introspection or analytic reasoning can escape or circumvent this mystery. One must jump head first into it.

    Because of this peculiarity, we can hardly relate to mind in a manner which is free and unbiased by the model we already use. A model of mind therefore is an emergent entity, a mirror whose very properties co-emerge with the image being reflected. This wouldn’t be much of a trouble if not for the fact that our model of mind profoundly influences pretty much everything. From our most basic perception of immediate reality to the deepest understandings of existence, and the mystery of being human in particular, all derive from, and partake in our model of mind. Authoring a model of mind is our only way to know ourselves and everything else. Whether we create such a model explicitly or implicitly, everything that can possibly take place, takes place and is reflected in the context of our mind model and is (transparently) mediated by it.

    Remarkably this is something so fundamental that it is impossible to write even such preliminary statements without already projecting at least a few aspects of the model I have in mind (literally so). Take for example the subject-verb-object structure of a sentence such as “we author a model”. This structure, so ingrained in our language, implied a clear underlying model of mind which is more often than not entirely transparent. It implies for example an inherent subject-object separation, a distance that in turn allows, even prompts, action, causation, and effect. If we stop just for a brief moment and try to figure the meaning implied by this very simple and common structure, we immediately realize its immense impact on the way our conscious experience is organized. Furthermore, if we stop for just another brief moment to consider the particular impact such linguistic structure has in the context of our subject of inquiry, we cannot escape the conclusion that when it comes to mind, most of what can be put into words (including the above) is seriously inadequate, verging on sheer nonsense.

    Even as we just scratch the surface, we discover that this inquiry is both profoundly disturbing and intriguing. Perhaps because we can perceive absolutely no depth just an infinite surface of appearances, glimpsing into the mind invokes a strong sense of mental vertigo which soon becomes highly pleasurable, even addictive…
    Mon, May 25, 2009  Permanent link

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    At the very core of being human, at the core of human social and cultural fabric lays the human mind, and the knowledge of the mind. Its roots are as ancient and as diverse as human civilization. It is colored by myth, folk psychology, cultural belief systems, common sense, philosophy and relatively recently by science. How do we perceive? What is there to perceive? What is consciousness? What is the nature of reality? What are thoughts and how do thoughts arise? How do we know whatever we know? Is there continuity beyond physical death (or before birth)? These are just a few of the fundamental riddles a theory of mind should answer. Whether we are aware of it or not, every perception, thought, emotion, behavioral stance, interaction or value we have is entailed by an underlying theory of mind.

    Theories of mind held by individuals arise at a very early age as a consequence of interactions with the environment. They can be fairly simple or incredibly complex depending on factors such as the individual’s mental and emotional capacity, upbringing, education, life experience and cultural background. At a higher level, a theory of mind operates as cohering glue that guides human interactions and integrates human individuals into complex cultural organisms. With very few exceptions, diverse theories of mind operated by individuals are instances of the theory of mind sustained by the larger cultural organism they belong to. In this sense, both the dynamics of an individual mind and the collective dynamics of cultural organisms derive from the same theory of mind.

    Due to its profound influence on the reality of being in all dimensions, a theory of mind is perhaps the single most significant and remarkable reflection of a civilization. Moreover, the fitness of a civilization to address existential problems that arise in the course of its evolution is intimately connected to what openings, opportunities and fields of interaction its underlying theory of mind allows.

    Recently it is becoming overwhelmingly clear that modern civilization is experiencing change on scales and speeds never experienced in human history. In the face of such massive transformative pressures, a revision of the prevailing theory of mind, the very manner by which we perceive reality and ourselves, seems to become imperative.

    In a 1970 lecture Gregory Bateson, a prominent thinker who realized the connection between mind culture and nature said:

    If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or con-specifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of over-population and over grazing.

    Most remarkable in Bateson’s reflections is the connection he makes between the theory of mind and the dynamics of culture, and between this dynamics and the culture’s prospects of continuity and evolution. As we address an increasing imbalance and collapse of ecological systems verging on a disaster of a planetary scale, we still think in terms of ‘protecting nature’, ‘saving the planet’, or ‘warding off climate change’. The change in attitude is perhaps apparent, but sadly it is fundamentally constrained by a language and conceptual system belonging to the increasingly obsolete separated and separating worldview reflected in Bateson’s words. We still try to handle ‘the situation out there’ instead of addressing the Mind- our mind as the only state of affairs.

    At the beginning of the 3rd millennium we witness a very wide spectrum of similar observations. More than that; it seems that much of our deeper understanding of mind which is still rooted in biblical myth and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic worldview is becoming inadequate and profoundly so. The abuse of the environment is only one extreme example of such inadequacy. Dysfunctional governance systems, fragile economy, corruption, the decline of individual mental balance and emotional fitness are additional symptoms of the dangerously decreasing fitness of human civilization on this planet. Even the immense impact of science on our understanding of the brain and human psychology do not compensate for the fact that at the root of our deepest scientific understandings lays an obsolete theory of mind.

    Indeed, a civilization is a very complex organism with immense capabilities of adaptation and transformation. Adjustments are taking place at many levels with varying degrees of effectiveness. Yet, most of these adaptations are superficial. It seems that civilization is reaching a phase where an effective response to the accelerating selective pressures at play invites a profound revision of first principles: we need to augment our theory of mind. It is perhaps the first time in the history of humanity that an intense inquiry into the nature of mind is becoming a clear imperative.

    The inquiry into the nature of mind does not and cannot belong to any specific field of human inquiry, not even to philosophy or religion or science that historically, each in turn, claimed a privileged authoritative status or even ownership in regards to what mind is or might be. It is my belief that the inquiry into the nature of mind should be all encompassing, multidisciplinary and multidimensional, integrating all aspects of the phenomenal and mental realms. Above all it should be open ended: there are no final truths to be uncovered, no fixated conceptions. Moreover, the inquiry into the nature of mind should become a primary challenge of every human being as hinted by the ancient aphorism ‘Know thyself’. Such inquiry holds the promise of the deepest most profound aesthetic pleasure. It seems to capture and distill the very essence and meaning of being an intelligent evolving conscious being.
    Fri, May 15, 2009  Permanent link

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    Watch this jaw dropping performing parrot called Snowball. It certainly makes one reconsider animal intelligence. More details on the dancing parrot can be found here and here.

    * Uplift is a futuristic procedure described in science fiction literature (mostly by author David Brin) of increasing the intelligence of an animal to a degree comparable to human standards by means of genetic manipulations and neural augmentations. Uplift was mentioned lately in conjunction to new discoveries in the field of animal intelligence and in the context of the ethical discussion about the present and the future of animal rights.
    Tue, May 5, 2009  Permanent link
    Categories: Animal Intelligence
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    Sun, Apr 12, 2009  Permanent link

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    In the grapevine of web enthusiasts it is said that this is nothing less than the a major step in the evolution of the web. An artist nicknamed Kutiman has collected bits and pieces of music creations uploaded to YouTube by artists and amateur musicians from all over the world and is composing from them new original pieces, without using any conventional musical instrument. For Kutiman, YouTube is no longer the stage or the media but the very instrument upon which he plays his new kind of composition.

    Thinking of the web as the vehicle the global mind will one day emerge from, this is definitely an exciting project, a new stage of collaboration that opens many interesting doors. Now we have a glimpse what is the first thing the global mind is about to do while it awakens: It is playing music!

    Watch and listen to all the album here.
    Sat, Mar 14, 2009  Permanent link

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    I saw one of these fascinating TED stories a couple of days ago. A story about restoring a complex ecological balance to a place that suffered what seemed to be an irreversible deforestation and ecological collapse due to overuse of natural resources. For me, it is first and foremost an example and a lesson of what could a single or few committed individuals achieve by applying nature's most powerful resource - intelligence. This is a story of bringing back to life a place where hope was not expected to visit any time soon, and it is an undeniable proof of capability to what mankind can achieve when direction and motive are clear.

    Here is a few words about the man that made it happen:

    Willie Smits works at the complicated intersection of humankind, the animal world and our green planet. In his early work as a forester in Indonesia, he came to a deep understanding of that triple relationship, as he watched the growing population of Sulawesi move into (or burn for fuel) forests that are home to the orangutan. These intelligent animals were being killed for food, traded as pets or simply failing to thrive as their forest home degraded.

    Smits believes that to rebuild orangutan populations, we must first rebuild their forest habitat — which means helping local people find options other than the short-term fix of harvesting forests to survive. His Masarang Foundation raises money and awareness to restore habitat forests around the world — and to empower local people.


    "This man has dedicated his life to saving the world, and for this he earns our deepest respect."

    Jean Kern, Ode

    And here is his talk on TED:

    I was thinking whether there is a deeper lesson that can be taken from this story. Is there a formula that can be extracted and applied in different and possibly wider contexts? I think there is one and it has to do with a unique combination of commitment and intelligence. It can be put as the following symbolic formula:

    Success = Commitment X Intelligence

    Success is a product of commitment and intelligence. Intelligence amplifies commitment, and commitment amplifies intelligence. Commitment without intelligence becomes too narrow and fixated, while intelligence without commitment can easily lose direction and momentum.

    What is fascinating in this story is that Willie Smits is committed, as he claims, to saving Orangutan lives. How come that he managed to achieve something so much greater than his initial goal? The secret, I think, has to do with the unique combination expressed in the formula. The clarity and the depth of Smits' commitment have brought him, it seems, to relate to his goal in an ever broader context. It made him to see and contain a much wider picture, and eventually access the reality of interconnectedness and multidimensionality in their broadest sense being the defining characteristics of any complex living system. Commitment of the kind exemplified in this story, allows one to start with a single thought and take this thought to its limits and than beyond these limits. This process is impossible without free running intelligence being the second ingredient of the formula. The product of these ingredients, their recursive combination, brings about, as we see, results that are surprising and far reaching.

    It can be said that most of Smits' achievements are side effects. The initial purpose and motive, his seed thought and the anchor of his commitment as if disappears in the light of the greater success that seems almost unrelated. But this apparent 'disappearance' is, I think, the most significant mark of an interesting success because it means that the motion of intelligence here was open ended and therefore as powerful as only life without parenthesis can be.

    Fri, Mar 6, 2009  Permanent link

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    Thu, Mar 5, 2009  Permanent link

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    As life in our world becomes ever more complex, there is an ever increasing pressure on us to accommodate this complexity. As Barry Schwartz indicates in his inspiring talk at TED 2009, we tend to increasingly oversimplify our interactions with the world and mold them into ready made and easily digestible patterns of stimulus- response that will save us such costly resources as critical thinking, reasoning, emotional sensitivity, tolerance towards views different from ours and more. Indeed it seems that one of the most serious maladies of modern times is that we have lost our confidence in the power and virtue of wisdom to provide viable responses to our everyday situations on the individual level as well as on higher organizational levels.

    We are deeply concerned about global warming, economical crises, dwindling resources, political corruption, violent conflicts and terrorism. It seems that we are almost compelled to describe these problems as arising in a world external to us and somehow (ridiculously so) independent from us, but they are not. These are not situations or events that can be thoroughly objectified as if independent from our perceptions, conceptions, beliefs, sensitivities and the general quality of our emotional and thinking processes as they become manifest in our interactions. On the contrary, the great and small existential riddles that we face are but reflections of the state of the human mind; the collective mind as well as the individual mind. In other words, many if not most of these existential riddles are rooted in ignorance, the neglect of wisdom that is.

    What is wisdom? How have we come to neglect it? And how could we possibly reinstate our trust in it? Wisdom begins where all conceptualizations and formal systems end. Wisdom, therefore will not easily give itself to the kind of conceptual discourse we find so effective and habitual in the way we usually think. As Barry Schwartz hints, wisdom is not part of any job description, it lacks function per se, it seems to be useless, but it is exactly this kind of uselessness that somehow makes everything else extremely useful and significant. Even in the light of modern evolutionary theory, wisdom seems to impart no immediate evolutionary advantage on its bearers. On a bit different perspective however, a clear evolutionary path can be drawn for the contemporary human mind: from being instinct oriented to being reason oriented; from being reason oriented to being wisdom oriented. And today, especially today, when our reasoning powers fail us, and they do, we can either transcend reason into wisdom or fall back to instinct.

    So, wisdom evades definition, seems quite useless and imparts no obvious evolutionary advantage. Yet, since the days of antiquity wisdom is treasured as man’s most precious resource. The Legendary Socrates explains to his friends and disciples that his pursue of wisdom overrides his fear of death. In fact, he argues that death may present better opportunities for him to pursue wisdom, and therefore it should be regarded as a good thing. In the epic story of the Mahabharata, Arjuna the hero is offered by Krishna, at the eve of battle, a choice between receiving the command over great armies of formidable warriors, or having Krishna (symbolizing the source of high wisdom) drive his chariot into battle unarmed. Arjuna chooses the company of Krishna and gives up the obvious advantage in the face of the immediate circumstances. With Krishna’s counsel of wisdom, he wins of course the mortal battle and meanwhile gains enlightenment as well.

    Barry Schwartz asserts that wisdom has to do with accumulating the unique and humane life experience we all gain and utilize when the rules, procedures and immediate interests that usually guide our lives fail to informs us how to respond to unexpected circumstances. He mentions a moral will and moral skills that involves both reasoning and emotion, empathy and intelligent improvisation. He certainly touches some good points here, yet it is quite clear that wisdom is something over and above the accumulation of life experiences, and even beyond the application of moral virtue in real life situations.

    'What is wisdom' is an exceptional question in that that its primary function is to be recursively asked and not necessarily to be answered in the manner that conventional ‘what’ questions are being answered. In terms of linguistic and semantic utility, wisdom is certainly a unique perhaps even unnatural term because it does not relate or communicate a specific content or even a state of mind. Instead, it invites conscious reflection, openness, and interconnectedness.

    ‘Invites’, perhaps is the most important word here because wisdom never presses, compels or necessitates, wisdom therefore is bred in freedom, in free minds that is. As such, wisdom is always, always an option. As to the qualities mentioned, these are three of the deepest mysteries of the mind. In realizing the depth of our interconnectedness with all life and beyond that, with the entire universe, an ever expanding insight (and significance) into our instance of existence is gained. Openness is a great mystery in that that it admits and allows the boundless unknown laying so very close to us, just beyond our habituated perceptions and self affirming concepts. Conscious reflection is the paradoxical (by definition) bridge or perhaps mirror between the local and the universal, between the finite and the infinite, between the here and everywhere, between now and ever.

    In the ever quickening race of the information age, it would seem that wisdom is becoming a kind of an anachronistic and eccentric hobby to be left behind till it fades into the obscurity of old myth. Wisdom is neglected because of the ever growing pressure for immediate response, immediate reaction, and immediate utility. However, as we approach extreme cortical activation accompanied by its revolutionary technological side effects, we also approach a limit beyond which we will no longer be able control or guide this explosion of intelligence and complexity. This limit, which we already sense, marks the end of the current evolutionary phase of the human mind and pronounces a transition into a possible next phase; an epoch of wisdom.

    Once upon a time in a more or less far future, at least in our temporal continuum, some intelligent entities being perhaps descendants of the race of men, will create a whole universe for the sole purpose of observing the intricate unfolding of a single ethical riddle, or maybe to resolve an aesthetic debate. In their wisdom they will know that nothing less than a whole universe may provide the proper circumstances for such an issue to significantly evolve, they will also know that no intentional intervention is possible once such universal setup is initiated. They will certainly know they can afford it, and the allowance naturally extended from such conscious affordance will seamlessly realize itself as universe impregnated with the infinite potential of life.

    Such thoughts, though being well beyond my comprehension keeps me awake. Not so much during the nights as during the days…
    Thu, Feb 19, 2009  Permanent link
    Categories: wisdom
    Sent to project: Polytopia
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