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FleshFactor: Re: Chaos / Order

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"

I'll tell you about a psychology experiment I once read about, which a
student in one of my classes replicated. I will describe it as Kevin did it
(and did it only because he didn't believe the story). He took 100 sheets of
blank 8.5 x 11 inch paper, and a couple of sheets of stickers -- black dots,
about a quarter inch round -- and he went around the school for the next
week asking people to take a sheet of paper, and a dot, and to place the dot
wherever they wanted on the blank page. Some people would think and think,
and then they'd think some more, before positioning the dot -- other people
just closed their eyes and let chance decide where to put it. Some tried to
be very 'good', to find a 'good' place for the dot -- art school, after all
-- they're supposed to be learning this sort of thing. Others tried to be
very 'bad', subverting whatever it was that they thought Kevin was up to.
(Art school, again!) Most thought Kevin was 'up to something', playing a
trick on them, and even those he told (he'd tell them if asked) were sure
there had to be a 'catch'.

What Kevin 'caught' only emerged after he'd arduously transfered all the
dotted pages (he had put a little tick on each sheet, for orientation) onto
one final 100-dot xerox. It turned out the story (the psychology experiment)
was true, it worked just the way it was supposed to. As clear as anything,
there was a thick congregation of dots right at the centre, with four
somewhat less dense 'nodes' clustered at the corners. In between these
nodes, there were other nodes, more sparse and diffuse (but still readily
apparent) at the midpoints of the page's four edges, then spreading out
along the central horizontal and vertical axes, likewise the two main
diagonals, and then (though by this point it was getting pretty fuzzy)
lesser diagonals that criss-crossed the main diagonals, making a diamond,
extending from mid-edge to mid-edge. 

In short, the emergence of order (human, aesthetic, universal, geometric
order) out of the chaos (in the vernacular, not the mathematical sense) of
individual personalities, perceptions, motives. Beautiful, no? And it looked
not so unlike (if Kevin had continued the experiment for another 100 million
trials, say, and used tinier dots on a much larger sheet, and had
periodically thresholded it to sharpen the contrast) certain of Giordano
Bruno's "seals". Or Chladni figures, visualized by sprinkling lycopodium
powder onto a vibrating plate or membrane, to reveal the resonant modes
(node, antinode) as standing waves. As if the mere shape of a blank sheet of
paper could create 'lines of force' in our minds; as if we could see (if we
look close enough) the pattern-seeking function of the mind operating there,
on that unmarked field. (As if this were the fundamental nature of the mind;
an expression, precise as any cloud-chamber photograph, of the order of nature.)


Or this: Francis Galton's original "pachinko game", called by him a "Quincunx".

                        \         /
                         \       /
                            | |


                            * *
                           * * *
                          * * * *
                         * * * * *
                        * * * * * *
                       * * * * * * *
                      * * * * * * * *
                     * * * * * * * * *
                    * * * * * * * * * *
                   * * * * * * * * * * *
                  * * * * * * * * * * * *

                | | | | | | | | | | | | | |
                | | | | | | |o| | | | | | |
                | | | | | |o|o|o| | | | | |
                | | | | | |o|o|o| | | | | |
                | | | | |o|o|o|o|o| | | | |
                | | | | |o|o|o|o|o| | | | |
                | | | |o|o|o|o|o|o|o| | | |
                | | |o|o|o|o|o|o|o|o|o| | |

Upon encountering each pin, a ball-bearing dropped into the Quincunx has
equal chances of bouncing to the left or to the right. The career of any
ball-bearing exhibits "extreme sensitivity to initial conditions" -- a
chaotic system. But the aggregate behavior of many such deterministic and
chaotic (for that matter, totally random) trajectories produces the regular
and predictable 'bell-shaped' distribution seen in the bins at the bottom of
the device.


What's my point? Simply that trying to model or replicate every tiny detail
of the human brain, the specific location and chemical composition and
function of every neuron, and every dendrite of every neuron, and every
synaptic bulb on every dendrite, and every microtubule in every synaptic
bulb, and every atom in every microtubule (how far do we have to go before
reductionism collapses under its own silliness?) might not be the best way
to model what a brain *does*.

The worst reductivists of all are the 'quantum weirdness' gang: Roger
Penrose, Stuart Hameroff, sad-to-say Karl Pribram (who wrote a very good
book on brains in 1970, but appears to have fallen on evil times) ...
unfortunately, anything 'quantum' is guaranteed to find devotees among the
New Age seeker types, sigh. But I'll eat my (Schroedinger's) hat if any of
what they're peddling turns out to be even remotely the case. (Quantum
computing, on the other hand, is fairly interesting, but only, I'd say, qua
computing, not qua consciousness.)

Consciousness is not a 'problem' to be solved or explained. It's how a life
is experienced from the inside. Perception, attention, volition, emotion,
and the moment to moment moral negotiation of self with habit and desire.
(Did I leave anything out?)


In the hope that this may help cut through some of that science mystique. 

 Derek Robinson


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