The woman on Facebook said I didn’t understand her comment and accused me of being sarcastic. I thought I was engaging in subtle teaching. She needed to see what she’d written made no sense and that blaming others for misunderstanding her wasn’t kosher. The person who sends the message is responsible for its clarity. My nudge enflamed rather that pacified, however. I might as well have written she was writing drivel and moved on.
Recent discoveries in the animal kingdom suggest mammals and birds have language skills. While not advanced, they can combine ideas. A bird can caw both a warning and advice to its neighbor. “A snake hides beneath your branch so come here.” Humans can do more than cobble two thoughts together. They can express complex ideas. Complexity invites errors, of course, because words carry emotion as well as information. Science abandoned communal language in favor of mathematics for this reason. The symbol for Pi, (π,) rarely enranges an individual.
Whether the brain is engaged in emotional or logical thinking, it is an inventive machine. It uses the senses to shape our world, giving us snippets of information that may differ from what dolphins and trees require, but which keeps us safe. Prediction is its primary function. “If I fall from this branch, the snake concealed in the autumn leaves below will eat me.”
Ironically, the organ on which we heavily depend is a mystery to us. Why, for example, does the dying brain continue to function after the heart has stopped? In its final moments, it floods its tissues with the same gamma rays that produce dreams or hallucinations, conjuring blissful scenes, if near-death survivors can be believed. Are these visions intimations of heaven? If so, why do dying rats share the same gamma experience?
Unsurprisingly, one question begets another. When a person falls into a prolonged catatonic state, where does consciousness go? Science has made some progress in this direction. They’ve learned these comas have to do with antibodies that alter receptors that bind glutamate…disrupting how neurons can send signals to one another. As scientists learn more about our biology, they may discover how to restore somnambulists to full consciousness. But will we ever learn where these dreamers have been?
Sigmund Freud devoted himself to exploring the unconscious, that world to which the afflicted may have escaped. Mainly, that part of the brain regulates bodily functions. Conscience is unnecessary to keep our hearts beating, for example. Even so, stress can pierce our hidden mind’s armor. We may suffer inexplicable breakdowns or possibly go mad. Sometimes artistic or spiritual revelations explode from the same murky depths like bursts of fireworks.
Several years ago, I commented on Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Living with a Wild God. In it, she described a moment when the heavens opened and poured into her. A non-believer, she didn’t rush to the nearest church to bend a knee before its altar. Nonetheless, the experience did give her pause. Having had a similar one, I, too, was forced to pause. Had I stumbled upon an alternate form of consciousness? Was the mind, like the elevator of an infinite department store, capable of opening its door on many levels?
So much of what we think we know is ephemeral. Yet in our hubris, we dare to pursue a multiverse of our making, one where we are both omniscient and omnipotent. I refer to Artificial Intelligence (AI). With it, we explore meta-worlds where no human thought has gone before. Optimists see AI as a plane of good intentions. One day, they imagine,disease will be no more. One day, even death shall die.
Creating ethical standards is a necessary step, but then… few rogues will care about that. And who should create these standards? Russia? Saudi Arabia,? Perhaps North Korea could suggest a shining path.
At a crossroads in a giant step for mankind, AI poses many questions. My choice would be to move slowly. Paraphrasing a line Robert Frost’s famous poem, ”Before I built a Universe, I’d ask to know about the rules, who was being admitted or barred, and to whom it was likely to give offense. *
Our species has wandered the planet for 200,000 years, yet we have no agreement on the meaning of good and evil. Linguistics is a weak vessel for this purpose as it can both clarify and dissemble. No wonder even the most sincere stumble.
Whether language informs our brain or the brain informs language, or the process is some endless loop between the two, I do not know. What’s certain is that communication is difficult and words are incapable of judging the worth of their cargo. Whether we convey truth, ignorance, or lies rests with our intentions and much of that lies in our unconscious. Language does manage to communicate, though. Mostly, it reveals information about ourselves.
*Adapted from Rober Frost”s “Mending Wall.”