Rational (and sometimes irrational) bacterial superconglomerates in clothes

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(Read it here in Spanish)

Reading eminent biologist Lynn Margulis, who was married to Carl Sagan, you experience a disturbing as well as fascinating vertigo. It’s inevitable to be filled with amazement at discovering that free bacteria that lived two thousand million years ago seem to be the ancestors of all our cells, that other independent photosynthetic bacteria dating back several hundred million years could be the ancestors of mitochondria hosted within our cellular bricks (as well as of chloroplasts within plant cells) and that  spirochetes (bacteria with flagellum) could be at the origin of all our muscle cells, sperm cells and neurons.

This goes far beyond that noting that our six-million-year-old grandparents are the same as those of current chimpanzees, that 60-million-year-old ones are the same as those of current lemurs, or that 600-million-year-old ones are the same as those of current plants and fungi. It’s a remote as well as intimate connection with a microscopic world that not only allows us to exist but it is also an active part of our life (I mean our own body, because symbiotic bacteria dwelling inside us – for example, in the large intestine- are an interesting chapter apart).

Human thoughts and feelings would therefore be the product of a neural network of bacterial origin (some scientific studies include symbiotic intestinal bacteria in the factory of our psyche, as they influence our state of mind), so the basic principles of functioning of human mind (of any animal intelligence) might not be very different from those of a bacterial community developed in a rotten apple or in a Petri dish in a laboratory. One difference is the type of information collected and processed by the network: for bacterial communities and plants, only chemical signals (pheromones) or electrical ones, and environmental rudimentary data (acidity, humidity, temperature, light, etc.); for animals, much more profuse sensory data with which to build vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, social intelligence… Another difference is a centralized model in our case (with brain as a control center) and a decentralized one for bacteria and plants. Of course, the most important thing is network’s level of complexity (the number of connections between our neurons is gigantic, which allows us to study stuff such as black holes or gravitational waves).

Science already tells us that language is not necessary to have a rational thought: human and non-human animals act rationally (for all our sakes, since natural selection is usually implacable) and sometimes also irrationally (in the same way that humans have religions, non-human also exhibit superstitious and absurd practices as long as they are functional -religion has been- or at least not dysfunctional for survival). What if bacteria also lead themselves rationally, like sort of computers that, according to a particular program, generate outputs from a series of inputs?… What if the whole biosphere (identified with self-regulated Lovelock’s Gaia) was a rational agent?… What if bacteria and Gaia could also behave irrationally?…

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Karl Marx’s big mistake about human nature

The_Soviet_Union_1968_CPA_3627_stamp_(Karl_Marx)(Read it here in Spanish)

Australian philosopher Peter Singer, main exponent of a transhumanist ethics with books such as Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics, gets it right in his recent article Is Marx still relevant? (coinciding with 200th birthday anniversary of German thinker): The biggest mistake of marxism was a false view of human nature, blaming capitalist system for our vices and believing that some day, with socialism and the advent of a communist society with no classes, a new man free from greed, selfishness, lust for power, and desire of ostentation would be born. Because the fabric men and women are made of is the same, whether under slavery, feudalism, capitalism, or socialism. And communist utopia is as much absurd as unreachable.

In denying human nature we will bump again and again into reality and end up frustrated, seeing that scourges such as sexist violence, organized crime, bullying, or child abuse will never be eradicated. Of course, we have come a long way in this regard, specially in most developed countries, but only with the most childish naivety or out of ignorance about how we really are (partly by estimating that science is not applicable to the study of human behavior) we can come to believe that one day there will be no abuse, rape, murder (sexist or not) or any other barbaric act. And no need of police or prisons, as in leftists’ dreams.

Let us agree once and for all that there will always be psychopaths, sadistic, and evil people among us. And also, fortunately, good and compassionate ones. We are cooperative, but also predators. It’s human variability, for the best and the worst! No matter how good education and laws we lay on the grill, the worst of our nature will never be deleted; if anything, it can be minimized, as in most civilized societies (that’s why I’m afraid that in Spain the number of women murdered by their partners will never be lower than 40 or 50; in places such as Africa, Latin America, India, and the Islamic world, where the situation is much worse, there is a considerably wider margin of improvement).

Not even social engineering can alter the stuff we have been made of by evolution. As long as we remain Sapiens, our motives, impulses, fears, and desires will be the same (taking into account, of course, variability in behaviour). During Cold War, East Germans were not essentially different to West Germans. And nowadays Russians are not substantially different from those of 1960 or 1915. The human movie is always the same, with only minor adaptations in the script, despite cultural changes. Although, as Steven Pinker insists on remarking, humanity has never been better off: there is an undeniable progress, attributable to the strengthening of democracy (lately threatened by a national-populist wave), the growing interdependence between countries and the spread of education and cosmopolitanism.

Superconsciousness, a pending emergence?

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(Read it here in Spanish)

Consciousness, kind of so intimate and familiar as well as mysterious thing, is – or rather seems to be- an emergent property of matter that dwells in ethereal realms. Immaterial and inalienable, it cannot be perceived beyond the confines of its owner and it’s even impossible to know with certainty if he or she really possesses it or not (we cannot rule out that everybody but you are zombies, mere automatons without inner life). In addition, we don’t know at what point we are in the presence of it: Is there any consciousness in an embryo, in a bacterial community, in a tree? And why not in a thermostat or in self-regulated biosphere (the Gaia hypothesis by James Lovelock)?…

Space and time are also probably emergent properties, whose foundations are still unknown (we know now that mass is the result of a coupling with a Higgs field). So are life, economy, a hurricane, a flock of birds, or a traffic jam. The unsuspected higher order emerging phenomena that could be waiting for us in the future, if we continue on our evolutionary line and exponential scientific and technological development is not truncated, would fill us with amazement. Why not consciousness, brought to a certain critical point (similar to 0º C when ice becomes liquid water or to 100º when it becomes gaseous), could generate other fields or autonomous realms?

A network connection between human brains and artificial intelligence, in a kind of bionic Superinternet, could bring about a technological singularity as envisaged by Ray Kurzweil. The brain’s reducing valve, which according to Henri Bergson limits the amount of reality that enters into consciousness, would widen in such an unimaginable way. After Singularity nothing would be the same. It’s even very likely that our human – and, therefore, animal- motivations be no longer the same.

Perhaps the future of intelligent life is an amorphous self aware cloud (as that novelized by Fred Hoyle in The black cloud), able to dwell in idyllic virtual recreations where there is no suffering or evil, where everything is love and compassion: in nooks of the flowery Multiverse that we could identify with Heaven or Paradise, far from Hell (which must exist out there in all its forms), vulgar defective universes such as ours, and mere Nothing* (which, according to Robert Nozick, would also have its room in the Multiverse).

*Nothing in the strict sense, not in the sense of quantum vacuum that permeates our entire universe.

About Roger Penrose’s three worlds mystery

(Read it here in Spanish)

British physicist, mathematician, and cosmologist Roger Penrose confesses that for a long time he’s been deeply intrigued by the relationship between three very different realms of reality: mathematical, physical, and mental. His book The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (2004) is a result of this intellectual concern.

The departure point of Penrose’s perplexity is this: Mathematics fit like a glove to Physics, but the latter only needs a small part of the former to be perfectly described. In other words, most of mathematical constructions does not seem to have any relationship with physical world: they are not needed to explain it, at least as far as we know. It would be a different matter if physical reality spread beyond our universe and the four dimensions -three of space and one of time- we are so familiar with. String theory is based on the existence of hidden non-deployed dimensions, which our brain cannot conceive but are mathematically manageable. On the other hand, when complex numbers were discovered -because nobody invented them!- they were not known to have any physical application and considered a simple mathematical artifice or rarity. Now we know that without complex numbers, constructed from the seemingly illogical square root of -1, is not possible to explain quantum mechanics: they play a fundamental role in the description of our world (a universe generated from the superposition of all possible states in the unimaginable infinite-dimensional Hilbert space where the so-called wave function dwells). Maybe all the mathematical world is substantiated in some type of physical reality, many of which would exceed us (for example, a universe of 11 dimensions as put by the M theory of strings), so there wouldn’t be any region of Mathematics deprived of its physical correlate. But the existence of ethereal mathematical realms with no physical correspondence is also possible.

Continue reading “About Roger Penrose’s three worlds mystery”

Hooligans, multi-inculturalism, and ‘siniestrona’

Written in August 2011, coinciding with riots in England.

(Read it here in Spanish)

Recent events in England have portrayed not only a ruthless hordes of young people raised in the shadow of some irresponsible parents and a social protection system too generous to them, but also a political left the most simplistic, extreme, and intolerant (the siniestrona), pretending that those violent attacks by mindless rioters are the rising of a noble people against injustice.

Violence in the English suburbs is due, in my opinion, to the combination of four elements: 1) A wild consumerism fueled for decades by mass media (from advertising to TV series for teenagers going through pure junk TV), who has firmly stuck this idea in the minds of many people: “the more you own (at any price), the more you are”, 2) A serious deterioration of education and traditional values ​​of honesty, respect, and discipline (which was guaranteed more or less when religion was not something in retreat- fortunately, I must say! – as now in the West), 3) A sense of humiliation and inferiority of some poor natives, losers of globalization and prone to xenophobic parties like the British National Party (BNP) in England or the Front National in France, 4) A sense of humiliation and inferiority of some immigrants (or people with immigration background) that have not been fully integrated (or accepted) in European societies,  internally torn by the conflict between laws and customs of their host countries and traditions of their origin countries (that often chain them to the emasculating yoke of patriarchy and religion), who in turn are prone to extremist identitarian movements.

It goes without saying that poor natives prone to xenophobia and humiliated immigrants inclined to identitarian extremism are called to collide sooner or later: the natural tendency of what some people call multiculturalism (a term so dear to the siniestrona), that I prefer to label as multi-inculturalism to be more accurate. Even the various immigrant misfit groups tend to collide one to another. Continue reading “Hooligans, multi-inculturalism, and ‘siniestrona’”

Why killing is not ‘per se’ evil? (much as Kant turns in his grave)

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(Read it here in Spanish)

Kant’s categorical imperative states that we must behave in such a way that our behaviour can be elevated to universal law or rule. We do good when we help an elder cross the street because we adopt a supposedly objective moral law (“it’s good to help destitute people”), which is glimpsed and embraced by our reason. Since this law is universal, it doesn’t matter whether the elder is a war criminal or he or she is attempting to stab a person across the street: our action would be good in any case. The ethics of Königsberg’s philosopher is absolute, whereby every human life is an end in itself (not animal one, which would not be moral for supposedly lacking rationality). So categorical imperative, by definition, cannot be relativized: without it, the basics of ethics would be completely subjective and arbitrary.

However, simple practical reason tells us that there is no commandment, not even the “thou shalt not kill”, that can be raised to absolute moral law: killing, stealing, or lying would not be bad per se, but depending on which moral purpose they are bound to. When someone kills in self-defense, or to defense innocent third parties, acts morally good. When someone kills a tyrant, does a favor to humanity (even St. Augustine agreed to this, and he has not been yet rectified by Catholic Church). When someone steals to feed his or her hungry child is performing a morally right act (as long as violence is not disproportionate). When someone kills an animal for food, because he or she has no other source of livelihood, you cannot oppose an animalist ethics to him or her. It is even untenable to affirm that eating human flesh is inherently bad: for the Uruguayan sportsmen lost in the Andes almost half a century ago, eating the flesh of their deceased friends was a good deed that saved their own lives. Of course, lying is the right thing to do when survival and well-being (for example, if a member of Islamic State asks you for your religion), the happiness of your loved ones, or any other moral asset is at stake. Continue reading “Why killing is not ‘per se’ evil? (much as Kant turns in his grave)”

Gnomes do exist (Osiris and Batman too)

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(Read it in Spanish)

The key of our success as species is not as much our material culture as our ability to imagine things. Historian Yuval Harari argues that thanks to fictitious entities such as gods or nations we have been able to cooperate on a large scale, produce a formidable material culture and become the kings of the earth.

But if we can imagine such things is because they are in some way out there (out of space-time) or inside (within our mind). In any case, to imagine them amounts to instantiate them and get them to yield effects. This leads us to accept that, in addition to God (in fact, of all gods and demons), there are also fairies, gnomes, and pajaritos preñados, though obviously not in the realm of our physical world. Is there anyone who denies the existence of financial economy or madridism sticking to its apparent immateriality?…

This is Patrick Harpur’s approach in his book Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld. Half a century ago, on the same line, Carl Jung already pointed out in Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies that the stories of flying saucers were not false but true though not literally: UFOS would be projections of the collective unconscious which lies in the depths of the human psyche, as well as dreams. And how many dreams or hallucinations (for example, those of Joan of Arc) will not have driven to act and decisively mark the evolution of the world!

Once taken such an expanded vision of reality (because, I repeat, unicorns, green antenna martians, Thor, and Marian apparitions would be real in its realm, in the same way as Miss Scarlet O’Hara, Professor Walter White, The Toxic Avenger, and Mario Bros), we should not rule out the possibility that our physical world, which seems so tangible to us, could be the result of some unimaginable (at least for our rudimentary minds) higher order imagination.

As Spanish physicist Pseudópodo writes in a magnificent entry in his blog, “nobody lives in the whole reality. The problem is when someone thinks that his subspace is the only reality and insists on denying dimensions to the world. (…) The lesson that teaches me science is that there are more things in heaven and earth than our philosophy can dream”.