Rational (and sometimes irrational) bacterial superconglomerates in clothes


(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?…


Superconsciousness, a pending emergence?


(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”

Blessed (and also damned) order

Angels and Devils (M. C. Escher)

(Read it here in Spanish)

Disorder is much more common than order. That’s why there are many more forms of noise than of music, that’s why texts lacking information -including random combinations of letters- are much more abundant than informational or consistent ones (applying Cantor method, the infinite number of the former would be higher than the infinite number of the latter). For the very same reason, messing up is easier than tidying up, destroying than building, damaging than curing, dirtying than cleaning, erring than hitting, making a botch than performing a good job, doing evil than doing good… Mediocrity is more likely than brilliance, ugliness than beauty, stupidity than intelligence, inert state than vital one.

Order, which is the result of physical laws (product of an eternal platonic reality?), is what allows life, individual consciousness, and intelligence to exist. There is neither will nor rationality without order, without a certain neural or brain organization either to caress or to torture (diabolical orders do exist, such as those of the extermination camp and the municipal slaughterhouse). Without order there is neither complexity nor evolution nor emergencies. Nor any possibility of interaction and communication. The world would be a huge unshaped hotchpotch in which you and I, dinosaurs and supercomputers, Villarrobledo and Vladivostok, large and small, up and down, in and out, before and after, would be all confused in an indescribable totum revolutum.

Maybe that maremagnum is the state of the world between each tick of Planck, between every collapse of the wave function that governs the evolution of the Universe or Multiverse. Only through a biased and consistent filtering of every possible thing, through a destruction ab toto as represented by the collapse of the wave function, it would be possible to take individualized consciousness -necessarily partial- from a cosmic order where everything happens simultaneously and at once. Only in that way, Brahman can be Atman and the sea can be wave. Only in that way, it would make sense to learn and even live.

How nature makes a brain?


(Read it here in Spanish)

It is practically impossible for a complex phenomenon such as life or intelligence to arise without evolution and the consequent natural selection. The only way to dispense with evolution (by definition, a slow and gradual process) to obtain brains, cities, symphonies, or moral codes would be resorting to randomness, as Ludwig Boltzmann (the formula of entropy, S = k x log w, is written on his tombstone in a Vienna cemetery) hypothesised more than a century ago. According to the Austrian physicist, the universe will witness the spontaneous creation of brains, as a result of random fluctuations (after all, brains are only combinations of a large number of particles), if there is an infinite amount of time ahead of it: they are called Boltzmann’s brains, devoid of body but with all the information and memories of any human brain at some moment of its existence, that would be floating in the immensity of cosmos after his sudden and extremely improbable appearance out of the chaos.

To achieve life and intelligence without evolution would be much more improbable than to get Don Quixote written by entrusting an immortal monkey with the task of uninterruptedly touching at random the keys of a computer. Or by making correspond each letter of Cervantes’ novel, from the first to the last in a perfect order, to what is arranged by a gigantic roll of a non-biased 27 sided dice (one for each character). Since the Big Bang there has not been enough time in the universe for such things to happen… but they end up happening if time is not limited!

For evolution-selection to happen, time is also needed, though much less thanks to the self-organizing power of order (i.e., negative entropy or negentropy). I don’t remember who once said that time is what makes consciousness not instantly perceive – like sort of an omniscient mind- all the events of the universe. We would be God if we were omniscient, but our life as individuals would be devoid of any meaning or purpose: concepts that are not alien to anyone in a carnal suit like goodness, evil, beauty, art, love, learning, pleasure, suffering, hope, or happiness (all of them, of course, lodged in the brain) would completely vanish.

Science and religion: water and oil


(Read it here in Spanish)

Some dudes in Vatican City (Pontifical Academy of Sciences) have been trying for decades to square the circle: reconciling science with Catholic religion (just as absurd as to try with any other). The argument of these experts, well financed by Vatican’s coffers (and indirectly by those in Spain who put the x on the box for the Church in their income tax return), is that there is no conflict between science and religion because the former cannot provide all the answers. Those who burnt Giordano Bruno at the stake, who forced Galileo to retract (“Eppur si muove!”) and also reduced Miguel Servet to ashes (this was not to blame on Catholics but on fanatical Calvin in his Protestant Taliban canton of Geneva), must not have been very convinced of this alleged compatibility. They were the very same people that in 19th century made fun of Charles Darwin, when Christianity in Europe began to lose its influence and to become something merely folklorical (the main unresolved matter in the Islamic world). Continue reading “Science and religion: water and oil”

A fundamentally comprehensible universe… but unattainable due to its complexity?


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British physicist Stephen Wolfram suggests that we might soon know how the universe works at its most basic level (even why it works that way and not any other). Physics will have discovered, that day not so far away, all the elementary particles and forces operating in the cosmos. Wolfram and many other colleagues speculate that the rules will certainly be very simple, so much so that the basic laws of the universe could be written on a t-shirt. It would be the culmination of the so-called Theory of Everything, which Einstein chased in vain at the end of his life and led so many people -from Democritus to Stephen Hawking passing through Leibniz, Newton, or Maxwell- to wrack their brains. Would we have read the mind of God, as suggested by Hawking at the end of A brief history of time? Would science give the baton to technology, having reached the end of its theoretical way?… Continue reading “A fundamentally comprehensible universe… but unattainable due to its complexity?”