Hello World

An excursion.

One of the delights of comments is that people occasionally toss in something that sends me off exploring topics that I never normally consider. And it was a comment by Some French Bloke a couple of nights back, which sent me first in the direction of Guy Debord, and then via related French intellectuals to the website of the late Richard Webster, and in particular his essay on Lévi-Strauss’s theology. The result is that I have been thinking about soul and intellect and mind and consciousness for the past day or two – which is very unusual for me.

The underlying thrust of Richard Webster’s essay was that Freud and Lévi-Strauss had both constructed psychological theories that were founded upon a lost (or  at least obscured) Christian understanding of human life being made up of a duality of animal body and divine soul. I found this idea particularly attractive in a time when Christianity is being denormalised, along with smoking. And it also reminded me of those many religious education lessons that I received from my Benedictine teachers, and which I found completely incomprehensible. I could, for example, never really make head or tail of the idea of ‘soul’.

But reading Webster’s essay yesterday, I began to wonder whether ‘soul’ and ‘intellect’ and ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’ were all really words describing the same thing, which was the conscious experience of thinking and feeling and imagining that is unique to each person.

And I also wondered what I was using as my own model to describe this duality of body and soul. And realised that as a computer programmer for much of my life, I have come to think of my brain as a computer, and my ideas and beliefs and and memories as being the software that runs inside this computer (something that touches a little on SFB’s original comment). Brain (and body) were the hardware: mind or intellect or soul were software. The one was visible and tangible, and the other invisible and intangible.

There are however some problems with this computer model. The first of which is: how did the software get written? And the second of which is: how does this computer manage to attain consciousness?

In addressing the first problem (or at least slowly ambling around it), I remembered the many occasions when I’d had to write some initial “Hello world” software for microcontrollers. These little programmes consisted of a few bytes of code which would, at initialisation, display or print “Hello world” on some device, and do nothing else at all. Very often these microcontrollers were to be used to read keystrokes off keyboards, turn on LEDs, display characters on LCD screens, and send and receive messages to external devices. And so from my little “Hello world” I would gradually build up a much larger programme that would do all these things using input and output ports on the microcontroller. One might say that the code would evolve over time until it reached maturity, and was shipped off to the customer.

And I wonder if the software in a human mind might also grow and evolve over time, gradually adding extra capabilities after its own initial “Hello world” stage. We’ve all had the experience of learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car, and they both entail responding to inputs (sight, sound, touch) with outputs (pressing on pedals, turning steering wheels). When I first learned to programme computers, and my very first little “Hello world” programme ran in the university’s vast computer, it was a moment of truth or even revelation.

But I also remembered many earlier learning processes, such as when I was taught first to read, and then to write, and also to add and subtract and multiply and divide. And before that, although I do not remember them, there was also the process of learning to walk and to speak, all by an evolutionary process of trial and error.

Indeed, thinking about all these various evolutionary developments, I began to wonder whether, before learning to walk and talk, I first had to learn to see and to hear. And perhaps before that, I had to learn how to think. And also to remember. I seem to have no memories before the age of about 2 or 3.

It seemed, for example, plausible to suppose that when a baby first opens its eyes, it sees absolutely nothing at all, and that the process of creating a picture of the world out of a chaos of thousands of different coloured blobs might have been akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle, by a process of moving the pieces around by trial and error until, all of a sudden, a complete and coherent picture jumps into place.

The same applies to walking or picking things up. You try 100 times, or maybe 1000 times, and then finally you manage to pick something up with your hands, and walk upright across a room. And after that initial triumph has been achieved, the process is refined and developed until you have the close motor control to be able to draw pictures with crayons, or write words or numbers, or balance on one leg, or climb trees.

From this perspective, the development of consciousness is something that starts with a little “Hello world” capability, to which are added layers and layers of further capabilities, and consciousness grows like a plant from an initial seed.

And then, in old age, these various capabilities are gradually stripped away, one by one. I can, for example, no longer stand on one leg. And the last time I climbed a tree, it was a terrifying experience, during which I wondered if I’d ever manage to get back down.

In addition, the software can often get stuck in loops, going round and round in circles. It’s been my experience of grief or depression to think the same thoughts over and over again, until I somehow break out of the repeat loop.

Consciousness, or mind or soul or spirit, is something that seems to emerge ex nihilo, and to eventually return ad nihilum. When the computer is switched off, the invisible programme evaporates. In that respect, the model departs from its Christian forerunner.

To these thoughts I added the extra idea that the internet is something that hooks together all these individual consciousnesses into a sort of emerging superconsciousness, which is itself also evolving and learning. This blog is itself a primitive example of an emerging superconsciousness, in which ideas – like SFB’s – are tossed around, and either accepted or rejected.

And we are still trying, as a species, to find a global political consensus, much like a little baby is trying to learn how to walk. In this respect we may have something to learn from our own bodies’ political organisation, which seems to entail a minimum of coercion, and also a strict egalitarianism (my little toe is as important as my heart), in a body that is made up of countless millions of growing, dividing, and dying cells.

In fact, given all those cells, I sometimes wonder how I ever manage to be uniquely ‘me’, and don’t wake up a different person every day. In fact, I think I actually consist of a whole range of rival opinions that get expressed in a sort of parliament of my own mind, with debates raging for days or weeks or months, arguments mounted and resisted, evidence presented and scrutinised and re-interpreted or discarded.

The odd thing about all this is that, about 10 years ago, Richard Webster emailed me to express appreciation for Idle Theory (which is of course yet another evolving project). There was something that he found useful about it, although I was never sure what. One constructs these elaborate ideas, and launches them like paper sailing boats onto the river of public discourse, where they capsize at the first weir, or get captured by branches along the banks, or sunk by raindrops.

Enough.

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About Frank Davis

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19 Responses to Hello World

  1. harleyrider1978 says:

    The problem with computer models is they spit out whats put in them………..

  2. Barry Homan says:

    I seldom comment anymore. Something I read here lately really made me think, about how the whole world resembles Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – by golly, it’s true. Don’t know if it’s (cough) linked somehow to Frank’s idle theory, or what. People sure do seem to have been invaded by something, that’s for sure. Don’t enjoy simple pleasures, keep banning this and that, make hard drugs legal, get rid of smoking, kill all industry, don’t kill lions JEEEZ – WHERE did all this originate? What has happened to people’s minds? It’s like a virus that has infected everyone’s soul, but…what is it?

    • Some French bloke says:

      Barry, how strange that Junican posted some words to the same effect just half an hour ago:
      “I suspect that tobacco control is a sort of bacterial infection – it does not know what it wants. It just wants to continue to exist.”
      https://boltonsmokersclub.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/what-does-tobacco-control-want/

      Also from Junican’s latest post: “the collection of atoms in your body and brain are just like those in trees and cabbages. Your body and brain are THINGS. They are not YOU.”, closely echoing Frank’s “Brain (and body) were the hardware: mind or intellect or soul were software. The one was visible and tangible, and the other invisible and intangible.”

      Two more signs of “a sort of emerging superconsciousness”?

  3. Andi says:

    You may be interested in Nicola Danaylov’s youtube channel Frank, lots of interesting interviews with some very clever people about the future of A.I. and the technological singularity, including opinions and discussions about the sort of things you’ve mentioned in this post. Fascinating stuff.

  4. margo says:

    Thanks you, Frank: you have inspired me to re-read a wonderful little book I found years ago by Bruno Bettelheim – “Freud and Man’s Soul” – which is a discussion of the mis-translation of Freud into English (and therefore the wide misunderstanding of his writings; for instance, he uses the words die Seele (the soul) and the Greek word Psyche (soul), both of which have been routinely translated as ‘the mind’ or ‘mental life’). Here is a little quotation from Bettelheim’s book:
    “Freud’s atheism is well known – he went out of his way to assert it. There is nothing supernatural about his idea of the soul, and it has nothing to do with immortality … the soul is the seat both of the mind and of the passions, and we remain largely unconscious of the soul.”

  5. Rose says:

    No I can’t answer that, Frank, there is just too much to think about in it, I did try but then erased the lot.

    From this perspective, the development of consciousness is something that starts with a little “Hello world” capability, to which are added layers and layers of further capabilities, and consciousness grows like a plant from an initial seed

    Yes.

    To these thoughts I added the extra idea that the internet is something that hooks together all these individual consciousnesses into a sort of emerging superconsciousness

    I quite agree, through the medium of waves and wires, electrical impulses and who knows what, a thought from across the world reaches my brain and gets channeled back through the medium of text, but that thought does stay unless I choose to reject it, much the same as when I’m thinking to myself so it comes easily. A chaos I am happy to swim in.

    In fact, I think I actually consist of a whole range of rival opinions that get expressed in a sort of parliament of my own mind, with debates raging for days or weeks or months, arguments mounted and resisted, evidence presented and scrutinised and re-interpreted or discarded

    Yes, I too have a lively internal dialogue to the extent that long ago I learned how to turn it off and act automatically from time to time.

    “Brain (and body) were the hardware: mind or intellect or soul were software. The one was visible and tangible, and the other invisible and intangible.”

    I think of it as a mass of electrical impulses, some running the system in the background , intermediates that move muscles and things without troubling the conscious mind unless there is a problem. Strong bright thoughts that flash outwards in communication. Always moving.

    Mind you I was delighted when I discovered that we have our own flora and fauna that cover the body, are meant to be there and are as unaware of us as we are of them.

    It makes me think of that image of the Earth spinning in space.

  6. Rose says:

    Mystery of the teen solider saved by a cigarette tin solved after a century

    “The incredible story of a Penygroes soldier’s narrow escape from death has been revealed – thanks to a chance hearing of a radio show.

    For the past few years, members of the village History Society have been attempting to discover the identity of a young soldier, known to have come from Penygroes, in a photograph in its archive.

    The boy in uniform is seen holding a dented cigarette case, but discovering his name or anything else about him had proved all but impossible.”

    “The story of John Thomas, senior, turned out to be an incredible tale straight out of a Boy’s Own adventure book.

    John Thomas was an apprentice tailor whose friend and next door neighbour signed up soon after the outbreak of the war in 1914.

    John however was much too young to join, but his pal allowed him to try on his uniform and hold his gun. The experience would change his life.

    In January 1915, John kissed his mother goodbye and set off for work as usual, but rather than arriving at the draper’s shop in Ammanford, he caught a train to Brecon where, lying about his age, he joined 4th Battalion, Welsh Regiment.

    The 15-year-old became Private Thomas, Service Number 813, and on July 19 set sail aboard the SS Mauritania.

    On August 9, he landed at Suvia Bay on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

    The Allies suffered horrendous casualties as Turkish snipers picked them off from the cliffs above and Pte Thomas was shot in the heart – or at least he would have been if not for the cigarette case in his pocket.”
    http://www.southwalesguardian.co.uk/news/13626813.Mystery_of_the_teen_solider_saved_by_a_cigarette_tin_solved_after_a_century/

    Fascinating story.

    • The Blocked Dwarf says:

      Fascinating story

      Not that he actually smoked mind you, because being Welsh, he just had a tin full of tobacco and papers about his person at all times and would while away the long evenings in the barracks or on the battle field opening the tin and making cigarettes which then magically disappeared.FACT! According to every episode of ‘Hinterland’ (I think it was called , I watch it dubbed into German) I have ever watched , no one in Wales ever smokes but the Welsh seem to derive an inordinate amount of pleasure from rolling cigarettes. Truly a strange people.

      Looking at his cigarette case I’d say he was lucky the bullet didn’t stop his heart just from the force of impact alone. Christ but he doesn’t look old enough to have had a wet dream let alone go off to war.

  7. garyk30 says:

    There is a lot of our existence that does not have to be learned and yet is essential to our existence.
    For example:
    heart beat
    breathing
    digestion
    fear of some dangers
    sweating or shivering

    There is no ‘hello world’ involved in these matters.

    Perhaps a lot of what we call ‘learning’ is just improving on what we do automatically or by instinct.

    • Joe L. says:

      However, it may be that the involuntary actions and instincts you mention are our version of a ‘hello world’ program.

  8. waltc says:

    I think the brain is something like the fetus itself. Born with potentials. Barring genetic or other anomalies, it will learn and become …whatever it becomes; hopefully the generator of a relatively well-functioning human being. But experiences bend it; it’s also affected by the body and the body’s biochemistry. Hormones, proteins, things like levels of dopamine, adrenalin; odd physiological balances and imbalances. These things can drive thoughts and create emotions–or hallucinations. We’re not as in control of our minds as we think. It may be that Freud’s Id is merely a chemical stew. Who knows? Will we ever? Then we’ve got evolutionary history internalized. Lizard brain. Ape brain.

    Somehow or other I believe in a soul, though whether it’s an essense apart from the mind–and how much the mind stands apart from the brain–remains mysterious to me. I vaguely believe that the soul is its own thing, and , even as an agnostic, I still think that it’s almost a kind of divine spark. Or possibly it’s just another stage of evolution, the perfection of empathy, the longing for Good. Sociopaths, at least colloquially, lack it. I’m just rambling. I’ll stop.

    • nisakiman says:

      I speak as an atheist, but as one who accepts the concept of the ‘soul’.

      I see the ‘soul’ as being the manifestation of ‘the whole being greater than the sum of the parts’, which I suppose is more or less what Frank is saying. Somehow, when all those myriad aspects of what makes man come together with the catalyst of experience, the ‘soul’ is created, and it is indeed greater than the sum of the parts – it has transcended the physical world and moved into the ethereal, where ideas and theories are free to roam.

    • beobrigitte says:

      Somehow or other I believe in a soul, though whether it’s an essense apart from the mind–and how much the mind stands apart from the brain–remains mysterious to me.

      I do know I have a soul and a human mind. However, I cannot figure out which one is more dominant. I see both as being intertwined.
      Where at the end we will all go (or not!) we will all find out eventually.
      What if we all end up merging to become part of this omnipotent god?
      I’m pretty sure my soul will have a few uncomfortable questions to the e.g. Bloomberg souls who are hell-bent to make millions of peoples’ lives a misery because they believe that they are acting ‘for-the-greater-good’. In actual fact, as his soul will rush past mine (Bloomberg believes that he won’t have to join the queue), I (my soul) will trip him up and tell him where the end of the queue is. To incite hatred and social exclusion to fellow souls does not aid the process of unification at the end.
      I also believe that these kind of people do not listen to the whispers of their soul. Perhaps they no longer know how to?

      The mind boggles….

  9. Some French bloke says:

    Between materialism, which wants as little to do with Souls, Spirit, or mystery as possible – to the point where consciousness is seen as a mere epiphenomenon, and Bishop Berkeley’s unyielding idealism (“so-called material things exist only in being perceived”), there are various brands of Dualism (e.g. the Paulician sect’s “belief that matter is evil and that the creator of the material universe is an evil demiurge to be distinguished from the heavenly God who created and rules souls” …). But I believe the real middle way, effecting a synthesis and avoiding the pitfalls, is called Immanentism. Bergson’s Vitalism could be viewed as a modern version, it’s also quite “readable” (his Nobel Prize was for Literature). One could perhaps also point to thinkers like Plotinus or von Leibniz…

  10. beobrigitte says:

    And so from my little “Hello world” I would gradually build up a much larger programme that would do all these things using input and output ports on the microcontroller.

    Which programme would be required for this learning process? I do know that there are programmes that incorporate a kind of learning process but these are all very crude.

    Indeed, thinking about all these various evolutionary developments, I began to wonder whether, before learning to walk and talk, I first had to learn to see and to hear. And perhaps before that, I had to learn how to think. And also to remember. I seem to have no memories before the age of about 2 or 3.

    My first memory is moving house when I was two years old. I understood nothing and spent ??? time laying on the kitchen floor, tracing the pattern of the stone tiled floor. It was like a honey comb wine-red ones joining beige ones. Without appropriate word available I was trying to find out WHY they all joined each other. It really annoyed me that they did. I also remember being picked up of that floor.
    My parents didn’t like this stone floor and put other stuff over it. When I was 15 we finally ‘unearthed’ that floor – it made me laugh!
    My next memory is being carried downstairs in the middle of the night. I cannot remember if it was because of a wild thunderstorm or a minor earthquake.
    My next memory is when I was just 3 years old. I do remember the blue sky and the white clouds and me and my siblings being on a blanked on the grass. Then there was a rush and we kids were carried inside the house. First into the living room, but as we were starting to climb the couches to look out the window, my mother banned us into the kitchen.
    Years later I learned that someone had committed suicide by throwing himself under a train (near our house) and that my mother had seen it.
    My memories were all confirmed at a later time. The second memory was actually both; a minor earthquake occurring during a wild thunderstorm.

    If my mind was anything like a computer, I could produce a much clearer picture of my first memories.

    In fact, given all those cells, I sometimes wonder how I ever manage to be uniquely ‘me’, and don’t wake up a different person every day. In fact, I think I actually consist of a whole range of rival opinions that get expressed in a sort of parliament of my own mind, with debates raging for days or weeks or months, arguments mounted and resisted, evidence presented and scrutinised and re-interpreted or discarded.

    We all are individuals – and we are currently being either re-sized or discarded in order to create a (?mind-/soulless) homogeneous mass according to an equilibrium-esque world. Just take a pill.

    OT – apropos ‘taking a pill’ – My recent excessive efforts to move mountains of soil and ‘man-walk’ big flagging stones has caused one of my knees to swell up. So I went to a minor injuries unit to find out what I have done to myself.
    The medic was mostly interested in how much I smoke and what he could prescribe me to ‘help’ me giving up smoking.
    I told the guy that I had no intention to give up my best habit, so he proceeded to take my blood pressure. 125/75. By then I got irritated and said that I was here because of my knee.
    He wasn’t interested in that. I am the age to prescribe stuff like statins – much cash for our medics.
    I guess I’ll have to come up with my own cure!!!

    • Frank Davis says:

      My first memory is of lying in my cot suffering from ear-ache, and my grandfather coming in to see me. I was very annoyed, and wished he would go away, because he wasn’t doing anything to make the ear-ache any better.

  11. harleyrider1978 says:

    Anyone know a good drug for depression/anxiety that doesn’t have all the side effects.

    Im having a rough time again.

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      VA therapist said I don’t need the anti depression drug I just need a few sessions with her and maybe a few maintenance sessions later on……………sounds good to me. You know just talking helps better than anything else save maybe a joint! lol

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