Philo and Sophia

Philo and Sophia

Infinity And The Myth Of Space And Time part 2

Space and The Universal Mind

by Ian R Thorpe

There is a revolution afoot in the way we think of the universe and humanity's relationship with it. The materialist science of Isaaac Newton, the father of modern physics was proving inadequate to deal with the infinitely small and the infinitely large and Albert Einstein's thought experiments floundered on the rock of infinity which defies mathematical enumeration. It looks as if the world's most ancient surviving religion is coming to our rescue.
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Infinity And The Myth Of Space And Time - part 2

Space and The Universal Mind

by Ian R Thorpe

Space And The Universal Mind

Spatial cognition is the study of how the mind’s cognitive architecture perceives, organizes and interacts with physical space. how we perceive space long been of interest to philosophers and scientists, with perhaps the biggest step towards the modern concept of it being the line in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787), Objects exist in reality but only a human mind can surround them with time and space." Kant argued that space as we recognise it is a preconscious feature of the human mind, a mapping tool which enables us to understand the physical world of objects and their spatial relationships with their surroundings, distance and motion. In Kant's view space was a lens through which we view the world, rather than a physical entity as those who, in the previous chapter, told us space was compressed with time and matter into the cosmic rat turd would insist.

While students of Kant have debated this idea of spacial perception, it served to lay the groundwork for more recent empirical investigations into how the mind constructs the space that we experience. An important insight into how this happens was provided in 1948 by psychologist Edward Tolman in 1948.

Tolman’s main interest was studying the behavior of rats in mazes – specifically, he was interested in whether a rat came to understand the layout of an environment through purely behavioral mechanisms, laying scent trails for example, or if there was a cognitive process involved in their ability to learn and memorize routes.

Tolman's experiments showed his rats were able to efficiently navigate to locations in a maze that had never previously been explored, suggesting that rats spontaneously formed a mental representation of the maze which allowed them to mentally identify locations and plan routes to reach a specific destination. This mental representation was termed a ‘cognitive map’, which Tolman suggested was the primary means through which mammals – rats and humans alike – learned about and navigated through spatial environments.

It was quite a revolutionary hypothesis in it's day. In earlier decades the push towards scientific socialism (eugenics, manipulation by propaganda, intellectual elitism and a strong desire to push aside religious and cultural mores and replace them with a global, collectivist set of values in which everything devolved from an authoritarian hierarchy) had strongly resisted any idea that there might be something beyond human intelligence, some sort of universal intellect (Jung's Collective Unconsciousness?)veered to close to religious thought to be tolerated by the advocates of Scientific Dictatorship. The elite of that era were strongly Freudian, obsessed with sex apparently. The also believed everything was secular and material and thus were contemptuos of the idea of any suggestion that there might be more to the world than Newtonian Physics and theoretical mathematics.

As usual Shakespeare had been centuries ahead of the game. "There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamed of in your philosophies," he had Hamlet say.

Tolman was content to stand on his reputation and did little to elaborate on what kind of process might be involved in forming and using these cognitive maps. In particular, he was unclear as to how cognitive maps differed from other potential strategies of navigation and spatial learning, and whether a neurological basis could be identified that might explain it.

It was not until the 1970s when a team led by John O’Keefe conducted a series of studies that led to theory of spatial congnition, published in a book The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map (Oxford University Press,1978. Downlad full text as a .pdf). In their work O’Keefe and Lynn Nadel identified a specific group of neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the barin commonly supposed to be involved in managing various memory processes, were responsible for encoding the location of a mammal within space. This group of neurons were dubbed place cells, and by using direct recordings in the rat hippocampus were shown to have increased firing frequency as a rat entered a particular location within an environment.

Locations in which these place cells fire appeared to be fixed over repeated exposure to an environment, anchoring themselves to environmental landmarks (rather like the way we can now create a hot spot in an mpeg frame and anchor a superimposed image to it). O’Keefe and Nadel came to the conclusion that place cells form are special memory cells associated with the location of a cognitive map defined by the interrelations of the different elements that compose an environment.

Place cells were hailed as the explanatitial relationships, being deemed capable of representing locations within an environment. Nothing is ever as simple as scientists would like it to be however. Subsequent tests showed that the flexibility of place cells firing locations in response to certain stimuli such as rearranging the location of environmental landmarks (moving thegoalposts?)cast doubt on whether they alone are capable of providing the congitive framework through which we construct our experience of space.

Continuing experiments by the husband and wife team of Edvard and May-Britt Moser and their students, produced in 2005 inconclusive evidence of another group of of cells that may shine more light on how, as Kant put it, the human mind surrounds objects with time and space. Termed grid cells, these neurons exhibit firing patterns that closely resemble a hexagonal grid. Unlike O'Keefe's place cells, the grid cells showed enough regularity in their firing patterns to suggest they are not simulated by environmental features or any type of sensory information.

Grid cells appear to build a model of a spatial structure that is generated internally within the brain and use it to navigate the external environment, much in the same manner that Kant had anticipated. The Moser team's preliminary reports state; "Interestingly, grid cells have been identified primarily within an area of the brain called the entorhinal cortex, one of the primary neural inputs to the hippocampus, suggesting that grid cells provide a source of the spatial framework upon which cognitive maps of environments are formed."

If you are one of those scinency types who is inclined to start whinging in Dawkins more about magical thinking and you are already getting twitchy at hints that something beyond the physical brain might be involved in our ability to navigate space, I warn you it's about to get a lot worse. Either have a stiff drink to give you courage now, or go and play with some equations or something. This is a real scientific for those who are curious, not a safe tourist trip for people who just want ther certainties reinforced.

humans are (in our own estimation) the most intelligent and spohisticated of life forms. But unfortunately, based on what we know now, we lag way behind some lower life forms, some species of insects for example, in our ability to deal with spatial congnition. While we can navigate what is known and remembered and even form a mental picture of an environment from pictures, our navigation system is nowhere near as sophisticated as that of some species of bird or of insects such as ants and bees. bees are particularly fasinating, as is shown in this extract from the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, USA (my emphasis):

... Two essential criteria of a map-like spatial memory are met by these results: bees can set course at any arbitrary location in their familiar area, and they can choose between at least two goals. This finding suggests a rich, map-like organization of spatial memory in navigating honey bees.

Navigation of insects is believed to be composed of rather simple, isolated sensory-motor routines that are learned and opportunistically applied to solve quite complicated navigational tasks (refs. 1–4, but see also ref. 5). For example, bees and ants learn the directions and distances of their travels between nest and food sources by path integration (6), use the sun compass to apply these memories, and use landmarks to calibrate measured distances (7, 8). Also, bees can retrieve flight directions from landmarks when the sun compass is not available (9, 10). Importantly, bees are believed to relate all these navigational decisions to the origin of their flight path, the hive (4, 6, 11), and thus may apply a navigational motor routine that brings them back to the hive whenever a landmark is recognized to which they had associated the heading and distance measures of the home directing vector.

So we are outdone by Bees in spatial navigation skills. The reference in the above text to "sun compass" (last paragraphs on linked page) is well worth more attention but that must wait for another article because I have dwelt in space long enough, our next expoloration with familiarise you with your own personal TARDIS [Doctor Who is not unique, we are all equipped to be Time Lords ;-)]. Again we encounter the idea that there is more to the human mind than a buch of cells in the physical brain.

The state of the art in understanding how our minds handle space then is that scientists working in that field are not much closer to understanding how we create images of the world around us than Immanuel Kant was in the late eighteenth century. But just because science cannot explain something, that does not mean it can be dismissed as magical thinking.

Catch up with time and the mind in the next instalment.

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The concept of time is simply an illusion made up of human memories, everything that has ever been and ever will be is happening RIGHT NOW. That is the theory according to a group of esteemed physicists who aim to solve one of the universe’s mysteries.

Most people do not even consider the concept of time but there is nothing in the laws of physics to state that it should move in the forward direction that we know. The laws of physics are symmetric ultimately meaning that time could have easily moved in a backward direction as it does forward. Indeed some adherents to the ‘big crunch’ theory say time WILL run backwards when the universe stops expanding and starts contracting back in on itself. This conundrum as to why we interpret time in a forward motion has led scientists to question why.

Inevitably, some have concluded that time is simply human construct. They argue that there is a ‘block-universe’ where time and space are connected, otherwise known as spacetime.

The theory, which is backed up Einstein’s theory of relativity, states that space and time are part of a four dimensional structure where everything thing that has happened has its own co-ordinates in spacetime. This would allow everything to be ‘real’ in the sense that the past, and even the future, are still there in spacetime – making everything equally important as the present.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Max Tegmark, told space.com: "We can portray our reality as either a three-dimensional place where stuff happens over time, or as a four-dimensional place where nothing happens [‘block universe’] — and if it really is the second picture, then change really is an illusion, because there's nothing that's changing; it's all just there — past, present, future. We have the illusion, at any given moment, that the past already happened and the future doesn't yet exist, and that things are changing. But all I'm ever aware of is my brain state right now. The only reason I feel like I have a past is that my brain contains memories.”

Julian Barbour, a British physicist who has authored several books on the subject of time, describes everything as a series of “nows”. Dr Barbour told physicist and author Adam Frank in the book ‘About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang’: "As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows, and the question is, what are they?”

He explains, adding to the spacetime theory where everything has its own place: “You can think of it as a landscape or country. Each point in this country is a Now and I call the country Platonia, because it is timeless and created by perfect mathematical rules.”

He adds that what we perceive as the past is simply an illusion formed in our brain.

Dr Barbour: "The only evidence you have of last week is your memory. But memory comes from a stable structure of neurons in your brain now.

He adds that what we perceive as the past is simply an illusion formed in our brain. Dr Barbour: "The only evidence you have of last week is your memory. But memory comes from a stable structure of neurons in your brain now. “The only evidence we have of the Earth's past is rocks and fossils. But these are just stable structures in the form of an arrangement of minerals we examine in the present. “The point is, all we have are these records and you only have them in this Now."
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