Thursday, November 26, 2009

comparative awareness

Today I was thinking about evolutionary psychology, which seems not too far removed from the philosophy and theory of mind. It all began late last night, when I read that pulmonate snails and vetigastropod snails are less closely related to each other than I am to a goldfish. Talk about a shift in perspective!

It is common knowledge that experiments with lab mice are useful to understanding basic physiological processes that humans and mice share in common, and thankfully there are quite a few of those (or the experiments would be far less useful).  It is an unavoidable conclusion that if I am so closely related to goldfish, I am surely much more closely related to mice. Yet obviously mice and humans are very different. But what constitutes that difference? I think it is the more developed neural circuitry and complex behavior that most distinguishes me from a goldfish or mouse, more so than any anatomically evolved traits. In other words, whether or not I can formulate the thoughts for making this blog entry is more significant than whether I have hands or I am covered in gold scales and live in a fishbowl. To the point: If complex behavior distinguishes me from a goldfish better than physical form, perhaps it is a more useful tool for distinguishing animals.

Is it possible to quantifiably compare the mental experiences of two different organisms? Is thought a scalable function, and does each conscious being fall somewhere on a "continuum of thinking"? Is there an "evolution of thought" describable with a "taxonomy of mind"? Does it make sense to talk about a classification of awareness or neural functioning within the context of evolutionary psychology? I don't have an answer to any of these potentially illuminating questions.  In the final assessment, this chain of speculation may be a dead end, as speaking of conscious thought may have little utility outside of a handful of organisms, and even among those it may only have marginal utility.  Evolutionary psychology is a field of study originally concerned with humans and our immediate ancestry, not much else.  Consider this entry by PZ Myers on the relative insignificance of intelligence from a biological perspective. 

A few days ago I was pondering "What does it mean to be a father? How does that position shape my understanding of myself and my relationship to everything else?" From an evolutionary psychology perspective, this is a developmental question. I became a father after first being a child, and this question would have made little sense to me 20 years ago, but today it is very relevant and influences my conscious understanding of the world. As I grow older this understanding will continue to be informed and shaped by new and changing conditions, forcing me to grow and adapt. Conscious thought is so maleable and fragile, any approach at placing it within a taxonomic system would have to be very different from classification techniques based on physiological and genetic markers.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

the hamster pump

I made a hamster powered aquarium pump. The hamster runs on a wheel, turning the axle and a second wheel also fixed to the axle but hanging outside the cage and partially immersed in an aquarium. The spinning wire mesh of the wheel creates a current in the aquarium thereby oxygenating the water and preventing stagnation. No glue was used during assembly, the only tool I used was a file (to make the holes in the exercise wheels slightly larger). If it rusts, I can paint it with latex or any "food safe" paint. Materials used: two 10 gallon aquariums, a "tank topper" cage, two 7 inch exercise wheels, a threaded rod, nuts, washers (two sizes), small diameter plastic pipe, and dental floss.

The 3 inch wide by 7 inch diameter wheel intersects the water over a length of about 3.5 inches, and is submerged to a depth of about .25 inches. With minimal effort I was able to spin the exercise wheel inside the aquarium "tank topper" and produce a significant current inside the pot of water. In addition, the wire mesh of the exercise wheel produced small bubbles in the water. If this wheel was similarly placed in a ten gallon aquarium at the same depth, I believe a running hamster could produce an above average rate of flow when compared to that of most aquarium pumps. Problems with inconsistent operation could be solvable by setting up several cages in tandem, but let's not get ridiculous! (As opposed to what I am describing here, which is of course entirely sane.)

To imagine this set up in its final state, you have to picture the tank topper on a ten gallon aquarium, complete with hamster and accessories. Sitting parallel to and beside the hamster enclosure is another ten gallon tank, elevated slightly to allow the wheel to intersect the surface of the water as described above. Approximately centered in the water, the spinning wheel would produce a current regardless of which direction it is turning. The aquarium could house several small and hardy fish, invertebrates, or other organisms.

In this diagram the front view shows the aquarium tank topper above the aquarium beside another 10 gallon aquarium.  Though not included in the illustration, a wire ladder allows a hamster to climb to the wire floor of the tank topper, a "second level" inside the enclosure.  The hamster wheel is at the height of this second level. 

See additional photos and drawings of previous designs: photo, photo, drawing, and drawing.  (Note that in the photos the wheel is oriented perpendicular to the longest dimension of the aquarium - current plans call for parallel orientation of the wheel to improve water flow.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Buddhism Without Beliefs

I finished reading "Buddhism Without Beliefs" a few days ago.  In the first chapter Stephen Batchelor explained how the four truths Gautama taught (understanding anguish, letting go of its origins, realizing its cessation, and cultivating the path) is the process of awakening "unfolding in your own mind at this moment".  Awakening is a process, not a thing to be attained. It is "an authentic way of being in the world", not a lofty goal.  Equally important is understanding that:
"This trajectory is no linear sequence of "stages" through which we "progress."  We do not leave behind an earlier stage in order to advance to the next rung of some hierarchy.  All four activities are part of a single continuum of action."
I think I understand how this may be.  To give an example, I can confront the anguish of one situation and deal with it, but that does not mean I have defeated all possible sources of anguish in my life once and for all.  It will reappear again and again in different forms, and every time I will employ each of these four phases Gautama taught.  And though it may be possible to engage in one of them without the others, it would be a very unbalanced and ineffective approach.  This irreducible quality of the four noble truths is good at combating obsession, so it is nice to see it here.  Not merely an article of faith, they are something to be acted upon (and tested first).