Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Monday, December 21, 2009

Existence and Consciousness

To ask why there is something rather than nothing seems to assume on some level that it's less natural for the universe to exist than to not exist. It also assumes that some kind of existential inertia means that there will continue to be something rather than nothing.

This second assumption at least is not universal to humans, and is covered by Robert Nozick in the most effective treatment of this question yet. The Inuit believe that if hunting ceases, even for an instant, the universe will end. Several religious traditions hold that if at any given moment, at least one person somewhere is not copying their holy text, reality will sink back into chaos. These examples are interesting but are probably better explained as cultural technologies to keep people motivated in performing important activities, than as insightful cosmogonies.

Another question is whether it is clearly meaningful to ask counterfactuals about the fact of existence itself - whether existence had to exist - versus finite entities within existence. It is clearer that the pine tree outside my window, or you, might not have existed. In this way existence as a whole, the capacity for things to exist, is qualitatively different than a pine tree.

Changing gears to the ever-popular deep mystery, is it meaningful to talk about a universe that has no consciousness? Is self-awareness, a part of the universe experientially looping back on itself, necessary for existence? There is an intuition (which I share) that questions about necessity of existence and of subjective experience are getting at the same things.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

James Cameron and the Problem of Reference

Artificial languages are interesting, though I always find myself longing for some index of strangeness relative to the creator's language (pick a Native American language at random; is the conlang ever going to be more different than the creator's native language than the natural language is? I doubt it.) That said, James Cameron did it right for the Na'vi language in Avatar, reportedly claiming to have out-Klingon'ed Klingon. The linguist Cameron chose to create Na'vi summarizes its structure and during the preamble of the article, his interviewer states this gem:

"...since there is already tremendous interest in the [Na'vi] language, and some less-than-accurate information about it is currently floating around online, I asked Paul [the creator] if he could write up a formal description of Na’vi as a Language Log guest post."

The problem of reference is really a set of problems in different situations. The answer to this one is I think implicit and relatively obvious. Maybe we don't know if the current king of France is bald, but we do know whether Romeo is gay or Na'vi is agglutinating.