FALL, 2003

Religion, consciousness, and biology

Name:  michelle choi
Subject:  Life after death
Date:  2003-09-22 10:10:44
Message Id:  6565
If there is something after dying on Earth and as Lindsay pleaded it shouldn't be called "life," then what should it be called? I believe there is a heaven and a hell and one is *conscious* is both. I believe there is a realm that the human eye nor science can detect and I believe there is life there. I may be "alive" here but my "life" here is as miniscule as a speck of star dust in the galaxy compared to the eternal Life after death.
Name:  La Toiya La Vita
Subject:  Life After Death
Date:  2003-09-22 19:22:41
Message Id:  6574
In response to Ramatu's question "Do you believe in life after death" I'd personally answer Yes. And that's based on a spiritual perspective. Most people when they hear the expression "life after death" they think of a person who has died existing in some form in another place, most often being heaven. I'd also like to state that I think each persons answer to this question will vary based on what perspective they're looking at it from whether it's spiritual, biological, or religious. Also, before answering the question you'd have to be sure you knew what you meant by "life" For example; I could say my soul is what gives me that "essence" of life. If I die my soul still exists so hence am I still alive? Or should I characterize alive with my soul in conjunction with my physical earthly existance. In conclusion, we have to clarify what we consider what being "alive" means us individually before we answer a question such as the above mentioned. Just becasue I no longer exists in the same form I once did, and just because I can no longer be seen by people should I consider myself dead HEY! so if I truely believe that my soul is what gives me life and if my soul still exists just in a different world not seen by humans, .....then do I ever really die? Using the word "DEAD" we imply that its is OVER! But not for me! Now that question seems far to restrictive for my feelings and perception about "life" and "death" for me to answer without butchering it. (Toiya)
Name:  Su-Lyn
Subject:  Definitions, categories and order
Date:  2003-09-22 20:22:22
Message Id:  6575

In terms of arriving at definitions, I've picked up on a very interesting approach from the past few labs & classes that emphasizes participation in a process rather than the finished product that we look at. Brittany first brought this up last Tuesday in lab in our discussions of order in the natural world. She said (and I hope I've gotten this right) that an ordered entity is defined by the process by which it was assembled, and not the thing in and of itself.

I found this a fascinating idea. Although an organism goes through a series of mutations (random changes) in the history of its species, it arrives at its current state by a logic of natural selection. And as we discussed in class today, our attempts to categorize show that there are forms that are possible and yet do not exist. This is proof that organisms are not randomly and haphazardly thrown together. We could not tell this by looking at the organism at one moment in time because of the dynamic nature of the organism, and therefore the dynamic nature of the act of defining order.

These processes are not random, and if we are to align our definitions and categories accordingly, wouldn't we therefore reduce the degree of arbitrariness that our classification schemes are subject to? If something is created through a process, a product comes out at the other end of the line, but almost without doubt in a variant form... and isn't variation where our categories begin to break down? Would it be beneficial to develop instead a definition by participation in a set of characteristic processes? Perhaps represented in part by Prof. Grobstein's "set of correlated characteristics"... This approach might be helpful in resolving some of our artificially-constructed polarities. Imagine applying this to the 'definition' of gender!

Prof. Grobstein has since applied this approach to defining life, and I remember trying a similar approach on defining science, drawing from Nomi's very insightful point on the necessity (or not) of consciousness in the process of scientific inquiry. That will probably have to wait for another post, haven't worked all that out in my head yet.
Name:  Patty
Subject:  "clumping"
Date:  2003-09-22 20:55:45
Message Id:  6576
I really enjoyed the "clumping" that we discussed in class today. I have been think about what we can do in order to arrive at some explanation for our "clumped" diversity, and I can not arrive at any. It seems as if it would be just as logical if all creatures were increadibly varied. Maybe the clumped variations, in some creatures, has something to do with reproduction, or maybe even the need for community. Although, this does not apply to all living things, and all living things can be placed into appropriate catergories. I believe that clumped diversity is also closely correlated with evolution and Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. If there was varience of all creatures, those that were less adapt to survive in their particular surroundings would die off, and those that were able to live successfully would continue to reproduce with those closer to its kind. Diffrent living conditions, all over the plant, may help account for the way in which living things are compartmental according to their surroundings, (land or sea, climate, atmosphere, etc.)
Name:  Maria
Username:  mscottwi
Date:  2003-09-22 22:34:44
Message Id:  6577
It seems that as we continue our discussions about what makes something alive that we are coming closer and closer to the conclusion that being 'alive' isn't about an essence that you put in or take out, but rather the sum of smaller bits and pieces that are not by themselves alive, but when put together in a sufficiently complex manner result in something that is. I think people often don't like this conclusion because it seems to take away some of the mystery and awe that has surronded the concept of 'life' and life 'essence' and made it this almost sacred thing. Yet, if you think about all the interactions and complex activities that the ''smaller parts'' of us must undergo in order to result in making us 'alive', it's really just as impressive and just as fascinating as any idea of a 'life essence'. Or at least I think so.
Name:  J'London Hawkins
Subject:  something i was dying to say in class...
Date:  2003-09-23 01:37:23
Message Id:  6579
After hearing dicussion in class i have come to realize that maybe our academic endeavors, whether they be science, philosophy or religion are fostered by humanity to serve ourselves. I have come to regard science as something that caters to the logician in each of us, we turn to science for order, for sensibility, for coherent, well reasoned answers to our questions and concerns. While I beleive religion feeds us emotionally, helping us to cope with life, death and the chaos in between. Religion allows us to beleive in the things that science would never permit, like the "God" or "Gods" that we can not see or touch and the ability to beleive that we are MORE than a random assembly of cells. Religion permits us the liberty to believe in the souls and essences and other things so sacred and mysterious they can not be uttered, AND THAT IS SUFFICIENT! As budding academics we are searching for sanity, whether we peer through the microscopes or pour over scriptures.
Name:  Adina
Subject:  the story of clumpiness
Date:  2003-09-23 11:32:29
Message Id:  6582
A lot of what we talk about in class reminds me of the CSem that I took last year. (Maybe that has something to do whith the fact that the professor was none other than Professor Grobstein). The CSem was "Questions, Revision, Intuitions: The Telling and Retelling of Stories". We spent the semester discussing that there was a story behind EVERYTHING.

I think that there is a very valid story behind the clumpiness of life, and that has a lot to do with evolution and reproduction with variation. Because different organisms can evolve from a single organism (or as I learned to phrase it in highschool, they can have a "common ancestor"), the story behind the organism stays the same until these two organisms are "born". For example, I have the same story as my sister, up through the parts about my parents, but when it gets to the part where each of us are born, the stories diverge. It's kind of like those books for grade school kids where you chose what happens next, and that determines the next thing that happens, and so forth. If you chose one option very early on in the book, things will end up a lot different to if you chose another option. There's nowhere that the two stories once again combine. You're on a very different course.

So cats will never be like dogs because they have completely different stories. It's possible that they could evolve some of the same features, but their histories are so different that this would almost definitely be very minimal. The dividing lines will still be there.

Name:  Flicka
Subject:  Consciousness
Date:  2003-09-23 15:34:11
Message Id:  6597
I think a very interesting part of our discussion on Monday was one about consciousness. Are plants and animals conscious? Are we conscious? How do we know? I believe that human consciousness has to do with our understanding that we are conscious and being able to think about it. Plants know that they must have food, water, etc. to survive and so they naturally search for those things. But plants, unlike humans, don't have feelings. They don't have the ability to be sad when someone scolds them or happy when someone praises them, and this differentiates them from us. Plants also are not able to communicate with other plants, and that I believe, is an important attribute of conscious organisms. Animals, on the other hand, do communicate to other animals of their kind and I belive the do have the ability to sense the feelings of other animals. Although we can not always understand animals when they speak, that does not mean that they don't communicate. So, in conclusion, I believe that "consciousness" is the ability to communicate with other organisms and the ability to feel something outside of a natural instinct to survive. I don't know whether this is correct, but I'm interested in what other people have to say on the sunject.
Name:  Elizabeth
Date:  2003-09-24 01:56:30
Message Id:  6604
If there are no "truths" in science, no sets of definitive answers, then how will there ever be a final and complete definition of what is living? On Monday's class someone made the comment that there is no right or wrong in science. Everyday, variables are changing that will change previous summaries of observations, which may effect the conclusions that were previously established about what makes an organism living. -Elizabeth B.
Name:  Su-Lyn
Subject:  Life and consciousness... equivalents?
Date:  2003-09-24 18:21:18
Message Id:  6619

Flicka, your point on consciousness raises so many interesting questions! I'm personally having a lot of difficulty understanding the concept of consciousness. I honestly can't imagine what life would be like without it, and while I do believe that animals are conscious, I can't imagine plants in the same way. But that's almost definitely bound to the idea of animals being able to express their consciousness in visible ways in response to stimuli (e.g. movement).

However, I'm not sure communication should be a marker of consciousness. One of the most horrific examples is the anaesthetized patient who is fully 'awake' during the operation but cannot move any part of his/her body in order to communicate this. As a result, she is fully 'conscious' of everything that is happening to her and feels every emotion (most noticeably, pain, what I always thought of as the hallmark of a conscious being). I don't know how much of this is regarded as fact or fiction, but certainly in other instances, such as dreams, consciousness (which I tend to imagine as the presence of a thought process) exists independent of the means to express or communicate it. It may even turn out that plants have been expressing their consciousness all along, and we haven't yet developed the means to detect it.

At the same time, I've heard that we have all, at some point in our lives, operated for a period of time 'unconsciously'. Take, for instance, the ten minutes of a drive along a familiar route that passes by without you remembering it. Everybody knows very well the feeling of 'snapping out' of a daydream. Even though your mind may have wandered, your brain is still fully functioning and picks up on stimuli even though you are not aware of it doing so.

To offer better 'scientific evidence', I came across one case study on Nat Geo of a man who had been involved in an accident that, according to him, left him blind on one side. That is, he said that he could see nothing through his right eye. But an experiment showed that even with his 'seeing eye' covered, when he was asked to guess at the pattern that was shone on a wall, he was able to correctly describe the pattern (e.g. star, circle). This might be evidence that your brain is wired in such a way that the response to stimuli is a separate process from the awareness of this response.

Which leads back, of course, to the idea that it is possible for other organisms to be alive but unconscious (as we humans sometimes are), but does not forego the possibility that they may also be conscious, and finally, to the question again of what consciousness is.
Name:  su-lyn
Subject:  PS:
Date:  2003-09-24 19:45:44
Message Id:  6620
Another obvious example of unconscious life that just occurred to me: a comatose person. Alive, but probably not conscious. Again, the question of how consciousness arises if not as an equivalent occurrence to life...
Name:  Nomi
Username:  nkaim@brynmawr
Date:  2003-09-24 23:02:41
Message Id:  6623
I've always thought of consciousness as the realization or knowledge that one exists, is ALIVE. And maybe, also, an understanding of where one stands in space, an ability to perceive other things outside of oneself. (How would I define this? I don't know!) I'm also interested in whether or not consciousness must include a knowledge of one's own mortality. Many people attribute this (latter) characteristics to human beings only, claiming this is what sets us apart from other species and causes us discontent. But aren't animals conscious? I thought so. Do they know they are going to die? I thought not ... ??

I'll have to think more about this ... .

Name:  su-lyn
Date:  2003-09-25 00:51:30
Message Id:  6627

Hmm, interesting point on the death issue...

I've heard some behaviorists say that elephants might be aware of their mortality because of the way they mourn their dead. I'm not certain how we'd understand this or any other expression as a sign of the animal's understanding of mortality though. But the idea of an "elephant graveyard" (not sure again how much is truth or tall tale) is a poignant reflection of the way in which we humans have ritualized such rites of passage.

Hmm... What's the link between culture (rituals and more) and consciousness? Does one grow from the other? Common sense tells me that culture arises (or rather accumulates) from the conscious efforts of human beings. Any thoughts on this?

Name:  Manuela
Username:  mceballo@bmc
Subject:  On culture...
Date:  2003-09-26 01:03:05
Message Id:  6634
On Su-Lyn comments about culture and consciousness... and on the one being product of the other... I think that memory, individual as well as collective, plays a major role in the establishment, development and preservation of a culture. If cultural rites arise from the specific needs of a society (i.e. biological/environmental), or the need to explain or give meaning to what surrounds them, what may differentiate us from animals (who have needs and respond to them as well), is historical memory, which is intricately connected to consciousness: of past, self and relationship to others. We talked about biological memory in class, how living things carry a "record of the past" through genes. Well, humans also carry a record of cultural history that is particular to their families, social groups, and then that which is common to "humankind". Fairytales and myths have similar elements everywhere, which shows some sort of collective memory...
I also think that consciousness is heavily tied to language, as is history, and then the connection between language and culture... AAAAH, this is getting to complicated :). See you all soon!
Name:  su-lyn
Username:  spoon@hc
Subject:  Memory & Culture
Date:  2003-09-26 08:17:31
Message Id:  6635

Individual and collective memory -- that's a great thought! Do animals share a collective memory? Can there be one if they lack the means to communicate something that is in the past? I think this is where Flicka's point about communication really emerges (see earlier post), although we see that it may be more closely tied to culture rather than consciousness, which I see as existing at different levels. And obviously your point above about language too. Can "memory" exist if there isn't the means to express it e.g. past tense :)? Do animals really have a sense of the past?

I imagine that animals do have individual historical memories, even if not collective. They must learn from their experiences if they are to survive. In a way, memory is an adaptation, because animals can in the future respond in a different way to an event, which may allow them to survive & reproduce better. Natural selection, yada yada.

But this begs the question, do plants have memory? Would it be of any use to them? Again, I'm thinking about the way in which plants aren't mobile like animals are, and so limited in their ability to respond (within the lifespan of an individual organism rather than on the level of evolutionary time). I understand that an individual cannot choose to change its genetic make-up, so while natural selection will change the population over time, the individual plant can't really respond to changed situations, so remembering such situations and "learning" what to do is probably quite useless. What adaptive use is memory to a plant?

And on culture, I've heard that some animals do "have" them... don't know what their definition would be though. Just trying to imagine how our cave-dwelling ancestors might have begun. A smear of red paint on the wall to signify that Ug is hungry and wants to go hunting. The hunt is successful and the smear on the wall comes to signify more: hunger and providence. Eventually, the animals in the cave drawings make the transition to other media like wood in the form of totems, maintaining the meanings that have become attached to them. So if culture is a process and can be 'grown', what does it say for what animals might (eventually? by chance?) manage? And yes, culture has adaptive value too.
Name:  michelle choi
Subject:  it's ok to be wrong
Date:  2003-09-26 10:28:10
Message Id:  6636
After our lab I began to questioned what makes us so hesitant to admit that we are wrong. I also questioned what it is that makes us try so hard to get it right the first time (ie. correct hypothesis). Are these actions nature or nurture? The school Western systems don't reprimanded wrong answers and false hypotheses... Are we just born with the hidden obsession to be right? In addition, although we may learn that it's ok to be wrong in this class it's actually unapplicable to real-life on-the-job scenarios. In the corporate world, the pay you to be right - the first time. What I like about what we learn and discuss in this classroom is that no one is teling us what is right and wrong, what is truth and what isn't; regardless of what the rest of the Earth's inhabitants may say...
Name:  nancy
Subject:  welcome to Bio 103, the center of the universe
Date:  2003-09-26 13:21:22
Message Id:  6638
I think, today in our discussion of the universe, that we exemplified the true nature of scientific reason. We have learned, in this course, that we are never to take anything as truth, whether it be assumptions about human nature, plant categorizations, or... data about the universe. Of course we are not well-equipped to take as truth "data" about the nature of our galaxy. If we aren't to suppose anything about things we can see, feel, test, and are familiar with, I am not surprised at the number of questions sparked by the data/truth conversation.

On another note, this web paper is proving to be more difficult then it sounds in theory. "Pinning down a topic" is in fact the difficult part. One thing leads to another and to another and to another exempt from any answers or clear-cut straight forwardness!

Name:  Flicka
Subject:  Center of the Universe
Date:  2003-09-26 16:57:35
Message Id:  6640
I was really interested in our discussion today about the center of the universe. I was confused about how everything in space is always moving away from each other (at a speed relative to its initial velocity), until i heard that the explosion which brought about galaxies and planets was an explosion of space. However, if some galaxies are moving away from others, wouldn't they also be moving towards different galaxies? And, if every and any point in the universe is the center of it, then where is the point from which space exploded? Does it exist? It's possible, since i didn't even know space was able to explode in the first place.

Space is kind of a vague word, like time. What do we mean by space? I think of space as having no beginning and no end, but if an explosion of space occurred at one point in time, doesn't that mean that at one point there actually was a beginning and end to space? And the same thing can also be said about time too...When did time begin? We know approximately when time began for the Earth and for humans, but did it exist before that? How would we know? I must stop now, my head is spinning......

Name:  Elisabeth Py
Date:  2003-09-26 20:36:11
Message Id:  6644
Our talk today about the origin of the universe and the movement of the galaxies has left me feeling uncomfortable and almost sad. I think that movement and change are great, but I did not like the data saying that we are all moving away from each other. I think it is super that all points of the universe no matter how small can be at the center. But the space between all the galaxies and stars is so big, it makes me anxious. So much distance and emptiness.
Name:  Julia Wise
Subject:  Big bang
Date:  2003-09-27 21:57:08
Message Id:  6649
Our talk Friday about the Big Bang (or Humungous Space Kablooey, as Calvin & Hobbes used to put it) had my head spinning more than it has in a long time. If I picture it all like a bomb exploding, or maybe one of those scenes of asteroids blowing up in Star Wars, I can visualize the different pieces and how they could all be moving away from each other even though they exploded from the same point.

What has me utterly confused, though, is how every point in the universe can simultaneously be the starting point of the explosion. Our galaxy is moving in a straight line, right? Because it was thrown out by the explosion? So ignoring other bits getting farther from us, if we're moving away from wherever the explosion first took place, how can our galaxy possibly have been the explosion point? Say there's a piece of shrapnel thrown off by a bomb, and it's moving away from the point of explosion. Even if you can't see where that explosion point is, you know it's not on the moving piece of shrapnel, because the shrapnel is going away from the point. So if our galaxy is being flung away from the point, doesn't that mean the point is someplace else?

Name:  Brittany
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  a lot of things i think i know about the universe i learned from reading webcomics
Date:  2003-09-28 18:17:17
Message Id:  6651
The discussion on Friday about the nature of the universe was my favorite of our discussions this year. It clarified a lot of the things I thought I knew about the big bang theory. For example, I had always conceptualized the big bang as an explosion of *matter* alone---not space. Picturing *space itself* exploding outwards cleared up a lot of the questions I'd always had about the "every point is origin point" theory.

Thinking more about it, though, something odd occurred to me. The "pushing outward" motion that possessed the universe after the big bang is, like life itself, limited to a certain scale. Let me explain... For galaxies, solar systems, planets, and suns to have formed at all, particles of matter *must* have reversed direction and moved *toward* one another. Our solar system isn't winging apart in an outward direction; as we speak, the planets are orbiting around the sun---sometimes moving (relatively) towards it, sometimes moving away from it. This leads me to hypothesize that the force behind these motions, gravity itself, actually has a size limit. If the universe is accelerating, gravity obviously doesn't affect the various galaxies that are "pushing outward" from one another at increasingly faster velocities. However, gravity does affect smaller masses: so much so that it pulls galaxies together in the first place, and pulls together solar systems within those galaxies.

But then again, pictures from the Hubble seem to refute this theory. National Geographic had a special on galaxies once, and among the photos included was a spectacular layout of two galaxies *colliding*. Because all things in the universe are moving *away* from one another, they couldn't have simply "run into" one another by accident. So it was probably gravity.

It's a little infuriating. At what point does gravity stop being the driving force in the universe and another, stronger, and as-yet-unexplained force take over?

I read a webcomic once that pictured the universe as wrapping in on itself. The universe depicted was infinite, but only so in the sense that if you keep going in one direction you'll end up back where you started. What sort of force might cause that to happen? As the edge of the universe expands, does it "suck" all physical matter after it and somehow spit it out at the other end? The idea that space itself is expanding suggests that the universe isn't even infinite to begin with. A universe that never allowed its occupants to leave yet at the same time *was* limited enough to accommodate "expansion" *could* be explained by a wraparound universe... but then again, it was a webcomic.

My brain is hurting. I think I'm going to bed.

Name:  Shafiqah Berry
Subject:  Stuff of the Universe
Date:  2003-09-28 20:25:19
Message Id:  6652
Being fully conscious aides in the understanding of biology, i have learned. for instance upon closer inspection a lot of it does not make sense... . not to offend anyone, but just to contribute the overall forum, i have yet to hear a theory that didn't go back to one. The big bang theory and all that is derived from it goes back to a single force, because i don't believe this complex and difficult to assemble place came about randomly. whether from Anaxagoras and his theory of the spontanity of mind creating the world, or from some bang theory.
I would think science would make people awe whoever constructed such a well oiled world, galaxy, universe, space and all
but, that's why i'm an english major i guess....
Name:  Ramatu
Subject:  Human Intelligence
Date:  2003-09-28 22:35:10
Message Id:  6657
For a long time know, I have been pondering over the subject of Human Intelligence. I still am contemplating on whetherintelligence can be hereditary or nurtured by ones the environment. I think that human intelligence can be both biological and affected by the nature at the same time. However, I am not sure what to conclude on this topic. I am interested in knowing what other people think about this topic.
Name:  Anna banana
Subject:  Visions....
Date:  2003-09-28 23:46:11
Message Id:  6661
Along the same lines of "What life mean?" I would venture to ask "What is it that makes us human? How do we think? What is it about human consciousness that is so radically different from A.I? And why can't we create an artificial mind?"

The problem with A.I. machines is that they cannot simulate common sense. Although wonderfully capable of mathematical logic, there is little room, it seems, in Biology, for representing the world with a handful of equations.
The "Bottom Up" school is a biology based approach to A.I., where machines learn from scratch, the way biological organisms like babies do. The model is based on structures in Biology and physics: DNA, evolution, neurons + neural networks, etc. This approach suggests that the goal is to build a machine that can LEARN-- forget logic and pre-programming.
On the other hand, with Quantum Physics unlocking the keys to the brain, quantum physicist John Hopfield suggests it may just be possible for intelligence to rise from the quantum theory of mindless atoms, therefor an A.I system wouldn't have any sort of programs installed in it, but a complicated organization of spinning atoms....
What's interesting about A.I is the subject of consciousness, because we are not that far away from the day when robots will "feel" an array of emotions. Although there are a million different definitions of consciousness, I think it begs to ask the question, "Are you AWARE of what you are?" The lowest level is the ability of an organism to monitor its body and its environment (like a thermostat); Plants are aware of shifts in nature and react in sophisticated ways; machines with vision are similarly programmed to recognize patterns in their environment; animals (even when sleeping) are constantly scanning for patterns of danger, etc. in nature.
Survival and reproduction are a middle level of consiousness, and the ability to set goals is the highest level of consciousness. Robots that are "self-aware" would set their own goals. Could robots potentially take over the world?
The element of fear detected in this statement is because once machines acquire an intelligence superior to our own, will the 4 billion year old evolutionary process of children superseding parents, threaten us like Hal in "2001?"
In conclusion, there's a book called "Mind Children" by Hans Moravec which explores the possibility of human eternity through the transfer of counsciousness from human bodies to robots, piece by piece via duplication of neural clumps to electronic neurons. In the end, the indestructible robot body of steel houses all the memories and thought patterns of the human, living eternally... Scary huh? If anyone's interested in more of these "visions" read Michio Kaku's book of the same name.

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