Friday, September 16, 2016

Microbial Turing Test

aka Do Eukaryotes Think?

I mean, what does it really mean to think? Don’t we associate thinking with active, purposeful, agency? I think; thinking isn’t something that happens to me. Or is it? Sometimes I wonder if anything we do has intent, if anything we do is of our own volition. When we move through a room, are we moving, or is the room moving us?

Do we wear earrings, or are the earrings wearing us (à la Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, he asks if the earrings are actually using us to spread the wearing of earrings by others; I wear them, you think I look cool, and then you go ahead and wear them too, and so on, and so on).

Further afield, if we do not think the way we think we think (pardon me), then can we say the reverse – that other things thought not to-think are in fact thinking? What does a very simple multicellular organism do? Does it run decision making algorithms? Here’s a piece from the end of Hidden Scents in the chapter called “Olfactory Space and n-Dimensionality” where we’re talking about what space is, what dimensionality is, and what it means for us to be in it and moving through it. The thing is, our olfactory sense is more tied up with our sense of space than any other. In some ways, it is the thing that moves us, it is the same part of our brain that activates motion, or motility, as it is called in simpler organisms. Little cellular buggers do something called chemotaxis, where they follow a chemical gradient in their environment. As those critters evolve, they become more and more liberated from their chemical environment; they can decide whether they want to follow the gradient or not. This transition from reaction to decision, from being a slave to one’s environment, to somewhat of a master, is the story of the development of our own mind. And our sense of smell is a vestige of this ancient part of us. (And to call back to the original question here, once this organism is ‘liberated’ from its environment by its ability to decide, then does the decision-making system now control it? Does the decision-making system have its own rules and limitations which influence the liberated organism in way the physical environment used to?)

Snippets from Hidden Scents
The eukaryote reacts to the chemical information it encounters in at least two ways – positive or negative. Humans are no different, swimming in a soup of information. Cognition aside (or does the eukaryote think?), we navigate even the complexities of our world in this most primary way. Every piece of information we receive is placed on this hedonic gradient and weighed in light of all the rest until the moment we initiate an action. The eukaryote does not move of its own accord but, instead, in response to the things outside it. It needs these things in order to move. Ultimately, it does not move itself; they move it. For the chemosensing organism, space is not a void to be traversed. Space is a distribution of the potentiality for movement. The distance between things is not important: There is no distance, only contact.

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