Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Life as a neural engineering problem: Nov 30, 2016

(This essay was composed at the conclusion of my six and a half years of stay in Berkeley, California, where I was pursuing my doctoral degree. In this essay I tried to write down the guiding principles that can be used to explain the events that happened in my personal life in Berkeley and make inferences about life in general.)

I am trying to describe the world we live in. In order to do that, I first make a very important distinction- distinction between the physical world and the mental world. Of course they are connected but we can still separate the two. What is the basis of the separation?

From an experiential point of view it does not matter to us directly why things happen a certain way in the physical world, but why things happen a certain way in the mental world matters to us. “Us” is very important here because we, humans, are coming up with all these ideas. From an impersonal/ scientific point of view, activity of individual neurons and its collective behavior separates the mental world from physical world.

Relevant questions in the physical world- What is the origin of the universe? What is matter? How does matter behave at different length scales? How do different materials interact with each other? Answers to these questions don’t affect our well being. So we can look for truth with respect to these questions without caring about our happiness.

But answers to questions that involve the mental world affect our happiness. For example, what is the origin of life? Does mind emerge from matter? Is there a higher power? Does that power control our lives? While answering these questions we are biased towards finding answers that make us happy. Human beings are the truth seekers and the truth which is sought after cannot be separated from the happiness of the seeker. All the arguments that I provide here follow from mere acceptance of this fact. We have to accept this fact based on our experience, which is empirical evidence.

If we accept this then truth, with respect to the mental world, largely consists of what we need to know to make us happy. Now because we have to sustain ourselves we don’t want to be happy over a short term- we want long, term happiness. Hence my guess is that the ultimate truth is something the knowledge of what gives us happiness over an infinite stretch of time. This state of eternal happiness is often described as nirvana or mokhsha in ancient Indian scriptures.

Thus I have reduced ultimate truth to what makes us eternally happy. Now let us look at what happiness is. The world “happiness” does not mean anything unless we can clearly associate a mental state, or neural activity inside our brain, with it. This brings us to a little bit of discussion of human anatomy. I will do this at a very functional level.

Fig1.png

The schematic above shows how a single individual interacts with the world around them and what they feel internally. Thus the mental world of others reduces to physical world for that individual because no way they can directly interact with the neural activity inside other person’s head, they can only get clues from the physical world about what goes on in other people’s mental world. The individual interacts with the physical world through their senses which are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and genitals. Their mind sends signals to the physical world through the senses and receives the signal from the senses. However, the final thing that the mind receives is simply not just the signal from the physical world coming from the senses. That signal is conditioned by hormones secreted by the body and also conditioned by memories, which are past associations in the brain about previous signals that have come to the mind, and then the mind receives it. This final signal can create two states in the mind, one is happiness and the other is sadness. They are both essentially neural responses to the signal. Now as individuals we want to keep getting the “happiness” signal and not get the “sadness” signal. This paper claims that this is the ultimate truth. Rest of the paper is about how to the neural response called “happiness” can be continuously generated in the mind for time stretched to infinity or in other words how we can be eternally happy.

The easiest way is to keep interacting with the world through our senses in a way that we keep getting the signal that makes us happy. But this method stops acting beyond a point for two reasons:
1. The physical world around us changes. The signal that we are receiving that makes us happy can abruptly end some day. Say, I like a particular kind of food from a restaurant. The restaurant may shut down. (sense involved- tongue). I like physical intimacy with a certain girl (All senses are involved and hormones condition the signals the senses receive). But the girl may choose to get out of my life. Thus in these cases the neural response of happiness decays making us sad, which we don’t want.
2. If a certain signal makes us happy and we are continuously receiving it, it is gradually getting conditioned by the associations formed in our brain (memories) in such a way that eventually the signal stops generating the neural response of happiness. We have all experienced that doing the same act over and over again spoils the fun associated with it at some point.

So what is the solution to this? We have to find ways to be happy with reduced dependence on the senses and finally have zero dependence on the senses. That is the ultimate bliss state. Even if we don’t get all the way, we can get to a state where we are happy over a long period of time if not infinite, and even that is getting closer to the ultimate truth by our definition.

So how to get there? There are broadly three paths laid out in the ancient Indian scriptures. All these paths reduce our dependence on the senses to be happy and hence are effective to take us to the bliss state.

1. Karma Yoga- Karma means work. We need to work to make a living. In addition, if we take our work seriously and are able to contribute to society, seeing other people enjoy the benefits of our own work makes us happy. This happiness depends on more than enjoyment of the senses. The cause of the happiness is contribution of our work to society, which realistically cannot go away as fast as some source of pleasure of the senses can.

2. Bhakti Yoga- Bhakti means devotion, a special kind of love. The word “love” is thrown around everywhere in the English language and thus activities which are physically very different and are done with very different purposes are all termed “love”. \textit{Bhakti} is the kind of love, which makes us less dependent on the senses and takes us to the bliss state.
Usually we love people with the expectation of rewards. The rewards are satisfaction of the senses, sometimes in a direct way like lust in the case of romantic love, or indirect way like financial support also in the case of romantic love or love between parents and children. If the reward keeps coming we love more and we feel more happy, but if the reward stops coming we end up being sad.
But if we can love without caring for the reward then we will be happy perpetually. The concept of divinity in the Bhakti tradition of India comes as an extension of this concept. We love the people around us for various reasons. Once we see the effectiveness of loving without caring for rewards then we can create an image inside our head. We love that image unconditionally. That image is divinity.

3. Gyana Yoga- Gyana means knowledge. Gaining knowledge can make us eternally happy because we learn what our senses are, how we interact with the world through them and how they control our happiness. So extending that knowledge we learn how to not let the senses control our happiness, which is the point of this paper. Hence this paper itself is a lesson in Gyana Yoga.
Meditation is an important part of Gyana Yoga. In meditation we observe our senses, our body processes, our thoughts and we often let our mind generate the neural response of happiness based on very simple elementary signals from the senses, like some hymn, some melody or even the sound “Om”. Thus we are learning to be happy with reduced dependence on the senses. We also learn that thoughts can give us a lot of pain. Thoughts are essentially signals received from the senses or lack of signals received from the senses, conditioned by our mental associations or memories (Schematic 1). In daily existence an individual thinks that they are their thoughts but through meditation one can get to a thoughtless state and see their existence beyond the thoughts, which is often termed the “self”. By doing meditation one can thus learn how to be happy by going beyond the senses and becoming the “self”. By repeating it on a daily basis, one can thus achieve eternal bliss or Mokhsa or Nirvana.

Thus in this essay I have argued that pursuit of eternal happiness largely constitutes truth, as far as the mental world is concerned. Then I have stated methods to achieve eternal happiness and argued why they would be effective. Essentially, this whole practice described here, which may be called spirituality, is engineering our neurons in the body such that the neural response of happiness is generated perpetually irrespective of external circumstances. Since our knowledge of the anatomy and functioning of the body, and particularly the brain, is very limited, we carry out this engineering empirically. Life experiences are the experimental data here. This neural engineering to achieve a perpetual state of happiness is the very essence of life. The method to attain that state will just evolve over time as we experience more and more in life.

(Endnote: Between the time of this composition and the time of uploading it here, my understanding of this subject has evolved a little bit. I feel that my observations here are too much centered around the happiness of an individual, often in exclusion of one’s family and friends. Over the last several months, my preference has slowly shifted towards collective happiness of the society we live in because I have started believing that an individual’s happiness largely depends on keeping everyone around happy, which is the subject of some of my other posts.) 

 

 

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