23 Things Science Can Tell Us about Life, The Universe and Everything
Ever since the evolution of the sensory neuron, organisms have been using these amazing peepholes into existence to direct the course of their lives. Now, humankind has elevated the role of these senses, and even created technological extensions of them, in order to find order and true knowledge of this Universe in which we exist. We are all scientists looking at the world through our own tiny peepholes, attempting to find our place within it.
We have sought to understand what we are made of, what drives our constant fight against entropy, and what defines us as thinking, living entities. Who knows what the future may hold or what constraints will be placed on our knowledge, whether through considered intellect and experience or through societal and cultural pressures? For the purpose of this article, I am ignoring any social, cultural, or religious implications or constraints that may face the endeavors of science. I simply ask: what questions remain about ourselves and our reality that science may theoretically be able to answer in the future?
Some of these can naturally be considered sub-questions of others, while some may have sub-questions already included within them. As with most scientific knowledge, it is all interconnected.
1. What exactly makes us different from our animal cousins?
With the completion of the human genome project, we now know that at the DNA level, we are 96–98% identical to our closest cousin, the chimpanzee. Scientists around the world are now scrambling to decipher what exactly in that DNA defines us as human and what separates us from the rest of our animal brethren. We have far yet to travel. It appears now that only about 1.5% of our genome encodes for proteins; the rest of it is often (and inappropriately) called “junk” DNA. We have deciphered the function of only a fraction of the protein-coding genes.
Furthermore, many of the differences between chimps and humans lie within this non-coding DNA. The coming years and decades will yield much knowledge as to exactly which genes have evolved in the hominin line, which regulatory regions within the non-coding sequences have changed, and which structures in the brain and other organs define our differences. We already have a sizeable list of genes that putatively separate us from apes. However, there is still much work to be done.
2. What is the nature of the mind? How do the emergent properties of consciousness arise from the underlying interactions of synapses and neural pathways in our brain?
This one is going to take a while. Eventually, however, we must assemble a complete working knowledge of all genes and all of their functions and interactions. We will combine our knowledge of molecular biology with our knowledge of cell biology. Over this synthesis, we will layer our understanding of neuroscience and cognitive psychology.
We must take into account the existence of memory, emotion, learning, sense perception, and every other integral process or function of the brain. The question is: will the underlying structures and functions of all microscopic and macroscopic aspects of the human brain allow us to predict and explain the emergence of consciousness? Only time and science may tell.
3. What is love, hate, and emotion?
Scientists have largely answered this question already, but as with most neuroscience, the details remain fuzzy. It is quite clear from decades of research that everything we feel, whether it be sensation or emotion, is mediated by the release of molecules, largely neuropeptides, between synapses in the brain.
Dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and a large cadre of other small molecules act as the signals between our brain cells. Our understanding is growing piecemeal, but as with the emergence of consciousness, soon we will hopefully be able to synthesize a complete model of emotion, including not only happiness, anger, sadness, joy, fear, and courage, but also spiritual experiences, amazement, and euphoria.
4. Who am I? What is the self?
This may be seen as more of a philosophical question than a question that science can answer, and there are obviously huge aspects of this question that are inherently untouchable by science. However, I think that if we can understand all aspects of neuroscience and cognition, and if it turns out that we can predict and explain the emergence of consciousness from the underlying levels of complexity, then a full understanding of what defines the “self” may be a natural outcome.
We will have a full synthesis of all aspects at all levels of the human brain, and it seems likely that we will then be able to define the “self” as a construct containing everything within the model. That is, you are the sum of all your parts, biochemistry, memories, senses, experiences, feelings, and the emergent properties themselves.
5. Can artificial intelligence have consciousness?
No doubt, this question may be answered sooner than we think. The field of artificial intelligence is ever expanding, and as the complexity of our computing systems and programming grow, so too may that complexity lead to emergent properties that we may define as consciousness.
A better question is perhaps: how long will it be before a computer or robot passes the Turing test ?(a conversation in which the human cannot tell whether he or she is talking to a human or a machine)
6. Can a single human consciousness be replicated or simulated by computer or another organic form?
This is almost the same question as number five, though it has a slightly different focus. This question could be reworded: if we can understand all aspects of consciousness and “self”, and if we have the computing power or organic synthesis power, could we theoretically “download” a human consciousness into another brain or into a computer. It’s the classic sci-fi dream.
Who knows whether this is even theoretically possible? It would certainly take an almost unfathomable level of complexity of circuitry. In all likelihood, any specific consciousness or self would be too defined by the molecular and perhaps even quantum properties of its own constituent parts.
I cannot really conceive of humanity becoming so adept at manipulating the physical world that we can completely mimic every neuronal connection and interaction in the brain. But then again, this very thought may be considered small-minded several generations from now. There are also the philosophical issues of whether the “self” would truly be transferred. Nonetheless, I think this is a mind boggling question that may just be answered by science. Who wouldn’t want to be made virtually immortal?
7. What is the nature of memory? How is it stored in the brain?
Here’s what we know: certain structures such as the hippocampus and amygdala are integrally involved in memory. In addition, much research is going on at this very moment in an attempt to define the method by which memories are encoded. Current results have shown that memories are likely encoded by the formation and connections of specific synapses (neural connections).
There are an estimated 60 trillion (that’s 60 million million) synaptic connections in the brain. Hopefully, we will soon understand exactly how information of our perceived reality is stored in these connections. Just as importantly, we hope to discover how this information is retrieved and processed, parsed, and associated with other memories and senses. Why are smells so often vividly linked with memory?