Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

You aren’t real. Neither was Elvis.

There’s one idea of late that’s really had a profound effect on my thinking. Unfortunately it’s hard to put into words. (In fact, as you shall see, that is the idea.) Basically it’s the notion that our mental concepts of things are not really things the way real physical things are.

For example, I’m looking at a chair right now. The chair exists in the sense that it is made up of physical matter that exists (barring exotic theories like the universe is a hologram.) But the chair doesn’t really exist as a chair. The idea that this collection of matter exists primarily as a tool for humans (and cats) to sit on* is an unreal idea; it’s a concept of the human mind applied to this collection of matter. If all life on the planet ended, the matter we call this chair might continue but its meaning, its concept, would not.

* Chairs are also good for swinging about in a drunken rage.

But what if we apply this idea (that things and their semantic descriptions are different) to people? Let’s take Elvis. People talk about Elvis the performer and might say he did such and such on some particular date. But people also talk about a more ethereal Elvis—more of a concept of Elvis. The conceptual Elvis is an entity linking various disparate concepts like the South, Hollywood, Rock music, Sexual playfulness (the hips shaking and all that), icon worship and on and on. Some people have a more negative view and link Elvis to White appropriation of Black music and maybe some kind of sexism. But this conceptual Elvis is really quite different from Elvis the guy. Elvis the guy was essentially a collection of matter (e.g. the molecules that made up his body) and perhaps also a consciousness though we still have trouble really defining what that is.

But my real point here is that, like Elvis, we all have conceptual and real versions of ourselves. Other people interact with us and build their conceptualization of us off of those interactions, but also off what other people say about us (true or not) and the various stereotypes (true or not) they apply to us, whether we remind them of their dad, and a whole host of other factors. I’m reminded of the ending of the Michael Douglas film “Falling Down” where Douglas’s character, after shooting up parts of L.A. (in his mind, righteously) finds himself saying, “I’m the bad guy?” He realizes that his concept of himself and everyone else’s concept of himself don’t match up.

To make things more complex, we seem to build our conceptualization of us off these external factors. We think “Everyone says I’m a liar therefore I am.” Or, “I belong to (some particular stereotype) therefore I must act in this or that manner.” Or, “My dad was a violent drunk therefore I must be.” It turns into some infinite feedback loop—you think you’re X and thus behave like X and everyone sees you as X and you become more set in the pattern of X etc.

But in the end, you’re really just some molecules.

Nothing is certain

I’ve gotten a sense over the years of the futility of most debates about politics and related topics—history, philosophy, ethics etc. I can think of very few discussions where I changed someone’s mind or had mine changed. People seem very fixed in their opinions and unwilling to move in the face of evidence.

This may not be entirely unreasonable. I think we all have a certain sense that how evidence is presented can distort reality. For example, someone could say, “A 1998 study showed that people who ate mouse droppings lost weight,” while declining to mention all the studies that did not support this argument or the fact that the particular study that did was rife with methodology errors. We’re smart not to take things at face value.

But sometimes the evidence is pretty solid and people seem unwilling to change. I find myself guilty of this; I read something contrary to my beliefs and I almost feel physically resistant. We want our truth to be the truth. Which is really a matter of ego, I suppose.

I find myself particularly bothered by conspiracy theories. Donald Trump just recently repeated the idea that vaccines cause autism. This idea has been as disproved as possible but refuses to die. Because, I guess, people just want to believe it.

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Micheal Shermer called “The Believing Brain” where he examines why we are so prone to believe things that fly in the face of evidence. It’s stuff you’ve probably heard before: we want control over uncertainty and conspiracy theories give us knowledge which is a stepping stone to control Why’d your kid get autism? The correct answer is: who knows? The psychologically comforting answer is because he was poisoned by vaccines.

If there’s been an overall trend in my thought for the past 8 or so years it’s been that things are pretty uncertain and we basically need to embrace that. As I’ve recounted a million times, I had pretty solid faith in the medical establishment until I came down with a dizziness they could not explain. I had hand pain that lasted for years and was impervious to any number the “fixes” medicine offered. To solve these problems you basically have to stumble around in the dark until you find something. Few experts saw the economic bust of 2008 coming. It seems like nobody predicted the rise of ISIS in the middle east. Did anyone six months ago seriously think Donald Trump would be the leading Republican candidate? The experts on these matters seem to be largely a group of know-nothings*. But if they know nothing, then we know nothing and that’s not solid ground to stand on.

But maybe that’s where we are. And maybe accepting that is the best course of action. Embrace the mystery of life and all that.

*I’m reminded of the study that political pundits are mostly spectacularly wrong in their predictions.

Can AI be programmed to be moral?

There’s a blog called “Wait But Why” that does a good job of taking dense, philosophical topics and presenting them in an amusing but thought-provoking way. The author recently did a very long post on the kind of artificial intelligence technology that many think is around the corner (possibly only a few decades away.) He concedes that AI could radically reshape the course of history, possibly by bringing about a Utopia or possibly by causing humanity’s destruction.

In part II of the post the author gets into the more negative secenerios. A point he makes well is that AI wouldn’t end humanity because the AI is “evil” or out to get us, but rather that humanity’s extinction might just be a logical output of of badly coded commands. A simplistic example would be someone tells an AI to solve world hunger and the computer “thinks”, “Well, only living humans are hungry so if I kill them all, they can’t be hungry.” Again, a very simplistic example, but a much more convoluted one could occur and wipe us out.

So the challenge is that we have to program our morality into the AI. It needs to follow our moral rules. But this is interesting because, as I’ve pointed out before, we really don’t have a clear and concise ruleset. We think we do, the Golden Rule being a good example, but
the Golden Rule is really quite flawed
. It’s more true to say we have a general set of moral intuitions that we kind of follow sometimes. Hardly the sort of thing that can be fed to a computer program.

So maybe the great challenge for humanity right now is to create a purely logocal, objective set of moral rules. I personally suspect that is impossible,

The anti-guilt pill

For a while now I’ve heard of a particular drug that purports to dull the formation of painful memories. I’ve always been a little unclear on how it works but I believe it takes away the emotional sting of the memory while leaving the recollection of the events. Ideally it could aid people who have suffered horrible crimes or soldiers suffering from PSTD. I had not heard of a more controversial use: the pill as a way of ducking emotional damage caused by committing heinous acts, especially in war time. This article, from 2003, describes a scenario.

The artillery this soldier can unleash with a single command to his mobile computer will bring flames and screaming, deafening blasts and unforgettably acrid air. The ground around him will be littered with the broken bodies of women and children, and he’ll have to walk right through. Every value he learned as a boy tells him to back down, to return to base and find another way of routing the enemy. Or, he reasons, he could complete the task and rush back to start popping pills that can, over the course of two weeks, immunize him against a lifetime of crushing remorse. He draws one last clean breath and fires.

That sounds a little overdramatic but makes the point. The rest of the article is a very even handed look at the whole issue. Some might say we can never use the pill in this way as it will destroy our humanity. But the response is that, look, if a killer is wounded during his crime, he still gets medical treatment for his physical wounds. Why would we deny him treatment for his psychological wounds? And if the person is a soldier why should he be doomed to a lifetime of guilt why the politicians who put him in the position get off scot-free*? It’s quite an interesting ethical debate.

* Writing this sentence made me consider how the term “scot-free” came to be. You’d think it was based on some story about a guy named Scot, but not so. it’s derived from an old english term that means exempt from royal tax.

How does your self-driving car handle the Trolley Problem?

In the field of ethics, you often hear discussion of “The Trolley Problem“, a fictional scenario where a person is forced to chose the best outcome from a situation where at least one person is guaranteed to die. I stumbled across this web article which makes the case that the self driving Google car could bring the trolley problem to reality. If you car is headed into a crash should it sacrifice you to save bystanders?

How will a Google car, or an ultra-safe Volvo, be programmed to handle a no-win situation — a blown tire, perhaps — where it must choose between swerving into oncoming traffic or steering directly into a retaining wall? The computers will certainly be fast enough to make a reasoned judgment within milliseconds. They would have time to scan the cars ahead and identify the one most likely to survive a collision, for example, or the one with the most other humans inside. But should they be programmed to make the decision that is best for their owners? Or the choice that does the least harm — even if that means choosing to slam into a retaining wall to avoid hitting an oncoming school bus? Who will make that call, and how will they decide?

I would offer an additional moral question. If my car decides to sacrifice me can it be programmed to quickly and painlessly kill me as opposed to leaving me to the destruction of a car accident?

No one cares what YOU think

I’ve been noticing lately how often people’s statements, especially moral statements, really seem to be more about themselves than the topic at hand. “Well I find racism repugnant!” … that sort of thing. The point seldom is to convince others of a viewpoint, but to stake out one’s moral high ground.

I’ve been reading a short book called “Crimes Against Logic” written by a London based philosopher and towards the end he captures this problem nicely.

The idea that sincerity may substitute for reason is founded on an egocentric attitude toward belief: that what I believe is all about me, not about reality. What matters is not that the position I favor will have the best or intended effects, or that the problems I worry about are real or grave, but only that I hold my position from the right sentiments, that I am good.

So how does one avoid this? The trick is to take yourself out of the statement. Say, “racism is bad,” and then explain (the objective) reasons why. But it’s trickier ground requiring heavier thought.

Damasio, Jaynes and Sarno

In past writings I’ve mentioned my excitement when I first read Antonio Damasio’s neuroscience tome “Decarte’s Error.” In that book Damasio laid out his observations that emotions are really physical sensations, particularly sensations of our internal body: guts, lungs, circulation etc. If you take away the physical sensation of an emotion you take away that emotion’s “sting.” (One way to mitigate a negative emotional state is, of course, through booze and drugs which bring about a pleasant body high. Not that I advocate such activities.)

I’ve also mentioned that I’ve recently been reading Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness.” In the chapter I just finished he examines the famous Greek stories The Iliad and The Odyssey. He argues that several of the Greek words frequently used in these stories have been mistranslated. Words such as thumos and phrenes have been translated to mean soul and heart (in the figurative sense) respectively but he argues they refer more correctly to particular sensation of the body, exactly the sort of sensations Damasio wrote about. (Jaynes believes thumos, for example, really refers to the sensations present in the activation of the body’s stress response: increased blood pressure, increased energy etc. Basically, being “amped up.”)

Essentially, Jaynes argues that in the Greek era people were much more conscious* of their body state. When modern people say, “I feel angry” they are only tangentially aware of their erratic heartbeat and hot face, whereas ancient people, Jaynes argues, were acutely aware of their physiological state. He also alleges that people didn’t always feel “ownership” of these emotional states, e.g. they were aware of the sensations but did not ascribe the sensations to a particular self (the way we do.) But that’s a more complex discussion.

* Well, this isn’t entirely true as Jaynes famously argues in the book that for some parts of history men weren’t conscious at all! I use the word “conscious” as a synonym for “aware” here.

I’ve also talked much in the past of Dr. John Sarno’s notion that much recurring pain, gastrointestinal issues and other maladies are actually caused by a distraught subconscious. Jaynes hints at the very same idea with no knowledge (to my knowledge) or Sarno’s work.

I think it is obvious to the medical reader that these matters we are discussing under the topic of the preconscious hypostases have a considerable bearing on any theory of psychosomatic disease. In the thumos, phrenes, kradie and etor we have covered the four major target systems, of such illnesses. And that they compose the very groundwork of consciousness, a primitive partial type on consciousizing, has important consequences in medical theory.

Rethinking The Fountainhead

A while back there was an interesting blog post on Andrew Sullivan’s site (written by a guest writer) tying Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead in to the issues surrounding the hacking of the Sony Corporation. Rand’s writing is, of course, often lauded by libertarian free market types. This post had a different take… (Warning: Major Spoiler Alert about The Fountainhead.)

The problem of willingly selling out to the Chinese reminded me of Ayn Rand, whose bracing moral lessons I’m sure Freddie had in the back of his mind. Rand’s finest novel,The Fountainhead, is an anti-capitalist screed about the spiritual and cultural evil of catering to market demand. Forget the problem of giving the commie censors what they want. It’s wrong to give the free market what it wants, when what it wants is aesthetically debased, which it always is. The architect hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is the ultimate in spine, the patron saint of never selling out. When one of his perfect, austere modernist buildings is bowdlerized the better to suit the public taste, he blows it up. That’s right, Howard Roark is a terrorist, a jihadi for artistic integrity.

This is the first time in writing I’ve ever seen someone wrestle with what I always found confounding about the novel. When I read the book, I was struck by how anti-libertarian Roark’s actions seems; he shows no respect for property rights when he blows up the building. I assumed it was a kind of glitch in the philosophy of the book but it could be that it is the philosophy of the book. It does, at least, present the trait I’ve always liked about Rand: love her or hate her she clearly did not give a shit what anyone else thought, so much so that she present a character who is essentially a terrorist as a hero. (I believe I’m correct that no one is actually killed when the building is destroyed as he does it late at night.)

What if everyone died?

There’s a particular conundrum I’ve been musing over but it’s hard to capture it in words. I guess I would say it comes down to this question: what is real?

For example, I’m sitting here at Starbucks. Is this Starbucks real? Well, I think the physical materials of the Starbucks are real; I think the wood of the table I’m writing on breaks down to molecules that are real, and from there to atoms, and presumably from there to quantum particles etc. I think those are all real physical elements (though I think there are some schools of philosophy and quantum theory that might dicker with even that seemingly obvious point of view. Let’s ignore them for now.)

What about the idea of Starbucks? The concept of Starbucks as an enjoyable coffee bistro, a place that welcomes both happy hipsters and urban professionals, a place that plays eclectic but inoffensive music, a locale with great coffee and astoundingly bland food… is that real? Obviously when I say, “I’m going to Starbucks,” no one questions its reality, but this idea of Starbucks is not really real in the same sense of the physical materials that make up an individual Starbucks store.

So how do we define reality? Let me approach this a little differently. What if everyone on earth died? What would be left? I think the Starbucks I am at would still be around (for a while) but the idea of it would be gone. In fact, all ideas would be gone. There would be no more communism, sexuality, chaos theory, social justice, individual rights, copyright protection, evolution and on and on. All ideas would be gone. We would just have stuff and time.

(I haven’t really said whether or not all animals or even all life on earth are gone with humanity in this scenario so maybe some of these ideas would survive in the minds of animals but, again, let’s ignore those issues.)

This unreality of ideas seems pretty obvious. However, most of the joys and miseries throughout history and the modern world are derived from these unreal ideas. For example, I was a big fan of Spider-Man as a kid. The sight of his red and blue costume excited me. But Spider-Man is not real. The Spider-Man comics are real, in so much as they are created from real materials (paper, ink etc.) but the idea of Spider-Man is completely held within the minds of humans.

I love music but, Jesus, what could be less real… sound waves in the air that create certain psychological perceptions when experienced by the human brain?

In some sense, a weight lifts off your shoulders when you realize this. None of the bullshit people are constantly yammering about – politics, culture, art theory, sex games, gender wars etc. – really exists. These are simply the ideas mankind has constructed and agreed to bicker over. If we are all wiped out by a radioactive space comet, these ideas will fade away… well, that’s not really correct; they can’t fade away because they were never there in the first place. Let’s put it this way: their impermanence will be revealed.

And yet these things, these ideas, actually feel more real, or at least more meaningful, than what actually is real (materials and time.) Again, these ideas are what provide most peoples’ joys and pains.

Even the idea I’m touting here, that ideas are not real, is not really real.

Ain’t that a motherfucker?

Out of Our Heads

Recently I read yet another brain related book. This one was more philosophical than medical and was titled “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.” The author the academic Alva Noë

What was the book about? Umm… hard to say… it was pretty vague reading. It seemed to be a rebuttal to the materialistic neuroscience view that argues that every facet of consciousness can be explained as the result of (not yet understood) machinations in the brain. However, the book’s argument was not spiritual; it did not argue for the existence of the non-material soul (I think.) Instead it seemed to argue that a conscious experience involves many systems and is not limited to the brain. If you reach out and poke a bear with a stick then your arm, your stick and perhaps even the bear are part of this experience. The environment the brain is in (including the body surrounding it) are somehow part of the conscious experience.

Hard to understand? Yeah, I didn’t get it myself. However, I do get the sense that there maybe some kernels of truth in the book’s ideas. There is a popular view that we are totally self dependent entities and we “make our own fate.” In this view, environment is not really an issue. But Noë would probably argue that where we are is as important as who we are (and in fact the two aspects are intertwined.) I found myself thinking back to my days in LA. I was, before I moved there, not much of a fan of country music. But I stumbled onto the country scene at the Cinema Bar and fell into it. It was my environment that determined, in essence, who I became (e.g. an alt-country fan of sorts.) Now that I’ve moved away from that I really don’t listen to or associate with alt-country much – that self-definition has faded. The point being that without that environment, I would have been a different person.

This all sounds rather obvious I suspect, but there seem to be a few ideas here contradictory to a lot of the philosophies at work in modern culture. One being: you are not entirely self determined, you are subject to the winds in your environment. (I personally doubt the existence of free will entirely but that’s another story.) But on a sort of flip side, you can determine you sense of self but aiming to place your self in certain environments. (Sort of like the scoundrel characters in much of fiction and real life who assume an identity and hobnob with the wealthy elite. But placing themselves in a different environment, they become a different person.)