Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

What are words for?

I’ve been doing some thinking about the limits of words, specifically how words can cordon off the real meaning of ideas. For example, consider that we are all aware of the word “justice.” What does that word really represent? One’s person’s definition might fall towards “social justice,” whereas another’s is more about property rights, while a third person has yet another definition. When these people speak, their use of the word “justice” is out of synch.

I was looking for examples of this sort of thing and I had some vague recollection that two nations either came to blows or almost did because of a mistranslated word in a speech. I couldn’t find the example (which may exist only in my head) but I was surprised to find that Khruschev’s famous “We will bury you comment was a mistranslation.

n 1956, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was interpreted as saying “We will bury you” to Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow. The phrase was plastered across magazine covers and newspaper headlines, further cooling relations between the Soviet Union and the West.

Yet when set in context, Khruschev’s words were closer to meaning “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in”. He was stating that Communism would outlast capitalism, which would destroy itself from within, referring to a passage in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto that argued “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” While not the most calming phrase he could have uttered, it was not the sabre-rattling threat that inflamed anti-Communists and raised the spectre of a nuclear attack in the minds of Americans.

Our fractured culture

I’ve been reading through Andrew Keen’s book “The Cult of the Amateur” (2007). Keen is known in certain circles as a kind of internet nag who argues that the rise of the web has done more bad than good. Though I find his arguments a little overwrought at times, I definitely sympathize.

A certain passage jumped out at me today. I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of narratives, particularly that a culture lacking a kind of shared narrative is going to be fractured. Keen makes a similar point:

…as anthropologist Ernert Gellner argues in his classic Nations and Nationalism, the core modern social contract is rooted in our common culture, in our language, and in our shared assumptions about the world. Modern man is socialized by what the anthropologist calls a common “high culture.” Our community and cultural identity, Gellner says, comes from newspapers and magazines, television, books, and movies. Mainstream media provides us with common frames of reference, a common conversation, and common values.”

The point being that when that common culture is split into gazillions of web sites and blogs, each touting their own viewpoint, often lacking any fact checking or counterarguments, you get a fractured culture (e.g. the world outside your window.)

Having said all that, I think some consideration needs to be given to the other side here. The pre-web narrative (as written by the big magazines, TV shows, etc.) was biased towards certain parties. (Basically towards what I would call center-left/white culture though that’s a vague description.) I think there was some value that came out of the breaking up of mainstream media’s power.

Ultimately it all comes down to finding the real, objective truth of any matter. And we all know how easy that is.

The debate on race and IQ

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the work of Charles Murray, as discussed in my last post. As I mentioned, Murray is controversial because of his book “The Bell Curve.” What claims in the book earned him his notoriety?

I would say these two claims.

1. The claim that the mean average IQ for black people is lower than white people. (By about 15 points.)

2. The claim that IQ is largely heredity and not determined by environment.

Claim 1 sounds shocking and racist, but if it were a “fixable” problem then it would not be so bad. But claim 2 basically says it’s hard to fix.

So how correct are these claims? I’ll let you know right now that I don’t know. I’ve looked into this stuff before and, frankly, it’s a big headache and the data always seems to be changing.

There are a number of possible arguments one can make to counter claim 1. One is that the data is simply wrong. Another is that IQ is a meaningless measurement not correlated to anything that determines human fortunes. Another argument is that the claim is correct but it’s due to structural racism. For instance, it could be argued that a large segment of blacks live in crappy environments with poor nutrition and this drives down IQ. Related to that is the argument that culture at large generally pushes blacks towards non-achievement so they don’t apply themselves while taking the IQ test.

Let’s take those one by one.

The data is wrong
On the web are a number of people who make this claim but it doesn’t seem to be the majority view. A more standard view is to say the discrepancy exits but can be explained by non-hereditary factors.

IQ is meaningless. 
There are people who claim this and it strikes me as having some validity. Intelligence is a pretty vague concept and it’s hard to tie it down to a single digit. Nonetheless, IQ does seem to correlate pretty well to a person’s fortunes Additionally, intelligence seems to apply across a lot of disciplines. By this I mean a high IQ person can become good at math, and language, and music etc. There are few people who are awesome at math but totally baffled by music.

Lousy environments lead to low IQ
In the interview with Sam Harris, Murray seems to make the claim that much (most?) of what determines IQ is hereditary, not environmental. I’m not so sure. There does seem to be a fair amount of correlation between IQ and environment, nutrition etc. (though I’ve found people who dispute this.)

Low achievement culture leads to low IQ
I didn’t come across much discussion of this but it seems reasonable to me.

Personally the last two seem valid to me and could explain the entirety of a discrepancy between any races. (I’m not going to get into the “is race a real thing” debate here, though I have in the past.)

I’ll also say this. This debate is incredibly difficult to wrap your head around. This is true with statistics in general. You can observe trends in anything, but determining what is a cause of a trend and what’s just a correlation is really difficult. As a result, I think reasonable, intelligent people can come to differing conclusions. The automatic supposition that people who say there are genetically caused differences in intelligence are secretly neo-Nazis strikes me as pretty stupid. (Though genuine neo-Nazis surely appreciate their work.)

Reactivating brains

So recently I’ve been interested in the topic of what a conscious, living creature really is. To quote myself

If I’m right, living people are sort of like a computer with the power on. Our brains have an architecture which is the arrangement of our neurons (the connectome.) When that architecture has “juice” running through it, you have a living, talking person. When that juice is taken away, you have—you got it—a dead person (similar to a computer with the power off.)

Today I stumbled onto this

In a paper published in Plos One in early December, scientists detailed how they were able to elicit a pattern similar to the living condition of the brain when exposing dead brain tissue to chemical and electrical probes. Authors Nicolas Rouleau, Nirosha J. Murugan, Lucas W. E. Tessaro, Justin N. Costa, and Michael A. Persinger (the same Persinger of the God-Helmet studies) wrote about this breakthrough,

This was inferred by a reliable modulation of frequency-dependent microvolt fluctuations. These weak microvolt fluctuations were enhanced by receptor-specific agonists and their precursors[…] Together, these results suggest that portions of the post-mortem human brain may retain latent capacities to respond with potential life-like and virtual properties.

That’s just a fancy way of saying it might be possible to bring dead brain tissue back to life, sort of.

This is a far cry away from reactivating a dead person and nothing here really implies that would ever be possible. But it does play into the theory I posted above. You could say they turned the juice back on.

It’s Alive! Alive!

Lately I’ve been exploring this idea that we don’t know what consciousness is. I considered the the possibility that consciousness could be some kind of “force.” My theory was that when this force travels through a complex network, like our human brain, it/we/something experiences what we call subjective consciousness.

I also asked: could this force simply be electricity (or the electromagnetic force?) It seems all too simple and rather Frankenstein-ian. I’ve done a bit of reading and the consensus seems to be “no” though I need to read more.

One of the articles I read had some juicy tidbits on past experiments of applying electricity to the dead.

WIRED: What Happens If You Apply Electricity to the Brain of a Corpse?

In 1802, Aldini zapped the brain of a decapitated criminal by placing a metal wire into each ear and then flicking the switch on the attached rudimentary battery. “I initially observed strong contractions in all the muscles of the face, which were contorted so irregularly that they imitated the most hideous grimaces,” he wrote in his notes. “The action of the eylids was particularly marked, though less striking in the human head than in that of the ox.”

In 1803, he performed a sensational public demonstration at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, using the dead body of Thomas Forster, a murderer recently executed by hanging at Newgate. Aldini inserted conducting rods into the deceased man’s mouth, ear, and anus.
One member of the large audience later observed: “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”

Are hippies right? Is energy consciousness?

I have been talking here, of late, about how computers and brains process information and know things. And the gist of my observations is that only conscious beings (e.g. humans and other living creatures) can “know” anything, or derive meaning from the world. Computers can process information, in a sense, but they don’t know the results of their information processing anymore than an abacus knows the results of an addition it just performed.

Some people do say computers could one day become conscious. And I’m open to the possibility; in fact, it ties in with what I’m about to say.

I’ve been operating in a “reasonable” mode for these discussions. Now I’m about to get crazy. I’m the first to admit that everything from this point on is entirely speculative.

So, as mentioned above, I arrived at this conclusion that you need consciousness to “know” things. At that point I need to define what I mean by consciousness. It’s a surprisingly difficult term even though we all experience it all the time. Basically I mean our sense of the reality around us, our internal thoughts, our awareness, the usual stuff.

When you think about it, there’s no reason that information processing devices, like our brains, need consciousness. They (perhaps) are just inputs (our senses) and outputs (our actions/observations), just like a computer, which we presume not to be conscious. So why do we have consciousness? We do we experience a state of being? This question is what the philosopher David Chalmers refers to as “the hard problem of consciousness.”

What if consciousness is a force, sort of like gravity? It “flows” everywhere. And when it flows through a network like a brain—a complex, self-referential, feed-backing network where “wires” (e.g. neurons) often loop back and affect their own inputs—it results in our sense of self and our awareness.

Now this is certainly not my idea. It’s the crux of many religions, Buddhism, Ekhart Tolle-ism, panpsychism, and even the notion of “the force” from Star Wars. I’m simply saying here that this idea could make sense. I don’t see any immediate objection. And, I will say again, this is speculative.

Of course, saying something is a force is a bit of a cop out. When we say gravity is a force we are basically saying that we don’t know what it is. (The same with other forces like the electromagnetic force, or the strong and weak forces of quantum theory.) It’s just a “thing” that happens in semi predictable way. Why it happens, or why it works, is beyond us (though people have theories.)

I maybe totally exposing my naïveté here but I wonder if this force of consciousness is electricity*, since that is what powers the neurons of the brain. Is consciousness electricity going through a complex, feed-backing network? If it is, then the idea of conscious computers doesn’t seem that crazy (since computers are also powered by electricity, though their architecture is obviously not biological.)

* Technically, this would be the electromagnetic force.

If I’m right, living people are sort of like a computer with the power on. Our brains have an architecture which is the arrangement of our neurons (the connectome.) When that architecture has “juice” running through it, you have a living, talking person. When that juice is taken away, you have—you got it–a dead person (similar to a computer with the power off.)

The point that I think a lot of spiritual teacher types (like Ekhart Tolle) argue is that “you” are not your architecture, you are the force flowing through the architecture. And I, a self-described atheist, am conceding that there may be something to this. From this view, becoming “enlightened” is merely the conscious force flowing through one entity becoming aware of itself.

To tackle an obvious question: does this mean we all live forever? Well, not in the sense that you might like. I think your memories, beliefs, thoughts, everything that makes up “you” are held in your brain structure (e.g. connectome). When that goes, you go. But if you are not really that stuff but are rather the force that flows through that network then it could be said we continue in some way.

Anyway, this needs more thought and I realize I’m just rediscovering the wheel here. Others have said these exact thoughts (aside from some of the neuroscience stuff) for eons.

And none of this really explains what consciousness is.

For further reading: Quora answer to “Is conscioussness a form of energy?”

It’s interesting partly for the diversity of opinion and the observation that different people are using the phrase consciousness to mean different things. I’ll note one answer talks about Integrated Information Theory which is the notion that consciousness arises out of complex connections (like those in the network of the human brain.) This is similar to what I describe above (and probably where I got the idea from.)

Can we figure out what information is by looking at how information is held in brains, computers and bee hives?

I’ve been perplexed for a long time by what information really is. We often hear that the brain holds information. How is this so? The gist, as I understand it, is that information comes into our brains via the senses and these “bits” of sensory information are held in the activation of neurons. So, as a child I might have petted a cat and that sensory experience was encoded in my brain. Later, a cat scratched me and that experience was also encoded. Numerous similar experiences occurred (as well as more formal booklearning about cats) and now when I think of cats, all these encoded sensory experiences activate to various degrees and as a result I have information about what a cat is.

Part of the gist there is that I need consciousness to experience sensory input and therefore consciousness is (probably) necessary for information to exist (if “exist” is even the right term.)

Now think of computers. They too hold information (or so we are told.) Information in computers is held in on/off switches which are transistors with electrons running through them. But where is the consciousness? I think they general consensus is “nowhere.” The information in a computer is meaningless until a conscious mind observes it. (Bringing to mind the old “tree/forest” koan.)

And yet, people talk about artificial intelligence gaining consciousness.

Both brains and computers are networks in the sense that they are interconnected nodes. The basic node of the brain is the neuron and the basic node of the computer is the transistor (though it could be anything that can be in an on/off state.) But, again, computers don’t really “know” the information they hold (because they are not conscious.)

Bee hives and ant colonies are also networks and the basic nodes are the individual bees or ants. And hives and colonies seems to “know” information that the individual nodes can’t know (like how to work together to build a bee hive). They can even perform calculations.

So where is this information held? Is there a meta consciousness that must exist to appreciate the information held in the connecting nodes (ants and bees)? Or are they more like computers? Dumb nodes with no self awareness? (I’m aware ant and bees probably have some kind of consciousness but not necessarily the amount needed to appreciate the information they collectively hold.)

(Part of the answer to these question may be found here:
The Remarkable Self-Organization of Ants)

I find myself wondering if information even exists at all.

Are emotions the necessary antidote to reason?

I’ve been reading a rather dense, philosophical book called “Freedom Evolves” by Daniel Dennett. I’m not sure how much I’m getting out of it but it does have one interesting nugget worth reporting on.

To understand this nugget I have to first describe our general view of reason and emotion. This view is that reason is sort of the antidote to emotion. Men’s emotions run wild and a stern application of reason is necessary to “talk them off the ledge.” (You see this point brought up often during this contentious election cycle.)

The view intimated the Dennett book is that, in fact, emotion is a cure for reason. Evolution “created” emotion to ward of the potential dangers of reason.

What do I mean? Well let’s say you were captured by some fiend and he asked you to make a choice. He was going to kill one person and that person could be your son or some guy in China whom you’d never met. A person operating on pure reason would have trouble with this decision. He or she might factor in the relative ages of these two people, deciding who still had the most life to live. He or she might try to take a guess at what productive things each potential target might do in their lives in order to ascertain who was the most valuable person.

An emotional person (e.g. the rest of us) would say “kill the Chinese guy.” We might be torn about it, but I think that’s the decision most of us would ultimately make because we would would have a strong emotional connection to our child and very little emotional connection to a stranger. (This brings to mind Peter Singer’s “Drowning Child” thought experiment.)

This idea—that emotion helps us make decisions—ties in with the work of Antonio Damasio. In his book, “Descartes’ Error” he described people who, due to some pathology, had lost their ability to really feel emotions. As a result, their decision-making abilities went in the toilet. I think Damasio described a fellow who was fired from his work because he couldn’t prioritize tasks. The boss would tell the guy to finish a report and he would miss the deadline because he spent 8 hours arranging staplers. He could not prioritize because every option had equal emotional “weight” (and that is to say, none.)

This also ties in with some fears I’ve seen expressed about artificial intelligence. The concern is that A.I. might be programed to do some task like construct a new kind of material and then decide that human bones are the best source for this new material and therefore the A.I. would instigate massive genocide to farm for human bones. It would do this because it would operating using only logic and no emotional weighting. (I’m using a vastly simplified example of this fear, but you get the drift.)

Do we think the way we think we think?

In the Alan Turing biopic, “The Imitation Game,” there’s a moment when an interlocutor asks Turing, a math genius, “Can machines think the way men do?” As Turing answers it becomes apparent there were really two questions in that query. One is, “Can machines think (at all)?” Second is “Can machines think in the manner of men?” (For the record, Turing’s answers are yes and no.)

So how do we humans think? I think (ha ha) that we believe we largely think in a sort of logical fashion, almost like a series of programmatic steps. We may think, “I’m hungry. I should go to the store to get a sandwich. It’s hot out so I will take the car.” And we do often think this way though we don’t really “think out” all the dialogue. For this kind of thinking we are largely consciously aware of what’s going on. We don’t suddenly find ourselves buying a sandwich for no reason.

But we are also aware that some of our thinking is subconscious. We muse upon a problem, decide to put it away or “sleep on it,” then suddenly a day later the answer appears to us magically. (I solved a particularly pesky VPN issue this way years ago.) It seems clear that some part of our brain was working on the problem without us being aware of it.

Buried in the dialogue in the Turing film is, perhaps, the idea that machines, specifically computers, can’t consciously think. They’re thinking is more like our unconscious processing.

Let me throw in an added complexity. Let’s say a guy looks at a beautiful woman and says, “I’d sure like to have sex with her!” It would appear he wants sex, as everybody does, and his brain is voicing a thought that occurs to him upon the appearance of a attractive mate. The thinking is all conscious. But we humans also have the idea of evolution and the notion that what really drives us is our cells’ desire* to pass on their genes. According to this idea, somewhere along the line there’s some kind of information processing (something like thinking) that says, “Ah, here’s a chance to pass on our genes. Let’s dupe this guy into thinking he merely wants to put his penis in this attractive female.” So there’s two levels of “thought” here—the guy’s conscious thought and some weird level of informational processing occurring well below the brain.

* Of course, we don’t really think cells are conscious in such a way that they can have desires. But on some level cells are driven to the goal of duplicating themselves.

Anyway, I don’t what to make of all this but thought (ha ha) I would put it down.

Thoughts that pop into our heads

Having finished Sam Harris’s tome on meditation, “Waking Up,” I’ve decided to re-read the first Ekhart Tolle book, “The Power of Now” which explores similar themes, albeit from a point of view Harris would probably criticize as unscientific (although Tolle largely avoids ethereal, new-agey content.)

Both Harris and Tolle would say, I think, that our “self”—the entity with particular likes/dislikes, political beliefs, favorites movies etc.—is nonexistent. And most of the dialogue running through our head is basically just noise caused by the mental tics of the brain. Both books are about getting that noise to silence and to experience a more pure form of consciousness.

Of course, that’s contrary to how most of us view ourselves, including me. I operate (most of the time) on the assumption that those voices in my head are me. But I had an experience while reading Tolle’s books that gave me another way of looking at things. I was reading a section where he was making a point about why we shouldn’t look to our past or our future (or possible future) to define ourselves. I put the book down and thought something like, “Got it. No more looking.” Into my head popped the words “I know that I’ve been tooken.” These are drawn from the Hank Williams song “Hey Good Looking” which has a verse that says:

No more lookin’
I know that I’ve been tooken

It’s one of my favorite lyrics and one I’m familiar with since I sing the song often.

The thing here is that I was aware that “I” wasn’t thinking the lyrics, they just kind of popped into my head (because I happened to think the first part of the lyric.) So maybe we need to make a distinction between thoughts that you feel that you are the author of and thoughts that just sort of appear there. We’re all familiar with this second kind of thought. For example, if I say, “The early bird…” you almost cannot avoid hearing “gets the worm” in your head. It just pops up.

I think Tolle and Harris’s argument is that most thought is of this variety. Your brain or mind is doing some processing and the words just pop up. You think you are the author of these thoughts (unless you are schizophrenic and feel disconnected from the voices in your head) but if fact, the entity saying these things is not you. Rather, you* are the person hearing them.

*To reinterate a point, both authors would ultimately say there is no “you.”

I also feel these “thoughts that pop into your head” instances aren’t that different from another common occurrence. Say someone walks up to you and says, “Can you show me how to get this printer working?” You launch into a spiel about how frustrating the printer is and how you have to set it into this mode before it will print in color, blah, blah. But you don’t really plan this spiel out, it just kind of pours out of you. You direct the larger themes and points, but it many ways it just seems like the words are being handed to you. Again, perhaps it’s not you doing the talking, but rather “you” doing the listening.