Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

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 connection (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.

Taking seriously the possibility of multiple consciousnesses

Years ago I posted a blog posted asking whether we have multiple consciousnesses in our heads. I described the basic concept thusly:

A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.

I was, frankly, only half serious. But I’ve been reading Sam Harris’s recent book, “Waking Up,” and he takes the possibility seriously. Referring to the famous split brain experiments, he throws out the possibility of one consciousness in the right brain and one in the left. He even addresses an obvious problem: if we have multiple consciousness, how do they avoid conflict with each other (especially if they aren’t even aware of each other)? The answer is found in the theory of a philosopher quoted in the book.

The non-speaking hemisphere has know about the true state of affairs from a very tender age. It has known this because beginning at age two or three it heard speech emanating from the common body that, as language development on the left proceeded, became too complex grammatically and syntactically for it to believe it was generating… Being inured to this status of cerebral helot, it goes along. Thankless cooperation becomes a way of life.”

The idea is that you have this other consciousness sort of enslaved to “your” consciousness. It is so used to being powerless that it goes along with the dominant self.

Of course Freud’s theories were all about inner conflict. Perhaps that conflict is between these two consciousnesses.

And, I believe Harris leaves open the possibility of even more consciousnesses within one brain. What a trip that would be.

UPDATE: I feel I should clarify one thing here. In the case of the split brain patients, each hemisphere has been separated from the other and the patients seem to behave as if they are two selves in one body. Us normal folks have connections between the two hemispheres and most of us behave as one self. But Harris argues that the connecting tissue cant possibly pass all the information in one hemisphere to the other, so were are really more like two selves that have some limited communication with each other.

Why facts are worthless in politics

Much of what I’ve been saying lately in regards to politics is that people do not make political decisions based on cold, rational logic. They make decisions based on emotions, particularly emotions like fear. If a politician can make the electorate fear his or her opponent, he or she has gone a long way to getting elected.

OK, so people make political decisions based on emotions. What should they be basing them on? Well, the cliche idea is one of an informed electorate who thoughtfully research the issues and come to a sound decision. That is the model for beautiful democracy. Of course, it’s total horseshit. Very few people do that.

So why is this? I think partly because many of the issues facing us are pretty difficult to figure out. Let’s take a popular one: illegal immigrants. You can approach this problem from various angles; let’s just ask a basic question: Does illegal immigration lower wages for everyone?

About two months ago I would have said, yes, and clearly yes. Let’s say you have two hundred unemployed people in a town all competing for whatever jobs are available. Then, suddenly 50 new immigrants arrive (illegal or not). Doesn’t that mean employers can get even pickier about who they hire and demand lower wages?

It would seem so. But I read up on this and it’s not so simple. The addition of 50 new people does mean that there’s more competition for jobs, but these new people also create new jobs. It’s 50 more people who need dry cleaning, who need groceries, who want to catch a Saturday matinee. So the dry cleaner, grocery store and movie theater all need to add an extra shift.

So, do immigrants add enough jobs to make up for their negative effect on wages? I dunno… I looked into it for about an hour and got a sense that I could research this stuff for years an never really know. The data is dense and complex and clearly biased by the political beliefs of its presenters etc. On top of that, it’s seems likely that the answer would vary by territory. Some towns might suffer under the influx of immigrants while others prosper.

Of course there’s also a moral framework to this. Some would say we should accept illegal immigrants no matter what their effect on the economy. Others would say we should look after Americans first.

So you throw all that into a stew and it becomes, in my mind, very difficult to know what the “right” answer is.

Let’s consider a related issue: Trade Agreements. The past 15 years have seen various trade agreements that allow for more fluid trade between the U.S. and other countries. These agreements have lowered tariffs and protections for various industries. All lot of people, including both Trump and Sanders, argue these agreements have cost American jobs as factories are moved to cheaper locales. Other people including Clinton (though she’s a bit waffly) argue that these agreements create cheaper goods for Americans as well as create a different class of jobs.

Again, I looked into this issue for about an hour. Jesus that shit is complex; it’s worse than the illegal immigration debate. I really have no idea who’s right. (Read here if you want to get into this morass.)

Let’s consider Syria. What the best course of action there? Fuck if I know. To really address the situation would require months of studying the local politics, the history of the middle east, the psychology of the main actors etc.

So you see where I’m gong with this. A politician running for office has two choices. One is to try and impress his or her audience with his broad command of the facts of all these issues. The other is to appeal to people’s lizard brain and rile up their emotions. People mock Trump for his lack of knowledge about political issues but, frankly, that shit just gets in the way. He could bore people to death with a two hour dissertation about why illegal immigrants ultimately take more jobs than they create (whether of not that’s true) but what’s actually effective is reminding voters that the guy who just killed 50 people at a gay nightclub was Muslim.

This is why democracy basically sucks (though I agree that there’s no better system.)

Howard Bloom on information theory

I’ve been reading through Howard Bloom’s book “The God Problem.” What is this book about? I’m not totally sure. In essence, Bloom is trying to figure out how the universe creates things of degrees of complexity if there is no intelligent God to guide the process. Human beings would be a good example of one of these things.

At the point I’ve gotten to, he is criticizing the idea of information theory. This sits well with me because I’ve never really understood information theory. As I basically get it, it’s the idea that “information” is somehow the core currency of the universe. All things—sub-atomic particles, dogs and cats, human beings, galaxies—pass information to each other (according to the theory.) But what does the word information really mean?

Bloom separates the term “information” from “meaning.” (I think I’m getting this right.) He applies the use of the term information that was devised by Claud Shannon, the inventor of information theory. In this use, information is more like a signal. For example, let’s say I picked up the phone and heard a bunch of sentences in Japanese. These sentences (which are really sound waves that have been converted from the electronic signals of the phone line and system) are information. But they aren’t meaning. Because I don’t understand Japanese.

So, I guess, for things to have meaning, they have to be observed by a conscious agent. Well, not exactly, according to Bloom. Two sub-atomic particles like quarks can interact—they can attract or repulse each other—and even if they don’t consciously feel anything (and Bloom says they don’t and I tend to agree) they are still passing on meaning.

This is dense, complex stuff. It seems to me, ironically, to lead to the question of: what is the meaning of the word meaning? Of course as you define the word, you are defining your definition of the word, if that makes any sense. What a headache.

I think we can ignore some of these problems and at least theorize that appreciating meaning requires consciousness (contra to Bloom.) Basically we can say that humans can appreciate the meaning of a statement like “I’ll meet you at 6 PM at Burger King.” and sub atomic particles cannot. Humans mentally digest such a statement whereas quarks just kind of respond. But not every statement passed to humans is consciously appreciated; some meaning is passed only to human’s sub-conscious. (Look up priming experiments
or the work of Micheal Gazzaniga for discussion on this.
) In this case we are sort of appreciating meaning in the way a quark would—un-consciously.

Is Miles Davis the music of atheism?

Readers may recall my classic post in which I postulated that as our minds have gotten more stimulated over recent centuries we’ve had less ability to focus on art. Baroque music was dense and complex because listeners of the day had the mental bandwidth to absorb it. Modern music is less complex (and usually shorter in length) because we don’t have the free cognitive processing power (because we’re too busy with the bullshit of life, the media, etc.) to pay attention.

There’s a knock against minimalism inherent in this theory. Minimalism is about using less—less musical notes, less colors and shapes etc—to make a point. If, according to my argument, complex art forms have lots of elements then art forms using less elements must be simpler and easier to grasp. And to some degree I do think minimalism became popular because —on one level—it’s easier to digest. But I also think minimalism is pretty sophisticated. When Miles Davis or Chet Baker used silence in a solo they were actually focusing our attention on that silence, kind of saying, “this nothing is actually something.” A lot of other modern composers and visual artists applied similar ideas. So what sounds empty and barren is kind of rich. But I freely admit, many people, myself at times, don’t get this richness and let minimalistic music’s use of space allow it to fade to the background.

There’s another interesting angle to approach this from. At the end of this article I commented on an idea of Jaron Lanier’s. He has a notion that modern communication technology (the internet, texting and so on) infantilizes us because it allows us to maintain a constant umbilical-cord-like connection to our fellows. We never have to be alone with ourselves. You could say this allows us to avoid confronting our essential aloneness, our separateness, not just from Mom but from the big guy, God. Is the music of Miles Davis asking us to confront our essential aloneness, even embrace it?