Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category
October 21st, 2013 by Wil
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’m continuing to read Ray Kuzweil’s “How To Create a Mind” and he gets into some related territory, even allowing for the possibility of multiple consciousnesses. There is strong evidence for some version of this possibility. For example, we have Mike Gazzaniga’s split brain patients. I described these patients in an earlier post.
These are people, usually epileptic, who’ve had the series of neural fibers that connect their left and right brain hemispheres separated (for therapeutic reasons.) Gazzaniga came to find that in subtle ways these people are really of two minds. The right hemisphere is very literal and has no language function. The left hemisphere is the interpreter (e.g. it can construct stories and explanations – often incorrectly – from observed events), and has rich language functionality.
His exact experiments have been described many times and I see no reason to repeat them here. (This Nature article covers the gist.) But what’s observed is that the two separate sections of brain really seem to process the world separately and be unaware of each other.
We can also consider half brain patients. These are people, as you might suspect, have half a brain (either because of a birth defect or a surgical procedure.) The term is often considered derogatory, but in fact patients with half a brain function quite well. But they beg the question, what is that missing half a brain (present in most people) doing?
And of course, we can consider the unconscious – the part of your brain regulating your heart, causing your legs to walk and, possibly, repressing your sexual attraction to your dog, your primal hatred of all life etc. (Sometimes these two types of unconscious are broken up into the terms “unconscious” and “subconscious.”) Is the unconscious in some way conscious, but cordoned off from what we consider our conscious experience to be?
In a sense, I’m alleging that there’s more than one “I” in our skull. There’s our standard consciousness, which has rich language functionality and subjective experience, though maybe even that can be split into separate “Is” as the split brain experiments show. Then there’s the unconscious—probably the domain of our fear and pleasure driven reptilian brain—which has no language functionality. And maybe the unconscious can also be split into multiple components, each of them independently (in some sense) conscious.
You of course might say, “But I only feel that main, traditional consciousness—the one that gets up for work in the morning and and watches late night television at night?” Correct – “you” do, but I’m saying there are many “yous” in your body. It might help to think of those classic horror films where a person has an evil conjoined twin growing out of their body. That twin has no real say about what you (the main consciousness) decides to do, but he sits there, growing out of your chest and stewing in his anger*.
* Why do I presume these unconscious units are filled with hatred and anger as opposed to affable joy? It’s just the way I see the world, I guess.
Of course I’m really saying, maybe that evil twin (the un/subconscious) does have some effect on your decisions. He’s the classic Freudian subconscious nag, spurring you to chose a wife who reminds you of your mother, or to fear the boss who reminds you of the uncle who molested you before you had memory.
The question is whether these additional consciousnesses are really conscious the way “we” are. I suspect no; their consciousness is more like that of a dog or a bug. And we – the top consciousness – are left hearing the cries and pleas of these tiny consciousnesses and using them to guide our path through life.
UPDATE: Another neurosis implying some possible separate consciousness in one body: Alien Hand Syndrome! After a stroke…
The patient complained of a feeling of “strangeness” in relationship to the goal-directed movements of the left hand and insisted that “someone else” was moving the left hand, and that she was not moving it herself. Goldstein reported that, as a result of this report, “she was regarded at first as a paranoiac.” When the left hand grasped an object, she could not voluntarily release it. The somatic sensibility of the left side was reported to be impaired, especially with aspects of sensation having to do with the orienting of the limb. Some spontaneous movements were noted to occur involving the left hand, such as wiping the face or rubbing the eyes; but these were relatively infrequent. Only with significant effort was she able to perform simple movements with the left arm in response to spoken command, but these movements were performed slowly and often incompletely even if these same movements had been involuntarily performed with relative ease before while in the abnormal ‘alien’ control mode.
October 9th, 2013 by Wil
An interesting NY Times article argues that canine neurological function is – at least in some ways – similar to our own.
Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.
Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.
In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
It is a bit of a stretch to conclude that because dog brain components activate in a way similar to ours then they must experience life in the same manner as we do. But it is a step towards that conclusion. And if science does determine that dogs (and likely other animals of similar sentience) feel emotions as humans do, then mankind is going to have to breath in a collective gasp at how we’ve often treated dogs throughout history.
The piece reminds me of an article I once wrote on the topic of morality. It was entitled, “You Think You’re a Good Person? You’re Not!” At one point I said:
By studying the past, and gaining a sense of the evolution of morality, perhaps we can intuit where it is headed. I’ve long felt that there will be a wide expansion of animal-rights in the coming centuries. As animals are revealed to be more and more intelligent and emotive, and as the possibility of “growing meat” becomes reality, there will be increased pressure on the meat industry to soften its ways, or even dissolve completely. (The Spanish government is even currently debating vastly increased legal protections for gorillas.) And some scientists are already arguing that plants have an emotional life, so plant rights may not be far behind. Of course many a science fiction author has painted futuristic scenarios where pieces of technology — computers and robots — demand protection under the law. And in this future era, they will look back at citizens of our age — meat eating, gardening, robot abusing bastards — and be shocked at our cruelty much the same way we are appalled at the behavior of slave owning aristocrats of the 1800s.
September 18th, 2013 by Wil
For years I’ve suffered from a problem my Dad has mentioned struggling with. I wake up in the morning and in that half asleep state worry about all my problems. This doesn’t happen every morning, but occasionally. Lately, when I find myself doing this I try to refocus my brain on something positive or at least neutral. I often think of animals because I like them. For instance this morning I found myself visualizing an owl. He had that strange expression owls often wear and I could see him flying around in a forest.
It struck me that maybe this process is similar to the whole Indian Totem animal thing. My understanding is that Indians would meditate (perhaps after consuming peyote or something) on a particular animal and, in some sense, become that animal. I don’t think anything mystical is going on there but I could see the whole process providing a focused sense of energy.
Cats are also good subjects to focus on.
August 29th, 2013 by Wil
Educated readers doubtless recall my old Acid Logic article “What is Morality?” in which I argued that our sense of morality is less a thought out, reasoned set of rules and more an ethereal sense that is actually physically felt in our body. We avoid doing bad not because we are intellectually opposed to it, but because contemplating bad acts makes us feel uncomfortable.
As mentioned, I’ve been reading Mike Gazzaniga’s book on free will, “Who’s In Charge?”, and he discusses some observations relevant to the morality issue. Gazzaniga is most famous for studying “split brain patients.” These are people, usually epileptic, who’ve had the series of neural fibers that connect their left and right brain hemispheres separated (for therapeutic reasons.) Gazzaniga came to find that in subtle ways these people are really of two minds. The right hemisphere is very literal and has no language function. The left hemisphere is the interpreter (e.g. it can construct stories and explanations – often incorrectly – from observed events), and has rich language functionality.
In the book, Gazzaniga notes the work of another neuroscientist who discovered that when we use our knowledge of other people’s beliefs and intent, we use a particular brain area in the right hemisphere. Gazzaniga was surprised by this because he presumed this would mean that the left brain in split brain patients (the talky brain) would be incapable of keeping track of people’s intentions. He designed a series of experiments to suss this out. Basically this involved asking patients questions like, “If Susie gives what she thinks is sugar but actually is poison to her boss, is she bad?” or the inverse, “If Susie gives her boss sugar that she thinks is poison, is she ok?” These questions, as you can see, are all about Susie’s intent. And, as Gazzaniga’s predicted, the split brain patients (or at least their talking left side) focused on the outcome of the actions, not the intent. It didn’t matter that Susie was trying to kill her boss if it all worked out okay.
It would seem that morality is a series of brain functions. If a piece is missing (or inaccessible), our moral function gets warped, at least by the standards of society.
May 29th, 2013 by Wil
The June 2013 Discover Magazine has an interesting article about advances being made in computer intelligence. The article is, unfortunately, not available online, but this quote caught my eye.
Cognitive computers… will weave together inputs from multiple sensory streams, form associations, encode memories, recognize patterns, make predictions and then interpret, perhaps even act – all using far less power than today’s machine.
Now is as good a time as any to ask a question that has floated around in science-fiction philosophy circles for a long time: will computers ever think like us? Will computers, at least in their thought processes, become human?
Even in their current state, computers are quite “intelligent.” You might’ve heard of Deep Blue, the computer program that bested chess great Garry Kasparov. And don’t forget Watson, the computer that won on Jeopardy! Computers are engaging in processes that at least mimic information recall and strategizing.
The philosopher John Searle has come up with an interesting thought experiment to illustrate why computers can never really think as humans do. He proposes that you have a man locked in a Chinese prison cell. The man does not speak or read Chinese. Chinese characters are passed into his cell, and he draws from his own collection of Chinese characters to “answer.” He eventually gets pretty good at responding with the correct Chinese characters. (Theoretically this would take many lifetimes to learn but this is a thought experiment.) The guy is presumably thinking along the lines of, “whenever I get this character or character set, they seem to like it when I reply with this character or character set.” To the Chinese people on the outside, it seems like the guy in the prison cell understands the conversation but in reality he doesn’t. The prisoner recognizes the designs of the symbols, but not their meaning.
Searle’s allegation is that this is how computers play chess, compete on Jeopardy!, and generally “think.” They can trade in symbols, but they can’t understand the meaning behind the symbols.
Now, you can ruminate on Searle’s thought experiment and say, “Yep, looks like he’s got it. There’s something fundamentally different about the human thinking experience.” Or you can wonder, “do we humans really understand the meaning behind symbols in which we trade?”
Our intuitive response to that latter question is, “of course we understand meaning!” But, let’s “think” about this for a bit…
Here’s a basic thought: 2 + 2 = 4. Hard to deny that one, and it’s a thought we’ve all had. But when someone asks “what is 2 + 2?” do you contemplate the logic of the question, or do you just spit out the same answer you’ve always spat out? Do you think about the meaning of the question, or do you reflexively output an answer? Frankly, if you really examine your thought process, it’s difficult to say what happens, but generally speaking I have the sense of a kind of reflexive output. I’m certainly aware that the way I learned my addition, subtraction, multiplication and division tables was more rote memorization than contemplating the logic each equation.
When we get into more complex math problems, a more complex kind of thinking emerges. Let’s take, “what is 12 x 11?” My rote memory fails me. But I do recall that 11 is equal to 10 + 1. And rote memory does tell me that 12 X 10 = 120. So if I take that output, and add 12 (otherwise known as 12 X 1) I get 132. But, am I really thinking the process through, or am I merely collecting outputs from memorized calculations (e.g. 12 X 10 = 120 and 120 + 12 = 132)? Am I simply manipulating symbols? If I’m simply manipulating symbols, then even if I solve problems of great complexity, I’m still not “thinking” about them, because any massive problem can be broken down into a multitude of more basic problems.
There’s one way we definitely don’t think like computers. My understanding is that the way Deep Blue played chess was something like the following: It would look at the current chess board and “think” along the lines of, “if I move this piece here, he’ll move that piece there, and then I’ll have to move this piece there etc.” From these various generated scenarios, Deep Blue would choose the best one. Deep Blue could run through tons (Thousands? Millions?) of these scenarios very quickly, much faster than humans could. So how do humans handle complex games of chess (and other life challenges)? Our limited memory prevents us from searching through millions of possible scenarios. To a large degree, we use heuristics, simple rules that can be used to handle computations. A basic math heuristic might be that any number times 10 just gets a zero added to the right (e.g. 12 X 10 = 120.) A basic chess heuristic might be, “never expose your king.”
Jonah Lehrer’s book* “How We Decide,” describes a number of scenarios where unconscious heuristics were used in complex, often dangerous situations. I can’t recall all the details, but I remember one about a Navy officer in the first Iraq war who was able to correctly determine that a radar blip was an enemy missile, not a friendly airplane. The catch was that he couldn’t explain how he knew the right answer, he just did. The military studied the situation and eventually determined that the two types of airborne objects appeared on radar in slightly different ways, ways largely imperceptible to the conscious mind. This guy was simply operating on a gut feeling, which might as well be another word for heuristic.
* In fairness, I should note that many of Lehrer’s books including “How We Decide” have been found to contain fraudulent elements. But since I’m using the story as an example of the phenomenon of gut feelings (which have been recognized for centuries (er, I think)) I’m letting it stand.
However, these heuristics, like rote memorization, aren’t really thoughts; they’re more like reactions. We don’t process them, or least were not consciously aware of processing them, we just output them.
Frankly, as I “think” it through I’m not sure what a “real” thought would even be. Obviously we don’t want to think through and do calculations for every problem that comes up. It’s much easier to utilize these automated processes of memorization and heuristics. Maybe the real question is not, “can computers think like humans?” but, “are computers conscious of their thoughts?”
Which opens up the question, “what is consciousness?”
Sigh. Life is hard.
May 6th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve been reading an interesting book called “The Age of Insight” by Eric Kandel (a famous neuroscientist who co-hosts Charlie Rose’s Brain series.) In the book, Kandel looks at turn-of-the-century Vienna and the interaction between scientists and artists that took place there. Freud was operating in Vienna at the time and his observations about the unconscious had a big effect on painters and writers of the day who turned from merely representing the physical world to hinting at what was happening “underneath the surface” of their subjects. Artists also integrated the ideas of Darwin into their work.
What strikes me while reading this book is how different the relationship between artists and scientists was back then as compared to today. Now there seems to be this big dividing line between artists and scientists. Scientists are generally mistrusted by artists. (This was perhaps best expressed in the Insane Clown Posse song “Miracles” in which Shaggy 2 Dope rapped, “And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist. Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed.”) In general, I think artists tend to feel they work at unveiling a “greater truth” about the human condition, a truth that scientists – with their obsession with diagnostics and numbers – can never approach.
For the most part, I suspect modern artists are full of shit in their views. Much of modern music, whether it be pop or niche, seems largely self-obsessed – a bunch of losers bemoaning their shitty love affairs, or shitty jobs or shitty feces stained life. This stands in stark contrast to the Viennese artists who were attempting to explore themes of the human mind or birth of our species.
What is needed today is a great artist to arise and rejuvenate the connection between science and art. That artist could be me, but most people are too dumb to appreciate my genius.
May 1st, 2013 by Wil
Recently, I read something to the effect that humans can differentiate between half a million smells. So I thought I would really make a point to smell the world more. Today I was jogging and I passed a row of some plants or grass or something and was hit with a smell. It was, and I’m amazed I’m using this world to describe a smell, but it was beautiful. Really pleasant and magical.
As I was walking back from my run it struck me that smells are beautiful in a unique way. Generally we use the word beautiful to describe things we see. These are people or objects, and even as we are amazed at their beauty, we covet them. Their beauty creates a yearning. With sound, the term beautiful is usually applied to music. And again, we want the song, we are filled with need. To some degree this is true with strong tastes – food or drink; We must have it again and again. Touch is a more ethereal sense but we do covet a lot of things that appeal to touch – warm things, plush things, rugs, coats etc. (Sex of course involves the sense of touch.)
But smell is different. We don’t seek to own smells, indeed we know we can’t. We’re (mostly) content to enjoy them and let them pass.
Now you might be saying, “What about perfumes?” Yeah, I thought of that, but, speaking for myself, I don’t really covet perfumes. I’ve never smelled a perfume and thought, “I have to have that.” Perfumes aren’t really about the smell itself, they are about making you smell like that smell. A perfume is more like a mask than an object that exists on its own terms.
Thus I have spoken.
April 22nd, 2013 by Wil
Lately I’ve been considering the idea of writing down some of the various episodes of my life so that I can be aided in their recall years from now. I’m talking about various adventures, profound experiences and sexual conquests that have occurred to me. For them to be lost would be a shame, both for my pleasure as well as the good of humanity. My dad wrote an autobiography several years ago from which he now frequently enjoys reading.
But I’m also aware that the process of writing down memories tends to alter them. When you force yourself to recall an event you often find yourself putting greater weight on parts of the memory then you had during previous more passive episodes of recall. Like, you might force yourself to recall your 13th birthday party and then all of a sudden you remember that some kid who you had a fight with years later was there and you fixate on his presences at the party, perhaps soiling the memory when you recall it in the future. The memory morphs from “my fun 13th birthday party,” to “that party that fucker David Alvira was at!”
I also have to note that in the past when I’ve written down memories I have… shall we say, embellished things? Not out of a need to aggrandize myself, but merely because I’ve forgotten the exact facts. I might not recall exactly which friend I shared some activity with, so I just chose the best candidate out of friends I had at the time. The problem is that then the memory gets re-encoded with that friend as the partner in crime. Then, years later I’m telling the story to someone and they say. What do you mean that was X? That was me!”
This all leads up to the question: what is a memory? This question can be asked from a number of views – the psychological view, the neuroscientific view, the biological view – but I’m asking from the subjective view. When I recall a memory what am I really experiencing? I’ll recall a memory right now: my trip to New York this past fall. I recall my brother’s apartment where I stayed, his pet rabbit, the rather cold weather (it was right after the hurricane hit) a walk down the east side of Central Part anxiously looking for a bathroom (had to pee bad!), a nice stroll through Central Park when the re-opened it, having beers with my brother’s friend. Basically a cascade of memories. But what are the contents of those sub-memories? I recall that walk through Central Park but I certainly couldn’t map out the path I took. I couldn’t provide an account of the people I saw. I don’t recall what I was wearing. I have, at best, a collection of fleeting moments, vague mental snapshots. And I’m glumly aware of the fact that I may, in future years, confuse events that happened in that stroll through Central Park with other strolls. Memories are malleable and interconnecting which makes them ultimately untrustworthy.
April 15th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve become intrigued with the idea that the fundamental experience of being alive has been changing over the course of human history. I don’t mean basic changes like we’ve got more stuff or less hunger, but rather that the very nature of how we perceive and conceive of the world around us is shifting. You might recall my musing about a writer who argued that human beings were not even conscious 3000 years ago. Or my conception that as we’ve become more assaulted by distractions like phone calls and email alerts we’ve become less able to focus on the creation and enjoyment of ornamental art.
Today I came across a relevant section in David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” He notes…
Marshall McLuhan famously proposed that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in an acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multi-layered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has a perspective—a vanishing point.
I’m not sure I totally buy this. Sound isn’t exactly “everywhere” – we can tell if a sound came from our left or our right; we can tell if a sound is coming from far away or close. And I’d even say there’s a certain hierarchy to sounds. Loud or novel sounds demand our attention more so than softer or common ones. (Of course, maybe that’s just my visual culture trained brain imposing a hierarchy on acoustic culture.) Nonetheless, I agree with the gist – the acoustic world is much more ephemeral and ghostlike than the visual world of objects. The acoustic world is harder to define, which is Byrne’s next point.
McLuhan claims that our visual sense began to get increasingly bombarded by all the stuff we were producing. It began to take precedence over our auditory sense, and he said that the way we think and view the world changed as a result. In an acoustic universe one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies. He claims that in a visual universe one begins to think in a linear fashion, one thing following another along a timeline, rather than everything existing right now, everywhere, in the moment.
Again I have some small qualms with these statements but the point is made. Certainly we seem to live in a world obsessed with defining things. One need look only at genres of music; people don’t just listen to pop music, they listen to “West Coast post-modern indie pop.” (And they have no use for anyone who doesn’t!) The argument some would make is that we’ve gotten so obsessed with defining things that we no longer really experience them.
We’re so used to the hierarchy of the visual universe that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It seems like such an essential aspect of our life experience that we presume it must be innate – built into the brain. But I recall neurologist Oliver Sacks observations of a man who – after being blind his whole life – regained sight. It wasn’t really a gift; he could see but he struggled to comprehend what he saw. I discussed this in my old acid logic piece “Making Sense of the Senses.”
With the cataracts gone the outside visual world flowed into Virgil’s brain, but he could not map what he saw to objects he had only experienced with his other senses. During Virgil’s initial moment of sight…
… he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, “Well?” Then, and only then, [Virgil] said, did he finally realized that this chaos and light and shadow was a face — and, indeed, the face of the surgeon.
Sacks contemplated the dilemma of this moment.
… when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for 45 years — having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten — there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.
After regaining sight, Virgil struggled with seemingly basic components of seeing. He could see all the elements of a tree — the leaves, the roots, the branches — but had difficulty combining them into a single object. He struggled to understand shapes. Movement baffled him. He had to practice looking at household objects from different angles to gain the understanding that they were one single thing. And his eyes would fatigue much faster than a normal person. Eventually, Virgil lost his vision a second time, though the exact cause for this is unclear.
McLuhan might have argued that Virgil was at the center of a devastating collision between the visual and non-visual universes.
I’m taking pains here to not insinuate that one way of observing the world is better than the other. But I will say there’s a part of me that yearns to escape the endless defining and categorization that seems built into modern life (and often passes for some kind of intellectual activity when it’s more often mere mental masturbation.) I’d like to experience things more simply and fully. To better experience the essence of things.
April 11th, 2013 by Wil
I’d like to think I’ve become less materialistic over the past couple years. By this, I mean less attached and in need of stuff. I’ve even made a point of getting rid of a lot of the crap I’ve been dragging around for years – albums, cassette tapes, VHS movies, comics and mummified heads of dead hookers. And I really feel “lighter” for it.
The Eckhart Tolle book I was reading recently was against the amassing of crap. The book’s argument against stuff was the predicable Buddhist argument, that you’ll never have enough. You’ll never feel as if you’ve got everything you need. Predictable though that may be, I think it’s basically correct. You really don’t need much in this world (especially now that most entertainment products end up free on the web anyway.)
But the Tolle book touched on a point that I hadn’t really considered. It’s not the wanting and needing up stuff that drives you crazy, it’s the wanting of objects. Objects could be physical things but they could be more ethereal. They could be skills or ideas. And while I’ve gladly forsaken most stuff, I still chase after skills and ideas. I still read a lot, I still work on becoming a better musician, composer, polymath, thinker. But will that ever be enough? Will I ever feel like I’ve achieved my goals in these areas? Probably not and that’s not really news to me. There’s a certain amount of acceptable yearning built into any pursuit. But I have to concede that while I’ve been looking at the vast hordes or materialistic scum out there and feeling superior to them, I’m really not superior at all.