Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Tackling the new atheists

In one of my recent articles on heretical ideas I noted that a) I’m an atheist, and b) I don’t think there is any way to divine morality. This puts me at odds with most of the “New Atheists” like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who argue we can have morality without God.

There’s an interesting article in the Spectator by a writer named Theo Hobson. He is presumably religious and takes a rather snippy tone to atheists. But I think he makes some points that complement my own and his piece is worth reading if you need something philosophical to curl up with.

In these paragraphs he points out something I’ve thought about. New atheists dismiss faith, but their insistence that some kind of moral rule can be ascertained sounds an awful lot like faith itself.

The trouble is that too many atheists simply assume the truth of secular humanism, that it is the axiomatic ideology: just there, our natural condition, once religious error is removed. They think morality just comes naturally. It bubbles up, it’s instinctive, not taught as part of a cultural tradition. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins tries to strengthen this claim using his biological expertise, arguing that humans have evolved to be altruistic because it ultimately helps their genes to survive. But in the end, he admits that no firm case can be made concerning the evolutionary basis of morality. He’s just gesturing with his expertise, rather than really applying it to the issue at hand.

Here’s his muddle. On one hand he believes that morality, being natural, is a constant thing, stable throughout history. On the other hand, he believes in moral progress. To square the circle he plunges out of his depth, explaining that different ages have different ideas of morality, and that in recent times there has happily been a major advance in our moral conventions: above all, the principle of equality has triumphed. Such changes ‘certainly have not come from religion’, he snaps. He instead points to better education about our ‘common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex — both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution’. But biological science, especially evolution, can be used to authorise eugenics and racism. The real issue is the triumph of an ideology of equality, of humanism. Instead of asking what this tradition is, and where it comes from, he treats it as axiomatic. This is just the natural human morality, he wants us to think, and in our times we are fortunate to see a particularly full expression of it.

It’s interesting that he argues that new atheists feel moral truth is “instinctive.” I tackled this very premise in my article.

Another New Atheist, Sam Harris, hints at something similar in this Big Think video when he says (after arguing that we don’t need God for morality) that we have “some very serviceable intuitions about what good and evil are.” The problem, however, is that feelings and intuitions (programmed into us via evolution or not) are not a logical means from which we can define moral behavior. Most of us would agree that proposing the murder of a 10 week old baby feels wrong, but that doesn’t mean it can be logically shown to be so. We can even construct scenarios where killing the baby is the right thing to do for the greater good (say, the baby is the carrier of a deadly disease that cannot be allowed to spread). In such cases, killing the baby might be the right thing to do (according to conventional ethics) but I think we all know that it would still feel awful to carry out the act. From that we must conclude that feelings/intuitions are not a trustworthy source of divining morals.


Today in my readings I came across mention of something I’d never heard of: breatharians. These are people who believe they can live without food by subsisting on air and sunlight. It sounds insane of course, but a google search reveals plenty of conversation about the topic. How do they do it? Well, for the most part they don’t.

In 1983, most of the leadership of the movement in California resigned when Wiley Brooks, a notable proponent of breatharianism, was caught sneaking into a hotel and ordering a chicken pie.[

Mmmm… chicken pie.

Also note:

Under controlled conditions where people are actually watched to see if they can do it without sneaking some real food, they fail. The name most commonly associated with breatharianism is Australia’s Jasmuheen (born Ellen Greve), who claims to live only on a cup of tea and a biscuit every few days. However, the only supervised test of this claim (by the Australian edition of 60 Minutes in 1999) left her suffering from severe dehydration[4] and the trial was halted after four days, despite Greve’s insistence she was happy to continue. She claimed the failure was due to being near a city road, leading to her being forced to breathe “bad air”. She continued this excuse even after she was moved to the middle of nowhere.

The various forms of human insanity seem to have no limits.

Atheism versus spirituality?

I’ve been reading an interesting book on twin studies called “Identically Different.” It gets a reader up to up to date on the current analysis of what kinds of human behavior can be attributed to genes. The book is broken up into chapters such as “The Happiness Gene,” “The Talent Gene” etc. (I should make clear author is far from an absolutist who believes genes are the dominant force in our lives; he subscribes to the mainstream belief that our behavior is a combination between nature and nature.)

One chapter is “The God Gene.” It explores the idea that some part of our brain is wired to believe in God or at least something “greater”. The author is not the first to make this argument. (I’ve commented on similar material here.)

Part of how scientists study this sort of thing is by asking people to fill out self-surveys on their religiosity. And here I have a small beef with the process. The author describes two questions on a multi-question survey.

I believe that all life depends of some spiritual order or power that cannot be completely explained — true or false.

Often, when I look at an ordinary thing, something wonderful happens— I get the feeling I am seeing it fresh for the first time —- true or false.

If I’m interpreting this correctly, answering false to these questions would be a marker for atheism, and marking true would imply spirituality.

I would answer true for the first and true for the second. (I can’t really claim to be blown away in these moments of personal beauty, but, yeah, sometimes I am struck by the beauty of things.) But I don’t really see this as contradictory. Everything I’ve seen about the universal seems to imply a lack of God (in the conventional religious sense.) But I don’t think that means I can’t be spiritual in so much as enjoying the grandeur of universe. And I am willing to concede that there could be a certain kind of greater consciousness in the universe (as I described here.)

The questions set up a battle—atheism versus spirituality—that I don’t think is necessary. I will say, however, that while I come out in favor of spirituality here, that doesn’t mean I buy into the vast wastelands of idiocy that are often touted as spirituality—channeling aliens and all that rot.

The end of the creative class?

I’ve mentioned the book “The Age of Insight” which I found quite interesting. It was about many things including the exploits of various artists that lived in Vienna around the turn of the century (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, etc.) One thing I recall from the book is how these men really struggled to come up with unique art. They experimented with different ideas and incorporated a lot of the discoveries of that era’s science into their art. (Klimpt incorporated images of blastocyst cells in his painting, for example. ) Their art was more than just pretty pictures—it had meat and substance*.

* Visual artists of the day were spurred on by two pressing challenges—1) the advent of photography that rendered realistic painting somewhat moot, and 2) the rise of the Freud and the idea that one’s “inner world” might be a more fascinating place than the outer world.

I think this trend lasted through the 20th century. Think of jazz musicians, existential filmmakers, Robert Crumb, psychedelic music etc. Whatever you think of this stuff (I, personally, find most psychedelic music laughable though I applaud the band Ultimate Spinach) it was art with a lot of thought behind it.

This was art made by what I would call the creative class. These were artists (of all disciplines) exploring the world, making art not for any obvious immediate use (like being used in a greeting card or as a portrait.)

I’m not sure you see much of this today. With the decimation of the value of content in the digital age, I’m not sure it’s viable to make art that doesn’t have immediate use.

There was a book that came out several years ago called “The Rise of the Creative Class.” I never read it but it would seem to dispute what I’m saying. But examine this blurb about the books (From the book’s Amazon page.)

He defines this class as those whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. In general this group shares common characteristics, such as creativity, individuality, diversity, and merit. The author estimates that this group has 38 million members, constitutes more than 30 percent of the U.S. workforce, and profoundly influences work and lifestyle issues. The purpose of this book is to examine how and why we value creativity more highly than ever and cultivate it more intensely.

This creative class is creating for a (usually commercial) reason. I absolutely agree that creating a web application can be a very creative pursuit—after all, I’ve been part of that process—but it’s different from explorational creating, from the act of creating to “find your voice.” We value creativity today if it has short term payoff, not so much if the benefits aren’t immediately obvious. Art now has to immediately find its value in the marketplace.

I should be clear, I realize there’s some crossover here. Artists making “for immediate use” art often spend their off hours making more esoteric art. But the general trend I find troubling.

Electromagnetic Consciousness

In the realm of brain studies there’s a fairly reductionist view that argues that our consciousness and subjective experience is firmly rooted in our physical brains. The idea goes that we have these incredibly complex interactions between tens of billions of neurons and out of that arises our experience of being alive. Most authors I’ve read on the topic freely concede the exact nature of how consciousness arises from this is a mystery but it seems pretty clear that our self corresponds to our neural tissue. Simply consider that someone can have a brain stroke and they become a different person — they can no longer speak or form memories or control their anger. The soul seems to exist in physical form (or more accurately, it doesn’t exist at all.)

I’m pretty sympathetic to this view. But the book “The Mind’s I” has a thought experiment that does challenge this view. First let’s consider a brain in its ideal form. It’s sitting there, neurons firing, creating thoughts. Now let’s imagine an incredible surgery where you go in and separate apart every single neuron and place each one in its own chemical bath to keep it alive. (This is, or course, impossible.) You then attach electronic signaling/receiving devices so each neuron can communicate with whatever neurons to which it was “attached” (e.g. shared a synapse with) before. So, basically, even though the neurons are now separate, their signaling is exactly the same as it was in the whole brain. Can we still envision a mind rising out of all this?

Well, I dunno… maybe…

But it gets worse. Instead of putting little signaling/receiving devices on each neuron, attach little zappers that that simply fire different amounts of electricity. Now separate these neurons by hundreds of miles. Then fire of each of the zappers so that the neurons fire the exact way the would if the brain’s owner was thinking of a cat. (There’s no signaling going on, just neurons firing in the same order as if they were receiving signals.) Would some entity somewhere suddenly think of a cat?

It seems unlikely doesn’t it? But the individual neurons in all these cases are behaving exactly the same. So this would seem to dispel the possibility of a purely reductionist (e.g. it’s all in the tissue) model of consciousness.

I just stumbled on some general theories that address this issue. They are “Electromagnetic theories of consciousness.” (Link goes to wiki page about it.) The idea is that when you have a bunch of neurons in a brain they are, because of their electrical activity, creating an electromagnetic field. And somehow this field is consciousness. The field is not only created by the brain’s neurons, it affects them as well, so the field and brain effectively pass signals back and forth. The wiki page has details.

The starting point for McFadden and Pockett’s theory is the fact that every time a neuron fires to generate an action potential, and a postsynaptic potential in the next neuron down the line, it also generates a disturbance in the surrounding electromagnetic field. McFadden has proposed that the brain’s electromagnetic field creates a representation of the information in the neurons. Studies undertaken towards the end of the 20th century are argued to have shown that conscious experience correlates not with the number of neurons firing, but with the synchrony of that firing.[9] McFadden views the brain’s electromagnetic field as arising from the induced EM field of neurons. The synchronous firing of neurons is, in this theory, argued to amplify the influence of the brain’s EM field fluctuations to a much greater extent than would be possible with the unsynchronized firing of neurons.
McFadden thinks that the EM field could influence the brain in a number of ways. Redistribution of ions could modulate neuronal activity, given that voltage-gated ion channels are a key element in the progress of axon spikes. Neuronal firing is argued to be sensitive to the variation of as little as one millivolt across the cell membrane, or the involvement of a single extra ion channel. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is similarly argued to have demonstrated that weak EM fields can influence brain activity.[citation needed]
McFadden proposes that the digital information from neurons is integrated to form a conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field in the brain. Consciousness is suggested to be the component of this field that is transmitted back to neurons, and communicates its state externally. Thoughts are viewed as electromagnetic representations of neuronal information, and the experience of free will in our choice of actions is argued to be our subjective experience of the cemi field acting on our neurons.

I’m not agreeing with this (frankly, I still don’t really understand what electromagnetic fields are) but it does address the problems with the reductionist view.

Can metal remember?

I’ve mentioned in the past an idea that I freely concede may be crazy but it’s interesting enough to keep afloat: the possibility that consciousness is a basic property of all things and when matter interacts in complex and networked ways (like it does in a human brain or an advanced computer) higher, self-aware consciousness develops.

This L.A Times article offers more food for thought. It’s about a UCLA scientist who has developed a microchip that he claims can remember. How does it do it? Well, the science writing in this article is so vague that I’m pretty sure the reporter doesn’t understand and I sure don’t. It basically sounds like the scientist is creating neuron-like connections with metal strands and passing electricity through them.

In a lab, they placed a series of copper wire posts, mounted on a silicon wafer, into a solution of silver. As the copper dissolved, the silver formed intricate hair-like strands, as complex as the human cortex. It was the birth of the dust ball.

Building the chip is “extraordinarily simple,” Stieg says. Once the strands are created, they are exposed to sulfur, which provides electrical and ionic conductivity, and when electrical signals are sent through them, atoms migrate through each intersection of silver, each strand over strand.

Much as stimulus changes the brain by building over time synaptic patterns that can be associated to memory, the signals over time change the structure of the chip. Bridges form between the strands, further altering the chip.

What I find interesting here is the default behavior of the components of this chip seems to be to seek out “connections”, to create bridges. Much like neurons in the human brain branching and creating new synapses.

What causes neurons and silver strands to seek connections? I believe it is the fundamental need of all things to seek love!

No, seriously, I dunno. But if there’s a basic property of matter to, in some way, attract other matter, then it’s not that amazing that connections of the sort that could engender consciousness would arise.

Group produced art

In a recent acid logic article I claimed that authorship is dead. By this I meant that the notion of one person being responsible for a piece of art, writing, film etc. was faulty. I’m thinking this might point towards some interesting new ways of creating art.

Let’s consider rock music. The conventional approach is that there’s a band and usually within that band there’s one or two people who do the bulk of the writing. For example, on my two recent albums I am the sole credited writer. But, of course, I am not 100% responsible for every note you hear. There are many improvised solos and parts that I had little to do with (though I do tend to be a “guiding force” when people are laying down their tracks; I approve and reject ideas.)

Now, there’s a lot going for this auteur approach. One person can have a grand vision and make sure the final work matches that vision. But why not have all band members contribute ideas? Why not have dozens if not hundreds of people contribute ideas? (Thus really eliminating the idea of “a band.”)

But how would this work? Let’s say one person presented a template for a piece of music. Something like, “The song will start out slow and sad, then move into an uptempo happy section, then a driving but angry section, then back to an uptempo section then end with a variation of the slow and sad intro.” Perhaps people could contribute submissions for each of these “song parts” and then vote on how they go together. Or maybe they submit contributions to an authoritarian fascist leader (e.g. me) who decides how they go together.

The result may be that no one is completely happy with the work. But that’s kind of my point. The piece is satisfying a different kind of entity, a different kind of intelligence… a sort of “group intelligence.” The group would have to have a certain faith that the results are worthwhile and will bring to light interesting musical aspects that are not be available in more conventional “auteur style” writing.

Obviously this idea could be applied to other forms of art – film, visual arts, fiction etc.

Strangely, I’m reminded a bit of the Agetha Christie story where the killer turns out to be a group of people, each who stabbed (I think) the victim once. If one considers murder an art (and I see no reason why one shouldn’t) this may be the first conception of what I’m talking about.

I should also be clear that what I’m describing is probably what a lot of existing art collectives around the world are already doing. But I think I might be shading it a little differently and uniquely.

Finally, I should concede that why this is an interesting idea, it may not be something I would excel at. I am still rather ego driven and seem to be moving towards wanting more control over every aspect of what I create, not less. But maybe I’ll give this a shot.

Peeling the onion of consciousness

This post may reiterate some points I’ve made in other recent writings but it may also reveal the fundamental truth of all life and existence so I think some repetition can be forgiven.

I’ve been thinking again about this ethereal thing we call consciousness. I find myself musing on the question, “what can I be conscious of?” Obviously I can be conscious of things I see, hear, smell etc… all my sensory sensations (including subtle ones like vestibular/balance sensations and internal body states.) I can also be conscious of thoughts and ideas. This can be great thoughts such as the content of this blog, or more pedestrian musings like, “I need to buy toothpaste” or even thoughts that aren’t thoughts at all: just general sensations of being bored or wondering what Harrison Ford is up to. Even recognizing objects—seeing a car and being aware that it runs on gas and gets people around—is a thought-like mental activity. So too is simply being aware of the passage of time.

Let’s perform a thought experiment and remove some of these elements. Can I envision what it would like to not have my sensory data? Certainly; it’s easy enough to close one’s eyes, to blot out noise etc. I can’t absolutely turn off my sensory systems but I can envision the gist of what it would be like to do so. Can I also turn off my internal thoughts and my object recognition? This is much harder. It’s probably similar to what babies—new to the world and devoid of human knowledge— experience, though even they have intuitions and reflexes that require no learning. However, I think we’ve all had that feeling of just momentarily zoning out, of existing with not much going through your head. Maybe that’s similar to what stripping out this kind of thought awareness is like.

So, if I strip away all this “stuff” what am I left with? Consciousness with nothing to be conscious of. It’s possible there’s nothing at that point; you are essentially dead. But what if consciousness/self-awareness is, as some would argue, a kind of property of the universe, a bit like gravity*? It’s everywhere and when it interacts with a complex network like a brain, it results in a sense of self—an identity with an awareness of its past and its thoughts and whatnot. But the “self” is not really what’s aware; this consciousness field is. And this field is everywhere, in the same sense that forces like gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak forces are everywhere.

*Frankly, I’m describing something pretty close to the force from the Star Wars movies. Of course that concept was largely lifted from Asian philosophy.

I realize this is quite new-agey and almost impossible to prove, but it does nicely align itself with certain aspects of human spiritualism. Maybe what many spiritualists—shamans and monks of yore—experienced via drugs and meditation was a stripping away of the “content” of consciousness (sensations/thoughts etc.) and an arrival at the raw, empty experience. (This actually ties in with the experiences of Jill Bolte Taylor described here.)

At worst, I’ve got an interesting premise for a science fiction novel.

UPDATE: Feb 25 2014
I was never under the impression that I was originating this theory and I have to say it’s quite similar to Benjamin Libet’s “Conscious Mental Field Theory.” It’s described at this wiki page and includes the following quote from him about the idea.

The process by which the CMF arises from its contributing elements is not describable [sic]. It must simply be regarded as a new fundamental ‘‘given’’ phenomenon in nature, which is different from other fundamental ‘‘givens,’’ like gravity or electromagnetism.

Can plants think?

This is serendipitous. Recently, I wrote, “If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of complex networks (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex.”

Today I come across an interesting New Yorker (December 23, 2013) article on the possibility of plant intelligence. At one point it states:

The hypothesis that intelligent behavior in plants may be an emergent property of cell exchanging signals in a network might sound far-fetched, yet the way that intelligence emerges from a network of neurons may not be very different. Most neuroscientists agree that, while brains considered as whole function as centralized command centers for most animals, within the brain there doesn’t seem to be any command post; rather, one finds a leaderless network. That sense we get when we think about a plant—that there is no there there, no wizard behind the curtain pulling levers—may apply equally well to our brains.

Now the article doesn’t allude to my essential point: that complex networks like brains (and according to this article, plants) may birth not only intelligence (whatever that is) but consciousness (whatever that is.) But the article does seem to imply that we are starting to break down these barriers between different forms of life. (You might recall a recent link I posted arguing that the very barrier between living and non living is false.)

To be clear about a possible confusion arising from my initial quote in the first paragraph; I was suggesting that non living things like storms might have some form of consciousness. I’m aware that plants are living things. ;)

Can storms be conscious?

There’s an observation about consciousness that I’ve seen made in various texts including “The Mind’s I” and it goes something like this: If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of networks with a certain complexity (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex. Computers might be one example. So could ant colonies. (Ants themselves are alive but the colony as a unit is not.) But so could things such as ocean waves or electrical storms. Such phenomenon do “exchange information” via complex patterns of “signals” that I freely confess I don’t really understand.

This seems baffling. How could an electrical storm be conscious, even for an instant? Does it suddenly come to being in the sky and think to itself, “I am Bob Weinburger the electrical storm.”

That ridiculous of course. No self respecting electrical storm would name itself Bob. But it’s ridiculous in other ways. How could consciousness simply arise out of nothing?

I was thinking about this today and I realized I was making consciousness more complex than it has to be. I am conscious right now (at least I think I am; various philosophies might argue that perception is an illusion.) This means I’m aware of my world, I recall recent and distant events, I have plans for the future, I have my internal dialogue, etc. But there’s a big difference between me—a person conscious for over 4 decades—and an electrical storm possibly conscious for a moment. I am loaded down with memories, intuitions, knowledge and categorizations about the world etc. Much of my conscious experience is really about juggling data. But if I could strip all that away, what would I be left with? By this I mean, if I took away my ability to use language, my ability to really be aware of my thoughts, to define the world around me, to even be aware there’s a difference between me and the world around me, to even have an urge to break the world up into objects, what am I left with? I’m not exactly sure—it’s probably impossible for our minds to fathom—but it might be a simple enough state. And a state that I could believe an electrical storm could achieve, if only for a moment. It’s like being a really dumb baby I suppose.

Here’s some other recent thoughts prompted by “The Mind’s I.”

UPDATE: Jan 22, 2014
I have to state that a certain thought crosses my mind here. This form of consciousness I argue storms might achieve sounds not unlike the ego-less, formless mental state people seek via meditation and whatnot. And I think Buddhism does argue that in some sense, everything is conscious. One can conceive of consciousness as a kind of property of the universe, like gravity, that permeates everything. Our mental networks, (e.g. brains) have the additional component of memory and thus we are able to form selves and identities.

I’m not saying I sign off on any of these ideas but they are interesting to ruminate on.