Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Do we “know” anything?

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.

Art versus science

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.

Smell the glove

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.

Malleable memories

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.

Visual culture versus acoustic culture

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.


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.

Oxytocin: Can we be forced to feel?

Lately I’ve been reading a book titled “The Science of Evil,” written by neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (the cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, the actor who plays “Borat.”) The book is a look at what’s known about the brains of people who lack empathy – psychopaths, narcissists, autistics etc.

At one point in the book, Baron-Cohen mentions the recent development of an oxytocin nasal spray. Oxytocin, my erudite readers might recall, is a hormone produced by the human body and is associated with calm, loving feelings. We get a dose of oxytocin after sex or close contact; mothers get a dose during birth and while breast feeding their children (presumably this increases the mother/child bond.) It’s been termed “the cuddle drug” and there is now a nasal spray version. This article looks at the idea of troubled couples using it too smooth out their relationships.

Baron-Cohen discusses the possibility of the spray being used by people with low empathy – people who might commit some kind of hurtful crime. In essence, he’s proposing that low empathy individuals be encouraged to feel. I have to wonder whether we will see this scenario: a violent offender, perhaps a psychopath, is ordered by the court to use the oxytocin spray. Will civil rights groups then argue that, by forcing this person to feel, the law is mandating that the person change something essential about themselves, to become someone they are not? Do we have a right to maintain our essential character?

Of course how essential can our character be if it can be altered via the ingestion of a chemical? Must we confront a more disturbing possibility, that we have no essential character at all and our “selves” are merely the fluctuating interactions of the various hormones and neurotransmitters that travel throughout our body and brain?

Merry Christmas!

You are nothing!

When I think about the core argument made by Eckhart Tolle (and Buddhism in general), I think it would break down to this: you are insignificant. You are a meaningless pee stain in a moldy corner of the universe and your life will ultimately be flushed down the toilet of history. You are nothing.

Tolle and many Buddhists would probably disagree with my framing of their views but I think that’s it in a nutshell. You might ask, “How could such a philosophy hope to have legs? How could that ever appeal to people?” But I get it – in essence this philosophy says, “None of my problems really ‘matter.’ The fact that I might get fired for spilling coffee on my bosses suit? Meaningless! My general sense of dissatisfaction with where I have ended up in life? Not worth worrying about. Even something heavy like my wife dying of cancer – ultimately insignificant and simply how life is meant to roll out. I might as well go to the park and smell the flowers.” I can certainly see many burdens being lightened by subscribing to such a viewpoint.

It’s a very difficult viewpoint to take of course, because we want to feel that we matter. We want to feel that our toils and tribulations serve some greater purpose. I see this a lot related to art. As I’ve mentioned I’ve been doing some exploration into the world of using social media to promote art projects, be they novel writing, music, film etc. And I see a lot of people constantly tweeting about how they are working on their novel, or how they wrote a song, or some weird new short film. People really tie their identities – their egos – to their artistic output; believe me, I did it for years, hell, I’m still doing it. It’s nice to think that after whatever shit you’ve dealt with in life you can point to something you’re proud of and say, “I did that. Fuck off world!”

But, if you’re going to take Tolle’s advice, you have to release your pride in those accomplishments. You have to give credit for them to “the universe” or some such. And that’s not an easy thing to do.

Of course, it is clearly true that you can’t take total credit for any art project. Take a painting. Obviously you didn’t create the paint or canvas from scratch. And your abilities to paint are derived from the years of development in painting which other humans have contributed to. You’re, at best, taking an established technique and putting your little spin on it.

I actually find thinking this that way makes me want to get more radical and experimental in art (in my case music.) After all, if this music isn’t “me” (e.g. if my ego’s attachment to the music is limited), why not get crazy? Why not get wild? Why not throw it up in the air and see where it lands?

This actually might explain the influence this kind of thought had on mid 20th century artist types who seemed to place the creative process into the hands of chance – Jackson Pollack and John Cage come to mind.

The new reality

As I’ve repeated over and over around here, I’m not a spiritual man. So when I hear hippies and assorted scum argue that “everything is connected” I’m liable to scoff at them and set them on fire. Nonetheless, I find when I think about reality, there’s no denying there is some truth to this. We objectify the universe; by this I mean we label and set boundaries for many of the objects we experience in reality but where those boundaries begin and end is vague. Where does you hand end and your arm begin, exactly? Where does a cloud end? And, if we take this down to a sub atomic level you could ask “Is this sub atomic particle part of this book? Or is it a part of the air next to this book.”

We perceive things as objects, or perhaps more correctly, we perceive* things and our brain then imposes object definitions on them. But those definitions and boundaries are man-made; they don’t exist. Thus you can fairly argue that everything is connected. You could also argue the inverse – that things are much more separate that they seem, ultimately breaking down to the tiniest possible particles. At that point the argument seems meaningless.

* It’s worth noting here that our perceptions are limited. We don’t see the full color range, we can’t hear all sounds etc. So our “reality” is limited to what we sense, not what is actually there.

Presuming everything is connected opens up some interesting thought streams. I’m quoting here from the Eckhart Tolle book I’ve been reading, “A New Earth.” (Page 276.)

There are two reasons we don’t see this unity… One is perception, which reduces reality to what is accessible to us through the small range of our senses: what we can see, hear, small, taste and touch. But when we perceive without interpreting or mental labeling, which means without adding thought to our perceptions, we can still sense the deeper connectedness underneath our perception of seemingly separate things.

To perceive without any added thought seems like an impossible task, but it’s an intriguing concept. Would this lead to a completely different perception of reality, one where we sense the “deeper connectedness”?

And could we use the power of this perception to score with babes?

Endless robo war

As people probably know, Rand Paul recently filibustered on the Senate floor, raising hash over the possibility that military drones could be used against citizens in the United States. (Some might say he “droned about drones.”) The possibility of such a thing occurring seems unlikely, though not impossible. (As Attorney General Eric Holder concedes, extenuating circumstances – like preventing another 9/11 attack – could allow drone use.)

But I’m glad Paul is bringing attention to drones; I’ve found myself disturbed by their use though I have a hard time ascertaining why. Certainly, when one hears of a drone strike in Pakistan or Afghanistan that takes out a terrorist but also several innocent victims it’s not good news. However, that’s not a problem specific to drones – the same thing has happened via plane-launched missiles or bombs or even in close combat. That’s the issue of collateral damage which – while disturbing – is hardly new.

Maybe what worries me about drones is that it seems they could be the first step towards a robotic military, a military where the fighting by “our” side is done only by machines, with no risk to our soldiers or civilians. You might say, “Wil, what’s the matter of that? We’ve been striving for years to protect our troops. A robo army would be the culmination of that dream and spare so many mothers and fathers from the shock hearing the worst news imaginable.”

But, I wonder, does having a robo-army make it easier to go to war? Does having a flesh and blood army ensure that we have “skin in the game” so to speak, preventing us from too easily making the decision to go to war. (You could reasonably argue that it was the U.S.’s infallible belief in the overwhelming superiority of its military that partly led to the disaster of Iraq.)

I’m reminded of course, by an old Star Trek episode, “A Taste of Armageddon.” In this episode the Enterprise crew discover a world populated by two warring nations. Instead of using actual weapons, these cultures play computerized war games that track virtual warfare. Upon the completion of the “attacks”, citizens on either side who have been determined to have been killed are sent to death chambers where they are disintegrated. These aliens argue that this kind of warfare protects them from the chaos and destruction of “real” war. Captain Kirk disagrees; he is convinced that the ease of this form of war has made the aliens too complacent to end their battles (which have been going on for eons.) Kirk angrily destroys the computer system that allow the process. His alien host is shocked. “Do you realize what you have done?” he asks Kirk.

Kirk’s reply is one of the most memorable bits of dialogue from the show’s run: