Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007 Intelligent Speciation With or Without God

Friday, July 27, 2007
Intelligent Speciation With or Without God

This essay deals with two primary issues: First, the highly problematic issue of the natural existence of mind in a physical world, and second, how the evolution of the species, as events in the physical world, might be thought of as possessing mind, and intelligence. What will emerge is a different way of looking at nature.

The philosopher G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716) challenges us to imagine a machine with cogs and wheels and gears that is wired exactly as the human brain is. Would such a machine possess a "mind"? If not – and this is what he was going for – then we humans, who clearly possess minds must be more than mere machines. But let us suspend that judgment. Our science is reluctant to admit the existence of a soul, a substrate for the mind, that is separate from the body, and reasonably so.

However, we cannot conceptualize a system of physics, a science of bodies, that incorporates mind.

Two proofs: First, the philosophical zombies. These zombies are just like human beings. They look and act and even interact like normal human beings. But they have no consciousness and no experience of the world. The fact that such is a coherent idea means that there is something more to possessing a mind then having the physiology and behavior of a human being. We are obviously not such beings. Second proof, the "neural correlates of behavior". Every class of behavior, including thinking (in theory at last, and let us grant the strongest theory,) can be detected using advanced brain scanning technology. That is, if I'm thinking of a pizza, if someone can see into my brain with sufficient detail, he can know that I'm thinking of a pizza. But my experience of the thought pizza is different from my firing neurons. What is happening in my brain involves electric charges, molecules and ions, shapes and patterns, all laid out in geometric space. The idea in my head has nothing to do with any of those things. Be it true that whenever one is present the other is present too; that doesn't make them the same thing. It merely means they are correlated.

We don't understand what it means for a physical pattern to be a mental pattern. But what else could the mind be? Physical matter shouldn't have mind, if elementary physics is correct, but it seems to in some cases, namely brains. So we assert that the firing pattern of the brain and the thought are the same without understanding how. It takes us beyond the boundary of science, however, it seems a reasonable conjecture. In any case, I can think of no good scientific philosophy of mind other than this one. Let us grant it then, and see where it leads us.

Leibniz's machines – and we're not so far away from creating such machines with computer technology – might indeed be conscious. There is nothing about the particular kind of goop a brain is made of that makes us think that it is the only substrate that can hold a mind. If the same interactions take place in a network of silicon chips or in a computer program, there is no scientific reason to think that mind will not occur in such substrates. (Of course, it will be impossible to prove that mind exists in computers. However, we can forgive that as it is impossible for me to prove that you have a mind and are not a "zombie". I think, therefore I am; I can prove only my own consciousness, not yours. Incidentally, we humans can never know exactly what it's like to be a non-human animal.)

However, why bias ourselves to assume that the only physical systems that can manifest consciousness are brains? The lesson here is that mind and matter can (sometimes) be identified one with the other, that is, this thought, action or feeling is the motion of matter. What does it matter if the moving is the stuff of brains or other stuff? The brain is a highly complex physical system. The interactions that comprise the exchange and proliferation of genetic material in the evolution of species, are also extremely complex. During the processes of exchange and proliferation of electro-chemical signals in the brain, the various states of consciousness occur. Perhaps the evolutionary processes, (along with many other processes of nature which I'm not addressing at the moment) also possess consciousness.

Perhaps, you could say, from its perspective there is a state of the evolution of a species that is always correlated to its mental state at the time.

There is a debate going on between "evolutionism" and "intelligent design" as ideologies of the origin of the species. Evolutionism sees the processes responsible for evolution as random and senseless, because, they posit, all of nature's interactions are random and senseless. The rules of nature are such that enough random, senseless motion occuring within them produces complex, beautiful, and interesting results. But are all of nature's interactions random and senseless? What about human interactions? Some interactions are purposeful, for example, when we humans act purposefully. Perhaps other physical systems also act purposefully.

Bioforms change and evolve through time through adaptations that make them better suited for their environments. Some of these adaptations are very clever indeed. But you and I mean differently with the word "clever". I take it to be cleverness in the way that people or animals are clever. I don't know what you take it to mean. You kind of mean it as a metaphor. It would take a clever person to design what nature did by chance. But you were willing to accept the word when you first read it.

Whether or not you believe in God, you believe in the existence of the human mind. If so, there is no reason not to believe in other kinds of mind also. If so, then the forces that govern the evolution of bioforms may very well be intelligent.

Monday, June 25, 2007 The atom cannot be divided

The idea of atoms goes back to Greek times, to at least 400 BCE. The meaning of the word "atom" is, basically, "indivisible thing". The theory states that if you break something down into its fundamental constituents, there will reach a point where you can't break it down any more. There is a bottom level to the analysis of a thing into its parts.
In modern chemistry, born in the early 1800s, the term atom has been taken to mean a certain cluster of matter, ones that during the early to mid 1800s were thought to be the bottom level of matter, not analyzable further into its smaller particles. But in fact, "atoms" in this sense are broken down into protons neutrons and electrons, these into quarks, strings, who knows?
The use of the word "atom" in science today is inappropriate. We are still in search for the atom. For, by definition "atom" means the lowest level; if it is not the lowest level, it can still be broken down further, and it is not the atom.
The improper understanding of this idea results in my being pissed off in this scenario: When a scientist will say that the fact that the "atom" is made up of more fundamental particles shows that Democritus' ancient atomic theory was shown false, since atoms are found to be divisible, and the ancient theory clearly states that the atom is not divisible. This is wrong, the atom of Dalton, Mendeleev and Rutherford did not turn out to match the original concept of the atom .  Dalton and the founders of modern chemistry chose the name of the particle prematurely. Perhaps what we now call the quark is the atom? Perhaps the superstring? Democritus would still be vindicated if realtiy turns out to consist of such elements. The atom cannot be divided.

Friday, May 11, 2007 Reflections After the Biting of a Guy's Nipple by an Alligator on Cable TV

A topic which fascinates me is the sympathy/empathy complex. There are numerous conflicting accounts of the distinction between the two in the psychological literature and in people's minds. In my mind I have two ideas, two different modes of how emotion can be transferred. If you disagree that the two ideas I'm elaborating are "sympathy" and "empathy", that's okay, they are still two different ideas. We attach words to things after we think of their concepts in order to try to characterize them, and when words fail, that doesn't mean we don't possess the concepts.

My definitions are these. Sympathy ("feeling with") is actual participation in a feeling that originates in someone else. Empathy ("feeling into") is a feeling that originates in oneself, when one creates a copy in oneself of the feeling, and feels that copy. One way to look at this is to reflect that one can have empathy into a fictional character, but not sympathy.

An interesting insight into the matter occurred to me as I was watching the movie Jackass (just comes to show how philosophy is everywhere). I saw a man having his nipple bitten by a baby alligator. Ouch. I was cringing for the entire duration. Emotion was transferred. I distinguished three levels of participation in the feeling. First, there was the guy having his nipple bitten. He was in physical pain. Now the idea of any physical pain is problematic, since insofar as a thing is physical, by standard definitions, it does not have feelings at all. He was also screaming, and laughing (curious) and after the humor had registered, he had the incredible urge to act so as to get rid of the fucking alligator. Then there were the people who were with him at the time. They had the "cringe" reaction as well, I'm sure, more profoundly than I did. But where they differed the most with me on the couch, and agreed with the victim was in the urge to act to remove the pain. (They eventually pried to gator's mouth open with a knife). That was a sympathetic reaction. His feeling was motivating their actions. As for me, that was merely empathy. This is perhaps another mark of sympathy distinguishing it from empathy.

Thursday, May 03, 2007 Polytheism for Jews?

Thursday, May 03, 2007
Polytheism for Jews?  

I would sooner be a polytheist than an atheist. Of course (not of course) I am a monotheist. I believe this to be the most rational position of all: That there is a spiritual power underlying all reality and that this power is essentially One. This principle of unity is considered rational in empirical science as well, indeed it is held by many to be the determinant of rationality, that, although we perceive the world as subject to a multiplicity of theories, there is/ought to be a unified theory underlying them all, if only we can discover and understand it. But we do perceive a multiple world.

We do not, however, perceive a world empty of spiritual power as atheists insist. I can defend this view, but not for the purposes of this exploration.

Monotheistic religions tend also to acknowledge a multiplicity of spiritual powers subordinate to God -- the angels. According to a Jewish tradition (cited in the Midrash) for every blade of grass, there is an angel standing over it urging it to grow. If this is granted as true (if only for the sake of argument,) then it is also true that each tree has its angel, and then, every leaf, and then every forest, and then, perhaps, plant life in general. If so, then animal life ought also to have its own angel. If so, the weather should have its own angel, volcanoes, the sun and moon, music, love, fertility, etc. Another tradition holds that each nation has its own guardian angel, If so, then within each nation, sub-societies should have their own angels as well, and each family, and each trade, and international corporations, etc.

I used to think the doctrines of angels to be silly, and opposed to the principle of unity from which monotheism derives its rationality. Yes, we perceive a world wherein God works through multiple channels, but that is a limitation in our perspective; in the final analysis, all is One. When I discovered the following argument, I had to change my position on the matter: Reflect on Descartes' famous argument: I think, therefore I am. Self-consciousness is proof of the existence of the being who is conscious. Therefore, if angels are self-conscious, then even if they are really modifications of God, they have real existence in the same degree as we do. Though I can't prove that angels exist on such an argument, just as I cannot prove you exist as a consciousness, the angel can prove its own existence to itself, just like as can prove your own existence. Therefore, it is not my place to outright deny that the angel, or any other consciousness, exists. It's not merely a question of definition.

According to polytheistic systems with which I am most familiar, which are African and Hindu religions, aside from the vast multiplicity of gods posited, there is also posited a One Supreme Being, of which all these other gods are merely modifications. The theological difference between monotheism which includes angels and such polytheisms is not in the existence of the entities in question, because what monotheisms call God can be identified with the Supreme Being and the angels can be identified with the multiple gods. Neither is it the choice of which gods or angels exist: I don't believe it to be of serious theological significance how we decide to split up God's tasks; we can always split them up differently to explain different things (much in the same way we can draw the lines between different scientific disciplines differently, for example, the domains of biology, chemistry, geology and ecology may overlap or separate depending on the problem we attend). And I think that polytheistic systems typically agree, as, for example, the Romans at the height of their empire had lists of over a million gods from all over its territories, and did not care which gods people worshipped. The divine, like any comprehensive phenomenon, can be split up in lots of different ways. Just like we can split the angels up in lots of different ways, if the angels are the gods, then they too can be split up in lots of different ways.

The difference between polytheism and monotheism thus construed is not in the ontology of the matter, not in what reality is thought to exist, but rather in the nature of the way humans ought to relate to that reality. Monotheism does not bar the existence of very powerful created spirits. But they are thought to be irrelevant to human devotion - or more, that human devotion to such spirits is inappropriate..

With this as background, here is my problem. I am a customer in a restaurant. I know intellectually that the source of the food I am being served is the owner of the restaurant, (and following the chain, the farmers, or the capitalists, or the chefs of the past who invented the recipes –again, there is a measure of arbitrariness in how we split it up. Ultimately, the end of the chain would be God. But for the illustration we'll pretend the restaurant owner is the end of the chain). So I should really be thanking the owner for the food. This may be true enough. But does that mean that I should not also thank the waiter that is serving me now? Similarly, if I am eating an apple, I know I should ask God for and thank Him for the apple. But should I not also thank the tree or the spirit of the tree, or pray to the tree spirits and weather spirits etc? Why should a relationship to the One Supreme God exclude relationships – real relationships – to other spiritual beings?

Sunday, April 29, 2007 A Fallacy in Brain Science

Recently, while reiterating in a new context the classical discussion concerning the nature of altruism, that is, whether we humans actually do things for other people or whether our motives are always selfish, someone submitted a comment which I believe contains a common fallacy among contemporary students of human nature.

The framework for the classical discussion is usually this: On the one hand, it is patently obvious that people do things for other people all the time. This is taken to the extreme – but extremes are allowable in discussions of this sort – when one is willing to die for someone else, which, on the surface anyway, offers little or no benefit to one's self. On the other hand, one always has an internal motive for acting for another, either to improve one's reputation, or to gain favors, or, because it just plain makes the person feels good to act for another. Even this good feeling is thought of as a selfish thing on this view. Furthermore, in a case where one is willing to die for another, it is, on this view, a result of the person calculating selfishly that death is preferable to living with guilt or shame or without another person etc. There are powerful and interesting arguments on both sides which may make interesting material for a future blogging.

Well, this time around, one of the discussants offered this argument from neuroscience/biopsychology. Altruism has been discovered in the brain, he claimed. There is a region in the brain that fires during altruistic acts, or that is better developed in altruistic people than in more selfish people, etc. This was submitted as evidence that true altruism does exist, since it has been physically discovered in the brain.

The fallacy is that the discovery of brain phenomena is no evidence one way or another for the existence of psychological or behavioral phenomena. Imagine that I get to observe a person for a week, with the limitation that I can only see that person's brain. I see section X of the brain fire in pattern Y. I would have absolutely no idea what the person is doing/thinking/feeling unless I have already linked that firing pattern with that non-neural activity (and probably even in such a case, but lets ignore that). Imagine then that I have only observed brains and never made those connections with non-neural states. It is clear that I would have no idea of the connection between the brain phenomena and "human" phenomena without also having observed the human activity. So in order to find altruism, or anything else of the sort, in the brain, I must already have in mind a certain class of human activity, must already have judged those things as altruistic, and only then can I make the link to brain activity. Once I have made these judgments, even before I find it in the brain, I already know the phenomenon exists, and the view from the brain merely offers me another perspective, indeed an informative one, on it. Conversely, if we judge that this activity is not altruistic, then the associated firing pattern in the brain must be judged not to be linked with altruism.

It is a common error in a common contemporary worldview to think that phenomena of human nature only exist if they can be found in the brain. If we start with the brain, as we have seen, we don't know what any of its phenomena mean unless we observe the associated body/mind phenomena. And if we start with the body/mind phenomena, then we don't need the brain phenomena to confirm their existence. Even if we have them, they prove nothing vis-à-vis the mind/body phenomena in question.

To begin with...

I have been writing on myspace and facebook, and I think it's time for me to begin a serious blog. So to begin with, I shall import all my previous posts here. They are all dated from today. I hope this disclaimer clears that up.