Acausality and the Scientific Mind

There is enough right about David Gelernter’s essay The Closing of the Scientific Mind to make it important to recognize where he has gone wrong. His willingness to call out certain kinds of widely popular modern errors is admirable, but does not preserve him from having made some rather more traditional errors of his own.

The problem is not in Dr. Gelernter’s indictment of reductive materialism. In his terms, I’m a materialist myself, but I sympathize with his complaint. I cringe, sometimes, at the clumsy eagerness some materialists display to throw out subjectivity and anything else that they fear might let the camel’s nose of religion back into the tent.

What Dr. Gelernter has right is that the reductionists have overreached, tending to hammer flat the texture of human experience as it is actually lived and to react with wholly inappropriate fury when someone like Thomas Nagel suggests that there may be phenomena of consciousness that can only be understood from within a frame that includes consciousness.

Thomas Nagel may be right or he may be wrong – but the questions he is trying to ask and formulate are important ones, not to be dismissed out of what Dr. Gelernter describes (with some justice) as “cowardice”.

But Dr. Gelernter’s rebuttal suffers from overreach of its own. He writes as though the reductionists are merely having some inexplicable sort of tantrum, rather than being energized by the terrifying reality behind the camel’s nose. It is 2014 and religious suicide bombers have shrapnel-stormed schoolbuses full of children so often that we have grown numbed to the horror. More prosaically, creationists are trying to ban the teaching of science. Wholesale revulsion against faith-driven thinking is more reasonable – and the reductionist excesses it motivates as a reaction correspondingly less unreasonable – than Dr. Gelernter is willing to admit.

A graver problem is that Dr. Gelernter’s counterargument smells like an attempt to smuggle religious particularism back into the tent while pretending he is talking in a philosophically neutral way. It is hard not to suspect this when he sets up his argument in part by speaking of “religious discoveries” as though we are all expected to believe this is a combination of words that makes obvious and actual sense.

This tendency is further on display in Dr. Gelernter’s attack on Ray Kurzweil’s transhumanism. Whether Kurzweil’s predictions are right or wrong isn’t any more the point here than whether Thomas Nagel’s attempt to rescue subjectivity nails all the details. No: the problem is that when Dr. Gelernter writes sentences like “Whether he knows it or not, Kurzweil believes in and longs for the death of mankind.”, Dr. Gelernter is presuming an authority to define “humanity” that he does not actually possess.

I have a friend who, after cataract surgery, can see into the ultraviolet. And several others with cochlear implants that use microprocessors to feed sound into their auditory nerves. Are these not humans? There are other people experimenting with artificial senses even as we speak – as one example, with coated implanted ball bearings inserted under the skin of fingertips giving them a useful ability to sense magnetic fields. Are *these* not humans?

Where, and on what principles, does Dr. Gelernter propose to draw a line? If his hypothetical “man with stainless steel skin, a small nuclear reactor for a stomach, and an IQ of 10,000″ were to appear and assert himself to share the condition of humanity, what position would Dr. Gelernter be in to deny this? And, as an observant Jew who necessarily lives in the shadow of the Holocaust, does Dr. Gelernter really want to be in the position of denying the humanity of any being that claims it?

Behind Dr. Gelernter’s outrage about the supposed inhumanity of Kurzweil’s vision there lurks, rather obviously, the religious notion that [sic] “mankind” is created in the image and likeness of God, and what Kurzweil desires to construct as our future is a species of blasphemy. Without this covert religious premise – without the horror of blasphemy and Godlessness – Dr. Gelernter’s essay dissolves into a disconnected ramble among trends not obviously connected except by Dr. Gelernter’s dislike of them.

This is unfortunate, because it damages Dr. Gelernter’s credibility in arguing a case that genuinely needs to be made. There is something gone very badly wrong when science and philosophy banish the primary data of human experience and emotion from the discussion and ignore the embodiedness of our consciousness. Dr. Gelernter’s plea for cognitive scientists to attend to what he calls “subjective humanism” is much the best-argued and strongest part of his essay. It is a damned shame when a critic of their failure as sharp and well-equipped as Dr. Gelernter then promptly exiles himself to the box marked “religious conservative – epistemologically insane – ignore”.

To actually be in the game, Dr. Gelernter needs to do better than merely attacking what he calls “computationalism” – because there really isn’t anywhere else to land. If the mind and brain are not entirely computational machines causally entangled with the material universe, what else are they? What else could they be, even in principle?

I have shown elsewhere, in my essay “Predictability, Computability, and Free Will”, that the intuitive model of human minds as containing some sort of autonomous uncaused cause, anything that would make them other than computational machines, rapidly leads to nonsense. We can, it turns out, purchase ontological specialness only at the cost of losing any warrant to believe in reliable causation at all.

Therefore, the true challenge before us is to construct a respectful, humane account of subjectivity and “sanctity of life” that fits with computationalism. Dr. Gelernter is right to blast large swathes of computer science, philosophy, and cognitive science for ducking this problem by chucking subjectivity out the window – but he can be no help in fixing this as long as the answer lurking behind his critique is “the breath of God”.

This may sound like a specific objection to religion, but it is not. The real problem with the breath of God, if there is such a thing, is that it’s an uncaused cause that intrinsically destroys our ability to form predictive theories. Even if Dr. Gelernter were to disclaim his religion, any attempt to locate some special cause of subjectivity outside the mechanism would have the same problem; it could succeed only to the extent that it destroys our ability to do any science at all.

My challenge to Dr. Gelernter, then, is to choose: are you a scientist or a believer in acausal miracles? You only get to choose one.

95 thoughts on “Acausality and the Scientific Mind

  1. Hmm,

    My problem with Google, and *some* of the singularity crowd isn’t about the attempted improvement of the human condition (even radical improvement) through technology. It’s about who (or what) gets to control this technology. I’d love to be able to live long enough to remotely begin to satisfy my ambitions for learning and growth. I’d love to have an expanded capacity to understand the world, and powerful tools with which to manipulate it. Immortal, atomic powered, and with an IQ of 10,000 sounds like a good start to me. :-P

    But the vision some singularitans offer is significantly more creepy and nightmarish than that: A world where none of that power, knowledge or control is *yours*. Where the ability to comprehend and control your environment, rather than being expanded, is expropriated and whisked away by superior AIs that reformat the universe in their image and allow you to exist only at their sufferance.

    It’s like the PC crowd versus the dumb-terminal information-appliance crowd that occasionally chants about the Cloud being the Way of the Future – who is in control of the tools? With respect to singularity-type sci-fi technology, the respect, or lack thereof for the autonomy of others (and the world they exist in terms of and know how to live within) could mean the difference between liberation from our natural constraints, or the most profound tyranny.

  2. This is the kind of ESR essay that makes me do the happy dance — reasonable, pointed, and courteous. If all conservatives were like Eric (and Gelernter) more often this would be a better, more conservative ( in the sense of conserving what is decent) world.

  3. When I was a kid, Newtonian mechanics reformatted my brain. For a long time, up until college, I had trouble even thinking of how the world could be, except as a system with a state that evolved deterministically in time according to some set of laws. When I began teaching myself programming, and began learning about computer-generated random variables and the limitations of pseudorandomness, it came as little surprise to me – it was intuitively obvious that a deterministic state machine couldn’t generate an uncaused number, and that it would need the help of an uncontrolled/unknown signal to generate one. Random variables in mathematics, in my mind, were approximations to the behavior of complex systems where we didn’t know about some of the inputs, or didn’t keep track of hidden internal state, or just didn’t care to model them.

    (I asked an impatient math professor in undergrad about this, who at the time made the point that you could assume randomness of a “random variable object” as one of the intrinsic properties of a fundamnetal element of your world picture – because you could assume that said fundamental elements have any properties that you feel like giving them, and then derive the results.)

    Within that paradigm, it makes perfect sense that the mind has to be an immensely complicated pattern of some sort. Adding in random variables at some elemental level didn’t significantly change the picture – no information about the world comes out of white noise to add something fundamnetal to the experience of an entity – they would at most provide agitation to a mechanism – it was the details of the mechanism that would handle things like maintaining an internal representation of an external world (a mind’s eye), or remembering things. Even if you tried to push all this detail beyond the boundary of observability to some supernatural realm – somewhere, somehow there is a pattern processing information in a very non-simplistic non-elemental way. “Our minds can’t simply *just* be *machines*” was impossible for me to decode, (much less understand why everyone got so upset about the idea) because to me ~{machine} was an empty set.

    These days, quantum physics has introduced me to much weirder possibilities than elemental-classical-randomness or single-point deterministic state evolution, though with respect to the operation of the human mind (which at the scales and temperatures at which it operates, is pretty much classical, and even digital) I remain a computationalist. There are also all sorts of other interesting questions that I have asked myself recently about the sometimes bizzare consequences of computaionalism, which I found mirrored/expanded upon at length in the sci-fi book Permutation City by Greg Egan.

  4. I have described this in the past, so I will try to be brief. It is about emotions – certainly subjective things – in decision making.

    In the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, I was interested in AI but not really impressed by the state of the art. I decided not to learn much about the state of the art and to focus on how people and other animals make decisions. I thought about a mouse trying to get across a stream jumping from rock to rock and I thought about how people decide the route they are going to take driving a car. I was very impressed by something that I had heard:

    “A chess master doesn’t consider all the possible moves – only the good ones.”

    I came up with some ideas and wrote much code to implement them. See:
    aiparts

    The heart of the matter is this:

    It would be very difficult to take a cathedral approach and develop an algorithm to decide when a deer should run away. This approach would be extremely difficult for a grizzly bear that has a carcass (wealth) to guard and almost impossibly difficult for a scavenger that has to go new places to find new opportunities.

    Taking a bazaar approach, it is very easy to write lots of bits of code that individually and independently alter the (negative) value of a variable – “fear” – according to different kinds of inputs and have the deer run away when the fear is more negative than a certain value. Bears (and bond traders) also make use of another variable: “greed” (I know this word has a lot more to it than my meaning, but I needed a name). Scavengers are forced to go new places – I called another variable “curiosity”. For animals that can learn, parameters that affect the changes in these variables are themselves changed by experience.

    Given a choice, choose the option with the highest sum of fear plus greed plus curiosity.

    It is so simple. It can be implemented in software, wetware, hydraulics and probably levers and string. I think emotions evolved for decision making.

  5. Natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) are all about objective (and if possible: repeatable). That doesn’t mean that humanist sciences (history, literature, arts) which are about subjective (or also about subjective) and use different tools are not as good and as valid.

  6. My biggest criticism of Gerlertner’s essay is that it lacks clarity and simplicity of message. He is all over the place discussing numerous complex issues and various pros and cons. He makes grand assertions that are more like proclamations than premises. It reads like a Rorshach Test in which you can make of it anything you fancy. I’m sorry, but I don’t find anything scholarly in this mush.

  7. Mrf. Eric, I’m not sure you’re not committing the kind of error you accuse Dr. Gelernter of. In particular, saying “Religion is bad, because Islamists” is as erroneous as saying “science is bad, because AGW”.

  8. @ Jay

    Man… I don’t want to start this all over again on the 8th comment, but theistic religion is bad because it is based on faith – epistemological insanity.

  9. It is 2014 and religious suicide bombers have shrapnel-stormed schoolbuses full of children so often that we have grown numbed to the horror

    How many schoolbusses have been shrapnel stormed since the schoolbus was first used? Must you use hateful, bigoted, rhetoric? Who is numbed?

    The real problem with the breath of God, if there is such a thing, is that it’s an uncaused cause that intrinsically destroys our ability to form predictive theories.

    The question is of truth – either God exists or does not (and a pantheistic god would not have such problems – worse, Aquinas and the Scholastics said God is rational which enhanced the discovery of predictive theories – that creation was regular, not “magic”, so you could discover the laws God set down “in the beginning”). Your objection is wrong – we can find the rules, to nature, man, and morality, but we might not like what we find. If it can be scientifically proven that monogamy without divorce makes everyone happier, it would spoil a lot of fun. Same thing about property or life rights – either way.

    Even your problem with creationists – their main objection is Evolution is taught without science, proof, argument, method, or anything else scientific, but given as dogma. I think there would be few things better for every biology class to actively defend Darwin (or the later variants of TENS or evolution) instead of deriding or labeling as “heritic” and burning or banishing dissenters.

  10. Let me be perfectly clear: I’m an atheist. I believe that religions are fundamentally ways that the uneducated came up with to explain what was at the time unexplainable.

    That said, I refuse to condemn others for religious beliefs. Demanding the right to believe as I choose and act in regard to those beliefs, while denying it to those who believe in $DEITY, is deeply, profoundly hypocritical. Even acting based on religious beliefs is something I will defend unless and until it actively harms others without their consent.

    Dr. Gelernter is bringing his religious perspective to the debate. Complaining that he is doing so is a distraction from the real issue. Don’t like it? Prove him wrong.

  11. @ ams

    Randomness can be valuable.

    I found that my emotional-decision-making software converged on a good solution MUCH faster if a bit of randomness was added to the value of each option in each choice. In each iteration of trying to solve the problem, options that otherwise would not have been chosen were tried.

  12. It’s like the PC crowd versus the dumb-terminal information-appliance crowd that occasionally chants about the Cloud being the Way of the Future – who is in control of the tools? With respect to singularity-type sci-fi technology, the respect, or lack thereof for the autonomy of others (and the world they exist in terms of and know how to live within) could mean the difference between liberation from our natural constraints, or the most profound tyranny.

    What it is more like is the difference between socialism and (American style) libertarianism. Socialists lament that the vast majority of the world’s wealth — and hence, in practical terms, power over others — is in the hands of the rich few. The libertarians’ answer to that is “So? The way to fix that is to become rich yourself. Then you will have control over your own destiny. And the way to fix that at a social level is to remove the state impediments to becoming rich.” Similarly, humanists lament the fact that the transhumanist version of the future is controlled by uncaring godlike AIs; the transhumanist response is “So? The way to fix that is to become an AI yourself.” Which, coincidentally enough (or perhaps not), often entails becoming rich.

  13. A 5-year old can understand the importance of the subjective. When I was that age, a major conversation starter was: “What’s your favorite color?”
    It doesn’t get any more subjective than that, and yet it has a major impact on our lives.

  14. @Brian Marshall

    Granted that randomness can be useful.

    I suppose that paragraph was prompted by objections I had heard before elsewhere that indeterminism is somehow fundamentally necessary to our being, without which we would be bricks. It seems to me that, in a situation where something “random” is called for to provide variation to the output of a process, it shouldn’t matter if it is true acausality (eg a cryptographically secure ASIC noise generator), or just pseudorandomness (that retains it’s internal state pointer between iterations) that is supplied. Replace a “truly random” element with something pseudorandom (that doesn’t suck – it has to be chaotic enough to densely sweep some space of possibilities), and you wouldn’t change the behavior of a complex system like your AIs, or our minds. On the other hand, replace the deterministic part with something completely random, and you couldn’t get any meaningful output in terms of the world that the random source ignores as input. It seems to me that the orderly part is more necessary than the chaotic agitator to the identity/behavior/possible conciousness of the system.

  15. Let me be perfectly clear: I’m an atheist. I believe that religions are fundamentally ways that the uneducated came up with to explain what was at the time unexplainable.

    Indeed, but here’s the problem with that:

    Examine any religious belief system close enough, and you will find inconsistencies, such that you must either discern what to believe and what not to believe (and end up throwing out most of the belief system in the process), or be driven mad. There are really no other choices, even amongst good people who wouldn’t harm anyone. Here’s an example: My mother, a Catholic all her life, decided one day to get to know God better by reading the Bible — really reading it. She got to the part with the Amalekites and reacted in pretty much exactly the same way Jessica Boxer did. Yet she remains a Catholic. There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance there; in order to keep her faith she has to believe that somehow the God who gave us the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” could authorize genocide. That’s a sort of low-level, background form of madness which she deals with by not thinking about it too much. A less sensitive and kind-hearted person could easily be driven to a dangerous level of madness. As I’ve mentioned, the fundamentalist justification for the passage boils down to “the Amalekites deserved to die”, and this is readily generalized to other persons or groups whom the fundamentalist might decide are enemies to God’s people. Such madness is toxic to civilized society, and we should work to eradicate its hold on us.

    I could no more deny my mother the right to her faith than the man in the moon. But I don’t have to like that she has such a faith, and I don’t. I don’t think it’s contradictory to the human right to believe in what one pleases, to work towards a world where fewer people have madness-inducing belief systems.

  16. @ Jay Maynard: Mrf. Eric, I’m not sure you’re not committing the kind of error you accuse Dr. Gelernter of. In particular, saying “Religion is bad, because Islamists” is as erroneous as saying “science is bad, because AGW”.

    Except that’s not what Eric is really saying–at most it’s an example of the problem. Eric said, “The real problem with the breath of God, if there is such a thing, is that it’s an uncaused cause that intrinsically destroys our ability to form predictive theories.” In other words, if you believe in God and apply your beliefs consistently to the rest of the universe, the assumptions you make in doing so make it impossible to apply science (i.e., the positing of theories about the universe that can be verified by experment). Without science, the only tool available for learning about the nature of the universe is human observation, which is not only limiting but can be defective (people tend to “observe” what they expect to see, which is why scientific method is so important).

    Most religious people aren’t truly consistent about how they apply their religious beliefs, and as a result they have no serious effect on science. It’s the people who try for absolute consistency in this regard–e.g. people who refuse medical treatments for their children as well as themselves for religious reasons, Islamic fundamentalists–that cause serious damage.

  17. @Catherine Raymond:

    There is a reason that “divines” is the last word of the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about a foolish consistency.

  18. @esr:
    >It is a damned shame when a critic of their failure as sharp and well-equipped as Dr. Gelernter then promptly exiles himself to the box marked “religious conservative – epistemologically insane – ignore”.

    Dr. Gelernter doesn’t really strike me as a religious conservative, unless you take “religious” and “conservative” to be synonymous. For one thing, religious conservatives tend to be a lot less keen on subjectivism, though we do fall into the box you label “epistemologically insane”.

    @Jeff:
    >As I’ve mentioned, the fundamentalist justification for the passage boils down to “the Amalekites deserved to die”, and this is readily generalized to other persons or groups whom the fundamentalist might decide are enemies to God’s people.

    Indeed it is readily generalized. But the Bible also informs the fundamentalist that he himself deserves to die. And that’s where “love your neighbor as yourself” comes in: I deserve to die, but, loving myself, do not wish to die. So I should not wish that my enemy get what he deserves either.

  19. This may seem like a trivial point, but the discussion of God and religion seems to be sowing more confusion than clarity.

    The concept of God (and its formalization in religion) performs the same evolutionary function today that it performed at its inception thousands of years ago. Namely, it allows us to be proactive in the face of unknowns by utilizing conveyed group wisdom. The deity meme exists today because it worked routinely in our distant past.

  20. “No: the problem is that when Dr. Gelernter writes sentences like “Whether he knows it or not, Kurzweil believes in and longs for the death of mankind.”, Dr. Gelernter is presuming an authority to define “humanity” that he does not actually posess.”

    Come on. Gelernter is only a guilty at most of wordiness in calling Kurzweil what he his, a misanthrope, and you want to call foul and claim nobody knows, truly, what a misanthrope is anymore because of technology.

  21. @Jeff Read:

    “the God who gave us the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” could authorize genocide. ”

    If you add to genocide, … tsunamis, earthquakes, disease, etc it’s apparent that the above is a rehash of the simplistic how-could-god-allow-bad-things-to-happen argument, all while ignoring any allegorical versus literal interpretation considerations. This was done why? To indulge the “madness” label?

  22. …meh…

    1. It’s been almost 50 years since Joseph Weizenbaum covered the same sort of thing in his “Computer Power and Human Reason”. Dr. G. has not settled anything…just as Dr. W. didn’t.

    2. Darwin can’t explain consciousness? I would think that the development of consciousness would be an enormous help to animal social interaction, and of great survival value to the herd or the pack. It should be favored by natural selection.

  23. “Except that’s not what Eric is really saying–at most it’s an example of the problem. Eric said, “The real problem with the breath of God, if there is such a thing, is that it’s an uncaused cause that intrinsically destroys our ability to form predictive theories.” In other words, if you believe in God and apply your beliefs consistently to the rest of the universe, the assumptions you make in doing so make it impossible to apply science (i.e., the positing of theories about the universe that can be verified by experiment).”

    Except for those things you can’t verify by experiment but by observation which is a valid form of empirical evidence of a “fact”.

    “Without science, the only tool available for learning about the nature of the universe is human observation, which is not only limiting but can be defective (people tend to “observe” what they expect to see, which is why scientific method is so important).”

    Yah, you kinda just described cosmology.

    You guys seem to think these folks as defective. I’ve met many brilliant scientists that were religious and would simply shrug benevolently at your arrogance.

    I agree with Feynman in this regard:

    “it is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

    [Young man] learns to doubt, that it is necessary to doubt, that it is valuable to doubt. So, he begins to question everything. The question that might have been before, „Is there a God or isn’t there a God” changes to the question „How sure am I that there is a God?” He now has a new and subtle problem that is different than it was before.

    This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of the ways between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do. If they are consistent with their science, I think that they say something like this to themselves: “I am almost certain there is a God. The doubt is very small.” That is quite different from saying, “I know that there is a God.”

    http://amiquote.tumblr.com/post/607099009/richard-p-feynman-on-the-conflict-between-science

    You guys are fundamentally sure that God does not exist simply because many of the theories on God (aka religions) are flawed. You guys nitpick the theory of the existence of God the same way Creationists nitpick the theory of evolution.

    The presumption that belief in God prevents science or “intrinsically destroys our ability to be predictive theories” is bullshit and fails basic observation of reality. Especially given that the Big Bang theory was independently proposed by a priest in 1927 (okay, expanding universe in 1927, big bang in 1929) just behind Friedmann. The next supply ATV to the ISS is named after him.

  24. You guys are fundamentally sure that God does not exist simply because many of the theories on God (aka religions) are flawed. You guys nitpick the theory of the existence of God the same way Creationists nitpick the theory of evolution.

    An admirable defense of agnosticism as a more intelligent and self-consistent alternative to atheism (and one I agree with,) but it doesn’t make theism more sane.

    The presumption that belief in God prevents science or “intrinsically destroys our ability to be predictive theories” is bullshit and fails basic observation of reality.

    The scientific method, when applied mechanically, works and produces useful results even when applied by a lunatic. Doesn’t make him less of a lunatic.

  25. This whole discussion has been argued in depth and much better in the 17th century by Spinoza (who seems to have been an atheist)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baruch_Spinoza
    (translations of his writings are available at Gutenberg)

    His conclusion (disclaimer: I might be the last person you would like to summarize Spinoza’s work):
    If there is a God that is logically consistent, it is the universe and we are part of it. And the universe is causal. All other options turn out to be inconsistent and illogical.

    He writes much, much more, also about free will.

    (At the time, the Netherlands were ruled by Protestant Ayatollahs who would murder “heretics and atheists”, so Spinoza seemed to have covered his tracks in his atheistic writings. This does not improve the clarity of his works)

  26. @Patrick Maupin: There is a reason that “divines” is the last word of the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about a foolish consistency.

    Some very ignorant people take this last word as evidence of Emerson being an atheist, but anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Emerson’s work and philosophy can tell you that this is not so.

  27. ESR wrote “there is something gone very badly wrong when science and philosophy banish the primary data of human experience and emotion from the discussion”.

    I would say we need to be cautious about banishing human experience and emotion from the discussion, rather than uncritically self-congratulatory about it. But sometimes we really do make progress by, roughly, “banishing human experience and emotion” — though I would put it more like “not treating ordinary human perspectives as primary.” In particular, understanding modern physics (esp. QM, but also relativity) seems to work qualitatively better if we stop disagreeing about internal properties that people stubbornly like to think are important (“but how many particles *are* there?”) and confine ourselves to questions that can be expressed in terms of different external observations. You can even see significant foreshadowing of this in older physics: properly understanding Newtonian physics involves among other things in effect unasking questions like “but what does the rocket push against” no matter how much eminent human beings insist the question is central to how things must work.

    Like other things from physics (e.g. Heisenberg uncertainty, or entropy, or equal and opposite reaction) this idea can easily be misunderstood, or misapplied, or intentionally paraphrased in misleading ways to give rhetorical support to idiotic agendas. But that doesn’t mean the idea is wrong or unimportant.

    Also, moving from physics to AI and humanity, it seems to me that the famous Turing test is — and for that matter Shylock’s famous “bleed” remarks are also — a useful example of what might be described as “banishing human experience and emotion from the discussion.” Or at least setting them aside for the purposes of a subdiscussion. Ultimately we sometimes need to agree to disagree completely about whether the emotional experience of interacting with a Jew or a machine capable of holding a discussion like interacting with a human. Shylock of necessity framed his argument to have logical force even when his listeners would belittle it as Jewsplaining from a position of old-Jew-network privilege. When we have machines capable of holding discussions there will predictably be political coalitions which endorse profoundly-felt reasons for how what machines do is qualitatively inferior in moral value to the authentic thoughts thunk by members of those political coalitions, and Turing framed his argument to stand ready for them.

    There is always room for cooking up unarguable unobservable dehumanization criteria. It would be interesting to get Shylock’s opinion of how today Asians must be specially excluded as an overperforming group, while Jews must not be because unlike Asians they are diverse. (And perhaps before the singularity the wheel will turn at least one more time, and we will hear “heterosexuals first” when ships sink, and how Jews should be excluded on the grounds of overperformance while Asians are more equal than Jews because unlike Jews Asians are zesty.) But there is far less room for qualitative disagreement about observable humanlike capabilities: whether a Jew or an Asian or a machine capable of holding a discussion is as operationally capable as a human for, e.g., building a ship or growing a tree or keeping a contract or pursuing a vendetta.

  28. @William Newman

    Asians are more equal than Jews because unlike Jews Asians are zesty.

    Especially with a bit of lemon pepper seasoning.

    I’m not convinced that a future AI will ever be “human.” Being human is more than just about displaying emotions or being able to understand and speak human languages. It’s about being truly self-aware. In the end, a computer is a just billions of switches, and I don’t think billions of switches could become sentient. OTOH, I guess you could argue that a human brain is just a billion neurons. Of course, you’d be wrong and working from inadequate information. There is much about the human brain that we cannot yet quantify.

  29. “Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do.”

    I prefer the condescension from a forthright megalomaniac than that which sneaks out from the scientistic who imagine they have no belief systems.

  30. “OTOH, I guess you could argue that a human brain is just a billion neurons. Of course, you’d be wrong and working from inadequate information. There is much about the human brain that we cannot yet quantify.”

    I think nitrogenase is just a bunch of amino acids and some coenzymes. When and if we ever develop a good engineering understanding of how catalytic assemblies like that work, I might turn out to be wrong, but reductionism has had a pretty good run so far and vitalism has been not terribly productive of correct predictions.

    We are arguably much further along in our engineering of intelligence than our engineering of catalysis and molecular self-assembly. (Handwriting, speech, and face recognition; vehicular control; lots of optimization and game-playing problems; and of course all the stuff like arithmetic that we have learned to take for granted as far too mechanical to be considered intelligent.) We understand usefully well how to stitch together a billion switches for many purposes. (Maybe not as well as Nature — but do note that when Nature stitches together a billion switches, it gets something like perhaps a small lizard brain, not a human brain.) If there is indeed a holistic nature of sentience that is going to keep us from ever being able to stitch together a million billion switches to make intelligences as capable as human brains, when are we likely to learn enough about that lack that we can articulate how to distinguish a human brain from a computer for decades to come?

  31. > I’m not convinced that a future AI will ever be “human.”

    What about an uplifted cat or dog, able to speak, read, write, and act as a troll on the internet?

  32. >What about an uplifted cat or dog, able to speak, read, write, and act as a troll on the internet?

    “There is another theory which states this has already occurred.”

  33. “I have a friend who, after cataract surgery, can see into the ultraviolet.”

    What?! More about this, please.

    “There is much about the human brain that we cannot yet quantify.”

    I don’t find that compelling. So what if we don’t know everything about the brain? Drill far enough down and it’s neurons which either fire or don’t, and even should it turn out that intracellular mechanisms end up being important for consciousness or cognition, it’s still just locks, keys, and algorithms. Sentience comes out of the brain, why wouldn’t it come out of a different substrate?

  34. Eric,

    It is wonderful to read someone who is not totally committed to one of today’s biggest culture wars. Almost by definition, jumping into a culture war is going to erode the mind and make it difficult to think accurately about any subject that comes near to it.

    I would encourage further thought about your comment about the camel behind the camel’s nose. In the last century, the big killers were people vying for control of nations: Stalin, Mao, Hitler, WW2-era Japan, and–it pains me to say–the United States. We’re talking millions, rather than dozens.

    Depending on what news sources you read, you can get a very unbalanced idea about the relative dangers from religions, nations, and other large units of group identity.

  35. Eric, if you haven’t read it, you might be interested by my essay “From Metaphysical Freedom to Civil Liberty” http://fare.tunes.org/liberty/fmftcl.html which I never finished, because you scooped me with your “Predictability, Computability, and Free Will”: I debunk in detail as categorical mistakes the attempts to locate free will in an “autonomous uncaused cause”, to reuse your term.

  36. @Morgan Greywolf:

    Some very ignorant people take this last word as evidence of Emerson being an atheist, but anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Emerson’s work and philosophy can tell you that this is not so.

    Even standing alone the statement doesn’t reek of atheism, because the most reasonable reading of it has “little” modifying “divines”, thus allowing for the existence of larger divines. I think Emerson would be in violent agreement with Catherine Raymond that “Most religious people aren’t truly consistent about how they apply their religious beliefs,” and so, for most religious people, Emerson’s short poem doesn’t apply.

  37. What?! More about this, please.

    Your eye’s crystalline lens is what filters out UV. In fact, overexposure to UV is one of the things that can cause it to cataract. Cataract surgery involves taking out the crystalline lens and replacing it with a plastic one; the replacement lens transmits UV and it hits the retina.

    We’ve known about this even before lens replacement surgery became routine. I seem to recall people who had had their crystalline lenses removed, and were thus functionally blind, being used in WWII to see the Germans’ UV-spectrum signalling lamps and thus intercept their communications.

  38. For an interesting take on AI and transhumanism, the movie “Her” will be debuting in a few days. Basic premise, geek falls in love with an evolved operating system played by Scarlett Johansson. The future could be Skynet or it could be a symbiotic merging of organic life and technological sentience. TBD.

  39. Jeff Read on 2014-01-06 at 14:49:46 said:Your eye’s crystalline lens is what filters out UV… I seem to recall people who had had their crystalline lenses removed, and were thus functionally blind, being used in WWII to see the Germans’ UV-spectrum signalling lamps and thus intercept their communications.

    I never heard of the Germans using UV lamps for signaling. I did read of this:

    During WW II, a signal was needed for a shoreline night rendezous between resistance fighters and an Allied submarine. If an ordinary light was used, the enemy spotted the signal and intercepted. The Allies used UV lamps as beacons instead, with the submarines guided by “brave, elderly people” who had had cataract surgery. Source: Of Spies and Strategems by Stanley Lovell, who was head of R&D for the OSS.

  40. The thing that annoys me the most is that consciousness, to me, seems to easily explained by evolution.

    It is very, very pro-survival to be able to analyze and predict the actions of others (“If I have sex with that woman, will that man try to kill me?”); there is accordingly going to be an evolutionary pressure to develop it. And the beings that develop this faculty will of course have to take actions based on it, or else it would be worthless, so this analytical faculty will also be able to influence actions. Then there is no obvious reason why this faculty couldn’t then be used by the creature that developed it on itself, and various reasons why it should (and even, in cases, where the subsystem is evoked not just on the host creature, but recursively, the subsystem analyzing itself). Oh, hey, we’ve now got an evolved faculty asking questions like “What do I want to do with my life?” or “What does this signal from the stomach mean?” and then causing us to act on the results, layered on top of a brain designed to act on impulses without consciousness, serving as just another impulse.

    Which, unlike the soul-in-charge theory, explains why consciousness does not drive the whole mind. The subconscious, the difficulties with willpower, hypnosis, all sorts of things – all make perfect sense if consciousness is just one subsystem of the mind, able to influence actions (because the system was evolved to influence actions) but not in command (because the mind wasn’t designed as a hierarchy with the people-predicting subsystem in charge, but as a mass of competing impulses). You don’t need to invent doctrines like Original Sin to explain why “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”; it’s an obvious result of how the system evolved. Everything we’ve learned in the field of psychology makes far more sense if you assume the conscious mind is one program running on the brain, instead of (as in soul theories) the operating system.

    Nor does one need an epiphenomenonal observer when you have a subsystem one. The consciousness is not the whole of the mind, but it is a part of the mind; it is not in charge, but it has an influence.

    What about the qualia? What about them? Why would you expect anything that worked like pain to not feel like pain? If you developed and programmed a signal that worked in a mouse-level robot brain that worked like pain — a deliberately hard-to-ignore signal that raised the priority of attending to a specific malfunction or instance of damage — why would you expect your mouse robot to “feel” any different from a mouse in pain? What, in the absence of consciousness, would be the difference from a high-priority injury report, and severe pain?

    Now, certainly, in a “human-level” robot you could design the robotic consciousness to be in charge, to have an internal shutoff for pain, effectively an “analgesic circuit” that could be invoked after rational evaluation of the issue. That would similarly be a reasonably obvious thing to have a soul-based consciousness be able to do in a being designed as a host for a soul. There’s obviously a brain architecture where a signal that did the job of pain would not work like pain.

    But since your brain didn’t evolve to have your consciousness in charge, the pain signal wasn’t designed to be something you can override, it was evolved to be in competition with other signals like hunger and lust – or the decisions of your analytic consciousness. “Pain”, in how it affects everything you do, is pretty much exactly what you’d predict would be the result when a being with a not-in-charge consciousness system is sent a priority injury report intended to direct the actions of a pre-conscious being. So, what’s left to explain? Your consciousness notices that there’s this high-priority distress signal, without having any control over the signal, and has to compete with it to influence the actions of the organism it’s hosted in. It even notices the loss of resources to itself caused by the diversions of the distress signal, and when its attempts to compete with the distress signal to direct the actions fails.

  41. “Everything we’ve learned in the field of psychology makes far more sense if you assume the conscious mind is one program running on the brain, instead of (as in soul theories) the operating system.”

    See Irreducible Mind for an 800 page rebuttal.

  42. Organic life on Earth has been evolving for several billion years, and hominids have been evolving for several million years.

    At best, robotic systems have been evolving for a few centuries.

    Evolution takes time, and doesn’t really care much about what human minds think of it.

  43. My comment awaiting moderation can be ignored – typo in my email address.

    @ Steven Ehrbar

    …all make perfect sense if consciousness is just one subsystem of the mind, able to influence actions … but not in command … but as a mass of competing impulses

    This is a powerful approach in general. I first heard about it (as an architecture) as pandemonium. Again, it is a cathedral and bazaar thing. It is extremely hard to develop a single grand design to take care of all that the mind takes care of. Pandemonium basically consists of a bag of screaming demons – which ever one is screaming the loudest gets attention next. In certain contexts, this is called “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. In a problem that requires making making multiple decisions, the next decision to address (perhaps after dealing with the decisions that are trivial to make) is the most important one – the one screaming for attention.

    I did some research into O. G. Selfridge’s concept of pandemonium and sort of generalized the concept as an important AI technique from a developer’s perspective. My AI Patterns website is about two AI patterns: pandemonium and emotions.

    @JB

    See Irreducible Mind for an 800 page rebuttal.

    For some reason, your comment reminded me that the MIT open source licence is 170 words, while the “free” GNU GPL License is 5214 words and the associated Quick Guide is 2464 words.

  44. @JB

    See Irreducible Mind for an 800 page rebuttal.

    My copy of RELATIVITY – THE SPECIAL AND THE GENERAL THEORY” by Albert Einstein is 188 pages.

  45. Actually, I should have said:
    Of course, the brain is massively parallel, so, in the pandemonium of the mind, many demons can be dealt with simultaneously.

  46. “Therefore, the true challenge before us is to construct a respectful, humane account of subjectivity and “sanctity of life” that fits with computationalism.”

    I’m sorry to have to say this, but this challenge is insuperable. The computationalist position necessarily entails that subjectivity does not really exist, and what looks like subjectivity is a mere illusion without causal force.

    To quote Edward Feser: “As Nagel especially has emphasized … the standard conception of ‘scientific method’ from the time of the early advocates of the Mechanical Philosophy down to the present day has taken science to be in the business of stripping away the subjective appearances of things – those features that vary from perceiver to perceiver – and re-describing the world entirely in terms of what remains invariant from perceiver to perceiver, and especially in terms of what can be mathematically quantified. Whatever does not fit the model is treated as a mere projection of the mind rather than a genuine feature of objective physical reality. The physical world, on this understanding, just is whatever exists independently of any mind or conscious experience or subjective mental representation. Now while this method can be applied to all sorts of phenomena, there is one phenomenon to which it quite obviously cannot be applied even in principle, and that is the mind itself. … For in this case the phenomenon to be explained just is, of its very nature, subjective or mind-dependent, so that it cannot be coherently ‘explained’ in a way that strips away or ignores the subjective appearance of the phenomenon to be explained. This would not be to ‘explain’ the phenomenon at all, but just to ignore it or implicitly deny its existence.”

  47. @JB

    Well, based on a quick gander:

    1) I am denying epiphenomenal consciousness; I am explicit that consciousness is a (physical) process that actually influences our (physical) behavior. So all the time the book spends on taking on an epiphenomenal consciousness would leave me completely unaddressed, much less rebutted.

    2) In the 19th Century people did not fully understand the possibility of thinking/computation/problem solving/etc. without associated consciousness, so of course Myers invented the oxymoron of “subliminal consciousness” to refer to such computation. But in a world of computers, it’s obvious that even sophisticated problem-solving can be done without consciousness. “Subliminal consciousness” simply reduces to an archaic synonym for subconscious or non-conscious thought, while “superliminal consciousness” simply reduces to “consciousness”. It’s difficult to see how any of the evidence or arguments for “subliminal consciousness” can be addressing me, except as support.

    3) Parapsychology is bunk. Those who can prove I’m wrong can apply to the James Randi Educational Foundation for the $1 million they’re due.

  48. >I’m sorry to have to say this, but this challenge is insuperable. The computationalist position necessarily entails that subjectivity does not really exist, and what looks like subjectivity is a mere illusion without causal force.

    You are repeating a remarkably stupid and lazy argument. I’ve never heard of this “Edward Feser” which is just as well, because now that I have he’s going straight to my idiot bin. Refutation in my next blog post.

    UPDATE: I looked up his bio. Yeah, he’s an idiot. Paid to teach philosophy, no less. I could do a better job. I could do a better job while blind drunk, if I drank.

  49. Brian Marshall wrote “My copy of RELATIVITY – THE SPECIAL AND THE GENERAL THEORY by Albert Einstein is 188 pages.”

    An 800 page book on thought could well be windy nonsense, and indeed that might be the way to bet just because such a high proportion of all writing on thought is windy nonsense. But there’s nothing inherently suspect about a book on an naturally selected system being 800 pages long. I am fond of concise books like K&R or Landau and Lifschitz _Mechanics_ or Spivak _Calculus on Manifolds_ but I don’t find ‘em covering fields like immunology or embryology, and I wouldn’t particularly expect to find ‘em covering brain architecture either.

  50. Since you referenced this essay Eric I did try to read it, but I couldn’t finish it,because it was just a lot of candy floss. To me it was a classic attempt at avoiding the obvious conclusion of science — namely that we really are meat machines, that consciousness really is just an emergent property of functionality. Just because something ought not to be, does not mean that it isn’t.

    The argument boils down to “brains are different that silicon computers” and “we don’t understand fully how all of the mind and brain work”, and so, like the magical shamans of all of history we must imagine that there is something mystical to explain that which we do not understand.

    But that is the very opposite of science. The most powerful statement in science is “I don’t know.” To have the honesty to admit that, to overcome one’s ego and replace it by a boundless curiosity is the essence of the renaissance, and the root of the scientific method. Without “I don’t know” we have to pretend we do know, and that leaves us captive to every huckster and religious nut who wants to come and exploit us.

    Brain processes are less precise and tight than silicon processes. Emotions have soft boundaries because they are mediated by chemical gradients rather than binary FETs. But probabalistic gradients are predictable within margins of error, they are not mystical outcomes of the insubstantial soul.

    Of course I can also say “I don’t know.” By no means do I exclude some medium beyond the physical atoms that we can observe, after all, Dark Matter and Dark Energy are concepts held in high regard by many scientists. But, as always, the onus is on the mystics to demonstrate their mysticism, not on the materialists to disprove the unfalsifiable.

    There is MUCH to criticize in science as it is practiced today. But the idea that it is too dismissive of subjectivity or that it is excessively focused on objectivity is EXACTLY backward. There is WAY too much fluffy feel good political correctness in science, and we have all paid a heavy price in the lost opportunities as we sacrifice “what is” on the altar of “what ought to be.”

  51. @ JB – “See Irreducible Mind for an 800 page rebuttal.”

    I think the original intent of the comment was suggest that this “appeal to authority” was more weighty because of the book’s length.

    Seems shallow to me. You could fill a library with all the writing (much of it theological) that attempted to debunk Copernicus and Galileo’s heliocentric theory of the solar system.

  52. >There is WAY too much fluffy feel good political correctness in science, and we have all paid a heavy price in the lost opportunities as we sacrifice “what is” on the altar of “what ought to be.”

    We’re not talking about the same thing. And you are making the same category error as Edward Feser, which is not to say you’re like Edward Feser – you’re way, way brighter than that poor clown.

    When I call for scientists to pay more attention to subjectivity, I am in no way advocating mysterianism or relaxation of standards of evidence. Quite the opposite: what I want is for them to apply scientific standards of evidence to the entire range of human experience, including emotional and aesthetic and mystical experience.

    These are things that happen in nervous systems. If we are mechanists rather than vitalists (which ought to be true of any scientist) we ought to believe that we can study these things and form predictive theories about them.

  53. @ William Newman

    But there’s nothing inherently suspect about a book on an naturally selected system being 800 pages long.

    I just thought that it was very likely windy nonsense because… how can it take 800 pages to describe a new idea/approach? I mean, sure, an 800 page book about the subject once a concise book is out there. But as the refutation that JB suggested?

  54. The scientific method, when applied mechanically, works and produces useful results even when applied by a lunatic. Doesn’t make him less of a lunatic.

    The scientific method, when applied mechanically, advances knowledge very slowly. Arguably it is difficult to correctly apply the scientific method without some creative spark in asking promising questions and postulating useful hypothesis.

    The folks that people here call lunatics due to a belief in God were brilliant scientists that greatly advanced human knowledge. If they were impaired in their ability to critically think and observe then they would have failed in their achievements. And we’re not talking about a period in time where everyone educated was religious either.

  55. There is MUCH to criticize in science as it is practiced today. But the idea that it is too dismissive of subjectivity or that it is excessively focused on objectivity is EXACTLY backward. There is WAY too much fluffy feel good political correctness in science, and we have all paid a heavy price in the lost opportunities as we sacrifice “what is” on the altar of “what ought to be.”

    Please, every generation says the same thing. We have always paid a heavy price in lost opportunity as we sacrifice “what is” on the altar of “what ought to be” throughout history. I would assert that today things are better than they have ever been.

    Scientists are human and as prone to the weaknesses as they are prone to greatness of the human spirit.

  56. “Quite the opposite: what I want is for them to apply scientific standards of evidence to the entire range of human experience, including emotional and aesthetic and mystical experience. ”

    Yeah, the day science takes on out-of-body experience/astral travel, remote viewing, etc. instead of blithely dismissing it such as the commenters above is the day when a lot of very smart people will start looking very suspect and this cannot be allowed to happen at all cost.

    James Randi? You people need to get out more. Geez.

  57. > When I call for scientists to pay more attention to subjectivity, I am in no way advocating mysterianism or relaxation of standards of evidence. Quite the opposite: what I want is for them to apply scientific standards of evidence to the entire range of human experience, including emotional and aesthetic and mystical experience.

    I really don’t understand your point. Isn’t psychology already doing this, to at least some extent? Can you give some examples, however hypothetical, of what the kind of scientific program you envision would look like, and what would be some specific questions it would address, that is not currently being done?

  58. I think Jessica was spot on in her comment above.

    Philosophical naval gazing is not science, it’s intellectual masturbation.

  59. >Can you give some examples, however hypothetical, of what the kind of scientific program you envision would look like, and what would be some specific questions it would address, that is not currently being done?

    Sure. I can even think of one that’s both personal to me and typical of the sort of thing excessively reductionist psychologists (like, say, behaviorists) say is inaccessible or epiphenomenal or doesn’t matter or something.

    I have a music generator in my head. It’s always running, generating complex multi-part music; what varies is whether I’m paying attention to it or not. It tends to entrain itself to any music I’m listing to or remembering and start spinning off improvisations. When I improvise on an instrument I sort just let it use my fingers.

    Do any other people have these installed? If so, is the incidence correlated with being a professional musician or composer? Is there any sensible answer to why people have music generators, either on an individual or evolutionary level? Is there an analogous pattern generator for people who are good at visual arts? Is it the same generator?

    These are just some of the most obvious questions. I could generate a hundred.

  60. @ esr

    IIRC, you said or suggested that this started, or became much more pronounced, after you had a couple of mystical experiences and became a neopagan. Is this correct?

  61. >IIRC, you said or suggested that this started, or became much more pronounced, after you had a couple of mystical experiences and became a neopagan. Is this correct?

    No, it’s probably more like the other way around.

  62. JB, if Randi really is as full of prunes as you claim, then taking his money should be child’s play. Why haven’t you?

  63. @ ESR – ” Is there any sensible answer to why people have music generators”

    It could just be one of the numerous mutations that occur in evolutionary development.

    And if it ultimately enhances survival and reproductive fitness, that perhaps our distant progeny will all possess this trait.

  64. Morgan Greywolf said: Being human is more than just about displaying emotions or being able to understand and speak human languages. It’s about being truly self-aware. In the end, a computer is a just billions of switches, and I don’t think billions of switches could become sentient.

    Why think that, though?

    It is indeed so, as you state after the quote ends, that arguably the brain is also just billions of switches, and also that we don’t understand everything about the brain.

    On the other hand, we have zero reason to believe that there’s anything about the brain that isn’t matter interacting with matter – what we don’t understand about the brain is mostly the fundamental question of “how the hell does consciousness arise from this lump of wet meat?”

    The problem there is that that’s no argument against it arising from lumps of hot silicon, only that we’ve never seen that one happen in nature, all by itself. Which is, sure, a reason to not assert it definitely can work that way!

    I see no particular reason to assume that sentience/sapience is a phenomenon only of arrangements of matter that happen to be more slow and analog (and damp and filled with fats) than fast and digital (and dry and made of dirty silicon).

    I’m sticking with “if it says it’s truly self-aware, and acts like it, how can we say it isn’t?”.

    (For that matter, I equally don’t know that you are truly self aware, do I?

    If we want to dive all the way in, I don’t know that I am “truly” self-aware, rather than just self-aware-enough to think I “truly” am, without “truly” being so, whatever the “truly” indicates, if anything.

    Thus my refuge to observation, above: the sapient can be defined as whatever acts sapient.

    If a machine can “fake” it so well nobody can tell the difference, is it even “faking” it anymore?

    Does the “truly” in “truly self-aware” mean anything at all?

    What essentialism are we assuming if we assert a difference, and a meaning in the word “truly”?

    Hell, it might even be valid essentialism; but if so we need to be explicit about it and defend it.)

  65. >It could just be one of the numerous mutations that occur in evolutionary development.

    That’s too general an answer to be interesting. An interesting “why” would be something like “it’s a spandrel from adaptations for throwing accurately” (probably what William H. Calvin would say).

  66. I have given some though to what music is about in the human mind. I think it is particularly interesting that music can have such a deep and profound effect on us at an emotional level.

    I think though you just need to look at music in nature to get an idea of what is really going on. Music in nature, such as bird song, or the various other yelping sounds animals use, AFAICS serves two purposes.

    First of all it is used to attract mates, and second it is used to communicate danger. Both these things are things that are deeply tied into the emotional systems, which is to say, they are both things that our bodies are designed to react to in a non conscious way.
    And why music? Again I think the answer is apparent from nature. Music is highly rhythmical and has a much lower information density than, for example, the spoken word.

    As a consequence it can, and does, travel over very large distances, and has a high degree of redundancy to repeatedly communicate the message over and over. These two factors are obviously extremely advantageous for the two goals — getting laid and not getting eaten.

    Why do we have Bach and Lady Gaga though? Obviously that type of music goes way beyond what is necessary. To me it is just that whole thing with evolution where things get stuck in a well, and members of the species start a kind of pleonastic exaggeration of intrinsically useful features where the point is the competition itself, rather than increasing intrinsic value, much like a peacock’s tail.

    Now, if someone can explain to me why a minor key makes me sad, and a major key is bright, or why pizzicato is spunky and legato is smooth, I’d appreciate it.

  67. Oh, just to add to this above, I think a useful example can be given from the way armies were commanded prior to the utility of modern electronic communication. Armies were commanded by music, drums and trumpets usually. This was for the very two reasons I gave above about the reason why animals warn of danger and attract mates with music.

    The drum beat or trumpet call is loud, rhythmical and repeating. It consequently carries a long distance without a large degrading of information, and it is continually repeated. Consequently the message the commander wants can readily be communicated long distances with low error rates.

    Compare it to shouting. Often if you hear someone shouting from a distance you know they are making a noise, but there is too much data density for you to understand what they are saying, especially so when the data is contained in a broad range of frequencies, that are all needed. So any interfering frequency breaks the whole message.

    Anyway, more grist for the mill.

  68. I have the “music generator” too.
    I can improvise automatically, though not very creatively, at the piano; and before I fall asleep sometimes I “hear” complex, unfamiliar orchestral music.

    Also.
    I remember Gelernter from when I was a teenager. I filed newspaper clippings for my rabbi; Gelernter was a perennial favorite. He hasn’t said one new thing in ten years. The weirdest thing is that he was fighting techno-futurists in the ’90′s and it’s relevant all over again. Poor guy. I would have said he was about to lose his faith if I didn’t know how *long* he’d been at this.

  69. @ ESR – “That’s too general an answer to be interesting.”

    I guess I don’t understand this comment. I wasn’t trying to be interesting, I was trying to be helpful based upon your request for feedback.

    There are many aberrations in both physiology and psychology that have a basis in genetic abnormality, and hence can be thought of as mutations. Are you suggesting that it is impossible for your unique music generator to have a mutation origin?

  70. Oh, just to add to this above, I think a useful example can be given from the way armies were commanded prior to the utility of modern electronic communication. Armies were commanded by music, drums and trumpets usually.

    The earliest from of comms was runners. High latency but high bandwidth. Flags/standards were also used. Music/drums were used for low latency/low bandwidth communications.

  71. “Wholesale revulsion against faith-driven thinking is more reasonable”

    But this is entirely the wrong target. Metaphysics != faith. Metaphysics is, how to put it, kinda like putting logic above empiricism. This may not be valid, I suspect it isn’t, but it has very little to do with the crazies. Nagel is basically an “atheist Thomist”, but even in the original version you can’t really put a Thomist theist metaphysics in the same boat as some crazy preacher just because both are at some level connected to the same old myth. It’s like taking those idiots who use random scientific terms to construct bullshit out of them like Maharishi’s “quantum field consciousness” and conflating it with science. Or the shitty sci-fi writers who think there is something sciency about about randomly using the English transliteration of Greek letters, omicron, omega, zeta, whatever.

    Revulsion against something low-brow is rarely a good compass in deciding how handle high-brow stuff.

  72. ” If the mind and brain are not entirely computational machines causally entangled with the material universe, what else are they? ”

    Putting on my hobby-metaphysicist hat, computers need software, and software is information. Information is a curious thing because it is non-materialistic: the number 13 is the same number whether it is displayed by pixel on the screen, written with a pen or paper, or written as the hex D or roman XIII. So information does not depend on material properties like matter, color or shape.

    Information everywhere outside the human mind such as a computer software is not problematic, because it is a human mind that has put it in there or interpreted a natural event as information, as without such interpretation information does not exist.

    Information – software – inside the human brain is more problematic because where the heck did it come from? Evolution? Evolution is a material process, information is not material.

    The breath-of-god story at least offers a solution for this, it derives the information in the human mind from a ur-information. Another possibility is seeing information as ultimately unreal, part of the map, not the terrain, as a crutch of interpretation and not something real. This is doable but then we really need to rethink an analogy between the mind and computer because then we need to kick software out from the model.

  73. >Information – software – inside the human brain is more problematic because where the heck did it come from? Evolution? Evolution is a material process, information is not material.

    This is a non-problem. Evolutionary selection causes organisms to internalize the informational complexity of the selective environment. I’ve written about this before.

  74. > Evolution is a material process, information is not material.

    Evolution is not only a material process. There are many types of evolution that are information only. Memetics and agile programming being two examples.

    Where do you think morality comes from if it doesn’t come from evolution? Our present morality has all the typical characteristics you would expect of an evolved system — a good basic functioning, slow ability to change, gets stuck in strange anachronistic wells, is adapted to different circumstances and situations etc. etc.

  75. The folks that people here call lunatics due to a belief in God were brilliant scientists that greatly advanced human knowledge. If they were impaired in their ability to critically think and observe then they would have failed in their achievements. And we’re not talking about a period in time where everyone educated was religious either.

    Not necessarily. Newton was brilliant, but he was also crazy. I mean even when compared against the background lunacy of pervasive Christianity, he was certifiably nuts. We know him today for what he might have considered a small and insignificant part of his career. How, then, did he purport to stamp his name into history? Angelology and alchemy. And all that messing about with mercury in his alchemist’s lab served only to make him crazier.

    Despite being crazy — or perhaps because of it — Newton was brilliant enough to still get a lot of shit done in the scientific realm. The insane often don’t filter their observations the way sane people do. They filter them with another set of filters, which is overall more damaging to their worldview, but still enables them to make some relatively keen insights. And he was hardly the last great scientist to entertain loony beliefs; in recent times I refer you to Linus Pauling’s Vitamin C woo and William Shockley’s racism.

  76. No, Newton was NOT crazy. An obsession with religion or alchemy was normal for his time. He may have suffered from mercury poisoning, but that certainly did not stop him from doing a fine job as Master of the Mint.

    Many readers of this blog (and our host, too) are too quick to apply a psychiatric diagnosis to those whose worldview is different from theirs. The world we live in is full of such people; their brains are wired just the same as ours, though you may object to the way they have been programmed, Certainly, they outnumber us by far. (Truly psychotic people, with defective brain wiring, are rather rare.) Deal with it.

  77. @Read
    “Newton was brilliant, but he was also crazy … he was certifiably nuts.”

    Right, “Principia” must have been written by a lunatic.

    Paraphrasing Lincoln here when told that Gen. Grant drank a bit heavy: find out what belief system Newton “drank” and give it to the other scientists.

  78. “Many readers of this blog (and our host, too) are too quick to apply a psychiatric diagnosis to those whose worldview is different from theirs.”

    The aspect I find annoying is not that some are quick with opinions, most everyone is at some point. My objection, and the irony, is imagining one gains a psychiatric degree through ego and not medical school, along with the ability to diagnose those long dead, here in a discussion about science and belief systems.

  79. @Jessica: there is a concept of “ideasthesia,” similar to synesthesia, where people have near-universal associations across senses. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/kiki_effect

    Children shown pictures of a spiky shape and a blobby shape and asked to name one a “kiki” and one a “bouba” will call the spiky shape a “kiki” and the blobby shape a “bouba.” Regardless of what language they speak.

    You’ll find other associations: lemons are more “kiki”, eggs are more “bouba.” Spiky, pointy shapes will be labeled male, round and curvy shapes female.

    There’s a theory that there are some universal cross-sensory metaphors (this is a Lakoff and Ramachandran thing) and that synesthesia is really just an extreme form of the metaphor-making ability that’s almost universal in humans.

  80. Jeff Read on 2014-01-08 at 16:28:28 said:
    > Not necessarily. Newton was brilliant, but he was also crazy.

    That is just so simply wrong. Newton was about as out of the box as they come. Certainly he was interested in alchemy, but back in the 17th century alchemy was simply what we call chemistry today, chemistry when stripped of a lot of the basic knowledge that chemistry now works from. In the context of 17th century knowledge it was not unreasonable to think that we might be able transform lead into gold. After all today we can change coal into diamonds. In the absence of some things we consider basic chemistry today the difference is far from obvious.

    If you look at his studies in religion — which was one of his main preoccupations — you will find he was pretty out of the box there too. He was, for example, an opponent of the doctrine of the Trinity in a time when opposition to such a doctrine could bring about the firey temper of the king — literally, especially a preening popinjay like Charles II, and especially with all the religious turmoil of James II and the subsequent glorious revolution. Religious unorthodoxy was not a safe pursuit for those attached to their heads.

    It is easy for us to look back in a world of religious liberty and three hundred years of extra knowledge to condemn Newton for some of his views, that today would be considered whacky. But I doubt there are too many people participating here who will change the world as much in their lifetime as Newton did in one year of his life. On his work rests the foundation for nearly all modern science, most advanced mathematics and optics.

    The guy was not certifiable, he was a certifiable genius. If we start calling people WAY out of the box crazy we are going to do a lot of harm to the future.

  81. “are you a scientist or a believer in acausal miracles? You only get to choose one.”

    That is not merely a non-provable claim, I think the contrary is true, and provable.

    Scientific thought, the exercise of which is “being a scientist”, is tool.

    That tool only has to be the best option compared to an alternative to be more useful.

    If e=mc^2 only 99 times out of a 100, and magic or a miracle happened otherwise, it would only drastically amplify, ironically enough, the worth of the anthropic principle, wizards, and prayer simultaneously.

  82. One sentence describes religious suicide bombers and the next, creationists seeking to stop the teaching of science. A bit of overreach here too, it seems to me. Even if creationists were trying to do that, it’s a huge leap from one to the other. Lumping all religious people together is a generalization that defeats scientific understanding of religion, because Muslims do suicide bombing and Christians don’t.
    As for creationists, they mostly don’t care about stopping most science from being taught, and as for the science they do care about, evolution and the origins of the universe, most of them don’t even want that not to be taught: they just want the alternative taught.
    See this study http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/sites/default/files/ssn_key_findings_evans_on_religious_opposition_to_science.pdf
    by Evans and you’ll find that the same conservative Christians who doubt evolution are as scientifically-minded on all other topics as other Americans. The question for your readers would be: are you making these statements out of genuine, mistaken, belief, or out of a desire to damage the reputation of those with whom you disagree?

  83. As for Newton being crazy because he devoted so much of his time to religion, this is a hasty judgement indeed. His approach to religion was pretty logical. He denied the Trinity because the universe was so manifestly law abiding and rational; having three Gods did not cohere with that. It was also superfluous: two more supreme beings than were necessary. Newton’s idea ofGod was one who didn’t waste. By the same token Newton reasoned that Leibniz must have stolen calculus from him, because God would not have needed to inspire both Newton and Leibniz with calculus. One sufficed to bring this light into the world. Newton had a bit of a rivalry going with his half brother, which he might have transferred to Christ, leading him to want to knock the latter down a notch. Not crazy but a tad neurotic. Purely speculative but based on Frank Manuel’s A Portrait of Isaac Newton.

  84. @steveweatherbe
    >you’ll find that the same conservative Christians who doubt evolution are as scientifically-minded on all other topics as other Americans.

    I think this is mostly true, and it is illustrative of a key point about the belief systems that most people subscribe to. The goal of the belief system of most people is not, broadly speaking, to get as close to the truth as possible. Rather it is to bring about their goals in the most effective means possible.

    Truth, or perhaps correctness is a better word here, is useful insofar as it is effective at predicting the future. However, for most people the evolutionary origins of the world have close to zero impact on their day to day lives, and believing it or not believing it has no power to effect their ability to predict the future. However, it does have another impact, if you live with a religious community. Acceptance of the core beliefs of the religious system is an important bonding element for the community.

    This is true from two points of view. Firstly, eliminating disagreement is important within a community, and secondly, and perhaps more conspiratorially, holding a belief that separates you from the herd produces an us-verses-them barrier that adds cohesion to the group.
    So most people’s belief systems are far more to do with the social context they live in that they have much to do with any serious attempt to seek the truth.

    The degree to which this is true is pretty directly proportional to the utility of the belief to predict the future. When your beliefs actually matter in that respect then you are required to get them more correct.

    The challenge with mystical thinking is that it tends to spread like a cancer, and begins to invade the belief systems that are important and productive. When this cancer metastasizes and breaks down the compartmentalization that our brains are so effective at, that is when we fall into the religious madness that is so toxic.

  85. @Jessica Boxer
    “The challenge with mystical thinking is that it tends to spread like a cancer, and begins to invade the belief systems that are important and productive.”

    The victim has to have a predisposition. People with this condition tend to have weak emotional defenses. This manifests itself as a phobia for doubt and uncertainty and a search for absolute, unchanging truth. Another symptom that I tend to observe is extreme conformism (clothing!) and a craving for explicit rules for literally every occasion.

    Obviously, such tendencies do not make you a productive scientist.

  86. @Winter
    > The victim has to have a predisposition.

    FWIW, I don’t actually agree. I think EVERYONE has a tendency to do this although the degree to which they do it varies hugely. I’ll put my hand up and say I do it all the time. The truth is that probably most of what I believe is socially derived rather than something I have calculated or rationalized, and I am a person who thinks about truth and correctness a LOT.

    Why do I shed a tear when an American Olympian hears the national anthem as she wears a gold medal? Or why, when I am sitting around a table with empty tequila bottles with my friends, do I laugh at all those jokes that really aren’t funny? Or why do many of my friends believe that the Chicago Cubs are the best baseball team in the world, despite all the evidence to the contrary?

    These things are socially beneficial, even though they are logically incorrect. And they mostly don’t have any significant effect on predicting the future events of my life, except, perhaps social ostracism should I dare to bring up logic and truth. So believing the falsehood is, on net, beneficial.

    These are obviously trivial examples, but I am sure there are more substantial things too. And I am definitely an outlier, a person who really does seek to look reality in its ugly maw, far more than most people.

    It is a fact that here recently I had a debate back and forth with people , EXTREMELY smart, analytical and self reflective people, who believe in God and the Christian system, even though, as the debate showed, they really have no logical belief for doing so. However, that belief system benefits them in other ways that logic and correctness can’t fulfill. Life is short. Perhaps that is the right choice for them, though for what it is worth the Bible doesn’t agree. as 1Corinthians 15:32 would assert.

    An interesting thing about this is that my friends don’t pretend to believe the Chicago Cubs are the best baseball team ever. They actually believe it. Because if you pretend to believe something long enough, then you actually begin to believe it, terrifying though that truth really is. Especially so since you often feel the need to substantiate your false belief by evangelizing it.

  87. Jessica, you are the lodestone of serendipitous enlightenment.

    After reading your comment above, it occurred to me that the essence of exceptional bravery on the battlefield is exactly the mindset you describe above. Often in the face of overwhelming odds (and a logical certainty of death), some men adopt an irrational belief in their own immortality and then persevere to accomplish what no one thought was possible. Indeed, self-delusion can sometimes be a huge psychological advantage, and one that may persist in evolutionary terms. I now think of this as the Braveheart trait.

  88. @Jessica
    ” I think EVERYONE has a tendency to do this although the degree to which they do it varies hugely. I’ll put my hand up and say I do it all the time.”

    Cancer are cells that remove the bounds and checks to growth. Lupus is the immune system destroying the body instead of protecting it. In the same way, in insanity the normal checks and bounds on feelings and behavior are dissolved. People who emigrate from the USA to Africa to convince the locals to murder homosexuals because “God wants it” have crossed a boundary of sanity. There is no relation between such behavior and you laughing at jokes that are not funny (which is a perfectly sane social behavior).

    Social life is what makes humans tick. Conformism is a prerequisite for a social life. But the ideological cancer you were describing earlier are not part of social life. They destroy life.

    Btw, you should not fall for the trap that you could decide everything by logic. Logic outputs garbage when you enter garbage. You will simply never be sure whether you have grasped all the relevant factors nor do you have the time to analyze in depth the facts that you have.

  89. @Winter
    > People who emigrate from the USA to Africa

    I’ll be honest, this characterization really bothers me. I don’t know what national origin has to do with homphobia, or advocacy of the killing of homosexuals. But perhaps I am missing some reference…

    > to convince the locals to murder homosexuals because “God wants it” have crossed a boundary of sanity. There is no relation between such behavior and you laughing at jokes that are not funny

    I don’t agree. I think it is a matter of degree, just as insanity is a matter of degree. There is no physiological bright line between sane and nuts, it is more a measure of “how sane are you”.

    For example, in my tequila haze I have occasionally been in groups where the topic turns to sex, and I’ll hear guys saying things like “the idea of two chicks together is really hot, but two guys having sex — that is really disgusting.” Or maybe at other times I’ll hear people say “Sorry I’m late but I got stuck behind some dothead — don’t they teach people to drive in curryville, or are they too busy picking lice off each other? The women are the worst.”

    Maybe I need to get better drinking buddies, but the social pressure to nod along with that is huge, and frankly that sort of thing is fertile ground for taking more aggressive action against “them” because after all they aren’t “us”. If I don’t take a stand, and in doing so risk my social connections, then my quiet voice is taken as assent.

    Of course I usually do, and I actually have a pretty good group of drinking buddies, including several queers, and a few dotheads. Surprisingly that are actually quite nice people, who form loving long term relationships, and are pretty good drivers. And when I hear that type of thing I do tend to stand up for what is right. But hey, everyone knows I am a weirdo, and a pain in the ass anyway — a reputation I have gone to great lengths to cultivate.

    It is all part of the same thing. One’s social connections are far more valuable than some political agenda to ensure that people you don’t know are treated respectfully. People, probably correctly, choose the viewpoints and social position that they think will benefit them the most. (And I might add that there is a certain evolutionary component to it. And like evolution, social positions tend to get stuck in wells that it is hard to climb out of.)

    > Btw, you should not fall for the trap that you could decide everything by logic.

    I don’t. I think I said in an earlier comment that my knowledge base is evolutionary in character. You start with what society gives you and you evolve it over time with a feedback loop, until it produces the benefits you want — the ability to correctly predict the future being only one of those benefits.

    That is actually what everyone does, though a lot of people pretend to do it differently.

  90. @Jessica
    “But perhaps I am missing some reference…”

    The latest craze in homophobia legislation in, e.g., Uganda and Nigeria, was initiated and advocated by USA evangelicals.
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jul/24/evangelical-christians-homophobia-africa

    @Jessica
    “I think it is a matter of degree, just as insanity is a matter of degree.”

    So are most diseases. But if the average number of offspring of a cancer cell or germ crosses over from 0.999 to 1.001, you go from a contained disease to systemic spreading. In insanity, the crossover from agitation to psychosis is one where the system cannot contain the spreading agitation anymore.

    There is a boundary between a person that can “forget” for a moment that there is a bible and use common sense, and a person that cannot do that anymore.

  91. @Jessica: “the idea of two chicks together is really hot, but two guys having sex — that is really disgusting.”

    To your point of self-reinforcing memes, I think many (most?) guys (if they are honest) would like to see and/or be involved in the former, but not the latter. Some guys _really_ don’t want to see the latter (perhaps because they are worried they will be aroused), so they will loudly proclaim it “disgusting”, and of course, their buddies can’t disagree because (a) they don’t really want to see it either, and (b) even though they might not be homophobic, they don’t want to be “accused” of being homosexual, either. So, in the bar context you are describing, it saves a lot of awkwardness if we can all just agree on the truth of the statement. It is, of course, a huge problem when, for some portion of the populace, “disgusting” changes from being “something I don’t want to see” into “something that deserves capital punishment.”

  92. I understand that modern quantum theory have clarified that the presence of an observer (see mind, or consciousness) is intrinsically needed to have an observation, at least at quantum level.

    Consciousness in a fundamental element of reality.

    I suppose that you cannot reproduce a quantum observation detected by a computational machine.

  93. Another question.
    The problem of predictability seems strongly connected with the problem of “time”.

    In a multiverse where the “time” does not exist, do we have the same problems connected with a uncaused causation?

    Have a nice day

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