Hi fellow patterns.  I’m going to be traveling for the next week or so, with unpredictable access to wifi, so blogging may be limited or nonexistent.  I do expect to be able to at least periodically check the comment threads from my phone, so feel free to comment on any of the recent posts.

In the meantime, also feel free to check out the archives, either on the sidebar or by clicking on the categories listed at the top of the site.

Thanks for visiting and talk with you soon!

Posted in Zeitgeist | 7 Comments

David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness?

In this TED talk, David Chalmers gives a summary of the problem whose name he coined, the hard problem of consciousness.

via David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness? – YouTube.

It seems like people who’ve contemplated consciousness fall into two groups, those who are bothered by the hard problem, and those who are not.  In my mind, one of these camps is seeing something the other is missing.

Naturally, since I fall into the second one, I tend to think it’s those of us who are not bothered by the hard problem who are more aware of the fact that our intuitions are not to be trusted in this area.  No matter how much we learn about how the brain works, it will never intuitively feel like we’ve explained the experience of being us.  So, in my mind, the people bothered by the hard problem will never be satisfied, but that will not prevent us from moving forward.

Chalmers talks about three responses to the hard problem.  The first is Daniel Dennett’s view that the hard problem doesn’t really exist, that we will gradually learn more about how the brain works, solving each of the so called “easy problems”, until we’ve achieved a global understanding of the mind.  I have to say that my view is close to Dennett’s on this.

The second response is panpsychism, the idea that everything is conscious.  From what I’ve read about panpsychism, it’s a view that comes about by defining consciousness as any system that interacts with the environment, or something similar.  By that measure, even subatomic particles have some glimmer of consciousness.

But this is a definition of consciousness that doesn’t fit the common meaning of the word “consciousness”.  Using such an uncommon definition of a common word allows someone to say something that sounds profound, that everything is conscious, but that when unpacked using their specific definition, is actually a rather mundane statement, that everything interacts with its environment.  My reaction to such verbal jujitsu is to tune out, and that’s what I generally do when talk of panpsychism comes up.

Finally, Chalmers talks about a view of consciousness as it being something fundamental to reality, like maybe a fundamental force such as gravity or electromagnetism.  The idea is that consciousness arises through complex integration (which itself sounds more emergent than fundamental to me) and if we can just measure the degree of complex integration, we have a measure of consciousness.  This is a view that I’ve seen some physicists take.  It’s attractive because it might boil consciousness down to an equation, or a brief set of equations.

Personally, I think consciousness as fundamental or whatever is wishful thinking.  It’s an attempt to boil something complicated and messy down to a simple measurement.  And it still leaves the borderline between conscious and non-conscious entities as some magical dividing line that we can’t understand.

My own view is that consciousness, whatever else it is, is information processing.  The most compelling theories I’ve seen come from neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga and Michael Graziano, who see it as something of a feedback mechanism.  (Just for the record, my sympathy for these guys’ theories have nothing to do with me sharing a first name with them :-) )

The brain is not a centrally managed system.  It doesn’t have a central executive command center making decisions.  Rather, it processes information and makes decisions in a decentralized and parallel fashion.  What allows the brain to function somewhat in a unified fashion is a feedback mechanism that we call awareness.

Awareness is the brain assembling information about its current and past states.  It is an information schema that allows the rest of the brain to be aware of what the whole brain is contemplating.  It doesn’t really control what the brain does, but it can affect what the brain will decide to do.

If true, our internal experience is simply this feedback mechanism.  Is this the whole picture?  Almost certainly not.  But it is built on scientific evidence from neuroscience studies.  It will almost certainly have to be revised and expanded as more evidence becomes available.  But I think it is far more promising than talk of fundamental forces and the like.

Of course, even if it is true, it won’t satisfy those who are trouble by the hard problem.  Consciousness as a feedback mechanism and information model, still doesn’t get us to the intuitive feeling of being us.  I’m not sure that anything ever will.

Posted in Mind and AI | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

Science is about both ideas and data gathering.

Stan asked for my thoughts on this article: Science is becoming a cult of hi-tech instruments – Philip Ball – Aeon.

The tools of science are so specialised that we accept them as a kind of occult machinery for producing knowledge. We figure that they must know how it all works. Likewise, histories of science focus on ideas rather than methods — for the most part, readers just want to know what the discoveries were. Even so, most historians these days recognise that the relationship between scientists and their instruments is an essential part of the story. It isn’t simply that the science is dependent on the devices; the devices actually determine what is known. You explore the things that you have the means to explore, planning your questions accordingly.

The faddish notion that science will soon be a matter of mining Big Data for correlations, driven in part by the belief that data is worth collecting simply because you have the instruments to do so, has been rightly dismissed as ludicrous. It fails on technical grounds alone: data sets of any complexity will always contain spurious correlations between one variable and another. But it also fails to acknowledge that science is driven by ideas, not numbers or measurements — and ideas only arise by people thinking about causative mechanisms and using them to frame good questions. The instruments should then reflect the hypotheses, collecting precisely the data that will test them.

The gist of this article appears to be an assertion that scientists shouldn’t let data gathering crowd out the formulation of ideas, which are crucial for hypotheses and theories.  My reaction is, well yeah, but it’s not like ideas are something that can be produced on demand or on a schedule.  And data gathering is what separates science from other ways of learning things, and I think its credibility is largely due to it.

On the importance of ideas front, I think this is one of the reasons I find scientists who dismiss philosophical speculation to be so short sighted.  The truth is, philosophical reasoning produces many hypotheses that might someday be testable.  Indeed, the line between scientific speculation and philosophical speculation is hazy and largely artificial.  Often the only difference is that one takes place in a science department and the other in the philosophy department.  Yes, there are ideas that clearly have a very low probability of ever being testable, and others that can foreseeably be tested in a few years, but there’s a lot in between in the grey zone.

But again, ideas don’t always arrive on demand.  And what do we do in a dry spell?  We can speculate harder, but our speculation will be richer if we have more data to work with.  That’s why there are many scientists whose primary mission is data gathering.  They themselves might not ever produce a theory from that data, but by making it available, they increase the probability that someone somewhere will find a pattern and produce a new theory.

I’m reminded of the history of astronomy.  For centuries, the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe was the reigning model, with Earth at the center of the universe and everything else orbiting it.  There were many issues with that model, but it seemed to explain observations better than other ones at the time.  Faced with that situation, astronomers could have simply accepted the Ptolemaic model and done something else.  But instead, they continued observing and recording ever more detailed observations, for centuries.

When we think of people like Copernicus, we also should think about the innumerable astronomers who left them centuries of recorded data at observatories around the world with which to formulate their theories.  And when it comes to scientific instruments, we should also bear in mind what the telescope did for astronomy.  Galileo saw more in a few brief years than astronomers had for millennia before him.

All of which is to say, that data gathering is crucial.  And it shouldn’t be regarded as any second class activity.  Data gathering is often hard unglamourous work, with astronomers having to work late at night and in strange locations, or biologists having to crawl through dirt, mud, and who knows what else to get specimens, geologists having to go to dangerous and harsh locations to get samples, or anthropologists having to spend years living among natives.

Ideas are crucial to successful science, but so is data gathering.  Pretending that we can have one without the other, or that we should value one over the other, strikes me as a false dichotomy.  We need both, and when ideas are in short supply, or we have lots of ideas that can’t be tested (<cough>theoretical physics</cough>), then data gathering for a while strikes me as an imminently sensible thing to do.

h/t Stan Hummel

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How to divide up the wealth

Click through to see the full sized version, and a popup bubble comment from the author.

via Buried Treasure – Existential Comics.

If you don’t know much about these guys, Marx wants to divide up in the communist manner, Rawls wants you to evaluate societal rules as if you don’t know what your role in society will be (i.e. rich, poor, etc), Hobbes wants to talk about the social contract you agreed to by being a member of that society, and Rand  basically just wants everyone to look out for themselves.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The natural, the supernatural, and the nature of science


I think Braterman makes an important point here. Acting like naturalism is a principle of science, instead of just a result of it, is both wrong and dangerous since it gives science the appearance of being just as dogmatic as any ideology.

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

paul_book_-12by Paul Braterman

Science, it is often said, is restricted in principle to the search for natural causes and the rejection of the supernatural; call this intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN). Here, following the work of Boudry et al. [1], I argue that this view is misguided and damaging. We have not precluded supernatural claims from discussion. On the contrary, we have investigated them and found them wanting, as I show here using both historical and present-day examples.

“I have no need of that hypothesis.” So, according to legend, said the great astronomer and mathematician Piere-Simon, marquis de Laplace, when asked by Napoleon why he had not mentioned God in his book. If so, Laplace was not referring to the hypothesis that God exists, but to the much more interesting hypothesis that He intervenes in the material world. And Laplace’s point was not, fundamentally, philosophical or theological, but scientific.

The planets…

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The Lowest Difficulty Setting in Action

Originally posted on Whatever:

I noted a couple of years ago that Straight White Male is the lowest difficulty setting in the game called life (in particular the Western civilization variant of it). This annoyed many a straight white male, who didn’t see his life as being particularly “easy.” Noting that “lowest difficulty” is not the same as “easy” did not assuage this agitation. And well, I can understand it: If you genuinely think your life sucks — and it may! — it may be hard to imagine that you still get advantages other folks don’t.

So maybe this will help: A 25-year study followed the experience of nearly 800 children in Baltimore, from first grade into adulthood. Half their families were low income, many with parents who had not finished high school; 40% of those low-income kids were white.

A couple of relevant points from the article:

Looking at where these children…

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The size of the observable universe is complicated.

Observable_universe_logarithmic_illustration (1)

Artist’s logarithmic scale conception of the observable universe with the Solar System at the center, inner and outer planets, Kuiper belt, Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri, Perseus Arm, Milky Way galaxy, Andromeda galaxy, nearby galaxies, Cosmic Web, Cosmic microwave radiation and Big Bang’s invisible plasma on the edge. By Pablo Carlos Budassi

The radius of the observable universe is often stated to be 46 billion light years.  From a certain point of view, this is true, but I think it’s a bit of a misleading statement.  Occasionally you also see people say that the observable universe is 13.8 billion light years in radius, which is also true, from a certain point of view.

How can both be true?  It has to do with two things: the finite speed of light, and the ongoing expansion of the universe.

Gazing upon the past

The speed of light is about 300,000 kilometers per second.  Whatever we see, we’re seeing in the past.  When you’re looking at an object across the room, what you’re seeing is on the order of nanoseconds in the past, but in the past nonetheless.  When looking at the sun, it’s about 8 minutes in the past, and when looking at the next closest star, it’s over 4 years in the past.

Of course, Proxima Centauri probably hasn’t changed much in the 4.24 years since its light started traveling to us, or even the Andromeda Galaxy since the light from it started traveling around 2.5 million years ago.  But when you start looking at objects billions of light years away, the evolution of those objects and the universe starts to become an important factor.

When we look out into the distant universe, we’re not seeing things as they are right now, but as they were in the distant past.  For cosmology, this is a good thing, because it allows astronomers to study the evolution of the universe, but it also means that we have limited insight into what the state of matter is billions of light years away right now.  Stars go through their lifecycles, galaxies form, merge, collide, and go through other transformations.

Right now?

Now, many relativity purists will say that the concept of “right now” applied to cosmologically distant objects is meaningless.  Strictly speaking, they’re right.  Of course, technically the concept of what you are doing “right now” as I type this post is also meaningless.

The concept of “right now” is useful to us because we’re close enough to interact, and we have a common objective measure of time to synchronize what we mean by “right now”, namely the time the Earth takes to rotate which we divide into numbered time slots, as well as the time the moon takes to orbit the Earth and for the Earth to orbit the Sun.  Of course the time the Earth takes to orbit the Sun is meaningless when observing regions and events that took place before there was a Sun and Earth.

Do we have any objective measure of time that is useful over cosmic distances?  Actually, we do.  The universe is constantly expanding, having started in an infinitessimally small and dense state.  As time passes, the average density of matter in space (averaged across hundreds of millions of light years) is decreasing.  Given the observed consistency of the early universe as seen in the cosmic microwave background, we can use the average density across cosmic distances as an objective measure of time since the Big Bang.

So, if you are a relativity purist, when I say “right now”, just substitute, “at the time when that distant region is at the same average density of matter that our region currently has.”

Our growing universe

As I mentioned above, the universe is expanding.  Actually, the better way to say that, is that space itself is growing.  Over billions of years, this becomes an important factor in considering distances.

Consider that the matter that generated the cosmic microwave background radiation that we’re currently seeing, when it generated that radiation, was only about 42 million light years away from the matter that eventually became us.  (To be clear, the cosmic microwave background was generated everywhere in the observable universe at the time, but the cosmic microwave radiation we actually detect today started traveling around 13.8 billion years ago.)

However, the matter that generated that cosmic microwave radiation is currently 46 billion light years away.  Why?  Because of the expansion of the universe.  That’s why many people will say that the radius of the observable universe is 46 billion light years.  But the light traveled for 13.8 billion years, across a distance of 13.8 billion light years while space was expanding around it, so that’s why others will say that the radius of the observable universe is 13.8 billion light years.

The furthest galaxies we can currently see are from light that has been traveling over 13 billion years.  When that light started traveling, those galaxies were only a couple of billion light years away from the matter that now makes up our galaxy.  Today, the matter that makes up those distant galaxies is over 30 billion light years away, and those distant galaxies have almost certainly radically evolved from what we’re now seeing.

So, how far into the universe can we see?  

The furthest thing we can currently see is the cosmic microwave background radiation generated from matter that is now 46 billion light years away, but we have limited insight into what that matters look like now.  We see galaxies that are composed of matter that is now over 30 billion light years away, but which have evolved in ways we can’t predict, except to say that on cosmic scales, they probably aren’t that different from those in our region.

There may be further complications in the future.  Astronomers may eventually be able to examine primordial gravitational waves from the time of cosmic inflation to reach conclusions about regions of the universe far more distant than the cosmic microwave background radiation.  If so, some people may conclude that the radius of the observable universe is much larger than any of the current numbers.

When we look out into the universe, we are looking into both space and time.  Given that, the size of the observable universe could be said to simply be around 13.8 billion years (not 13.8 billion light years, just 13.8 billion years).

You may disagree (if so, I’d love to read why in the comments), but regardless of what we consider the size of the observable universe to be, the important thing to keep in mind are the limitations of what we can actually observe in the observable universe.

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