Thursday, August 30, 2007

How the Public Resolves Conflicts Between Faith and Science

The Pew Forum just published a web page on How the Public Resolves Conflicts Between Faith and Science
When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this. I doubt that people really believe that if science disproves a religious belief, they would continue to hold that belief. I suspect that what they had in mind is that they would take the scientific evidence as somehow not convincing—in the same way that we take an optical illusion as not representing the truth. I doubt that most people are really capable of believing that a statement is both true and not worthy of belief.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Subjective experience and Artificial Intelligence

Matt Berryman referred me to a blog piece by Aaron Clauset. I had a hard time figuring out what Aaron's position was with respect to subjective experience and artificial intelligence. He refers positively to Daniel Dennett's dismissive position on qualia. (It wasn't clear to me who was being quoted in this description of Dennett's position.)
For years Dr. Dennett has argued that qualia, in the airy way they have been defined in philosophy, are illusory. In his book “Consciousness Explained,” he posed a thought experiment involving a wine-tasting machine. Pour a sample into the funnel and an array of electronic sensors would analyze the chemical content, refer to a database and finally type out its conclusion: “a flamboyant and velvety Pinot, though lacking in stamina.”

If the hardware and software could be made sophisticated enough, there would be no functional difference, Dr. Dennett suggested, between a human oenophile and the machine. So where inside the circuitry are the ineffable qualia?
Aaron then goes on the say
I think [Searle's Chinese Room] argument actually shows that the whole notion of "intelligence" is highly problematic. In other words, one could argue that the wine-tasting machine as a whole (just like a human being as a whole) is "intelligent", but the distinction between intelligence and non-intelligences becomes less and less clear as one considers poorer and poorer versions of the machine, e.g., if we start mucking around with its internal program, so that it makes mistakes with some regularity.
The problem is that subjective experience and intelligence are two completely different things. It's certainly possible to have subjective experience without much intelligence. I'm perfectly happy to grant that animals have subjective experience. Yet they're not especially intelligent. Similarly, a brilliant chess playing computer or a master computer oenophile may be intelligent in some reasonable sense, but neither (at least given the current state of our technology) has subjective experience.

Unfortunately, we don't have a test for subjective experience. It's something we all have, but we don't know how to verify that something else has it. Of course that was the root of behaviorism, which was not the right way to do psychology. For now, subjective experience has to be taken as a brute fact — although people who work on brain injuries are beginning to figure out how to talk about it as more just a black box.

My discussion with Matt drifted toward quantum phenomena. I have no idea whether quantum phenomena have anything to do with subjective experience. I don't see any reason why they should, but they might. (In a previous discussion I argued that quantum phenomena are important to intelligence because they supply a source of randomness, which seems to be essential for intelligence — using an argument based on Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea.)

Subjective experience seems so far beyond our scientific grasp that we just don't know how to proceed. But that doesn't mean that we should dismiss it. The term qualia refers to subjective experience. It has a perfectly good meaning. We all experience qualia. It's just that we don't know how to explain them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It proves once again that he's not a small-government Republican

The resignation of Alberto Gonzales prompted some news organizations to dig out this from last May when Bush defended Gonzales.
I, frankly, view what's taking place in Washington today as pure political theater. And it is this kind of political theater that has caused the American people to lose confidence in how Washington operates.
The obvious question for Mr. Bush is, "What have you done to build confidence in the American people about how Washington operates?"

Is it really Mr. Bush's goal to build confidence in government? I thought it was Republican dogma that government is the problem.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

We aren't the first animal to stand upright on two legs

And, as a commenter pointed out,

Is it just coincidence that birds are descended from dinosaurs?

And then Debora noted

So why did I think there was something distinctive about standing on two legs?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Out of body experience

From the New York Times.
Using virtual reality goggles, a camera and a stick, scientists have induced out-of-body experiences in healthy people, according to experiments being published in the journal Science.

When people gaze at an illusory image of themselves through the goggles and are prodded in just the right way with the stick, they feel as if they have left their bodies.

The research reveals that "the sense of having a body, of being in a bodily self," is actually constructed from multiple sensory streams, said Matthew Botvinick, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Princeton University who is an expert on body and mind but was not involved in the experiments.

Usually these sensory streams, which include vision, touch, balance and the sense of where one's body is positioned in space, work together seamlessly, Botvinick said. But when the information coming from the sensory sources does not match up, the sense of being embodied as a whole comes apart.

The brain, which abhors ambiguity, then forces a decision that can, as the new experiments show, involve the sense of being in a different body.
The article was by Sandra Blakeslee, who co-authored Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, a great book, with V. S. Ramachandran, which reported earlier versions of similar results.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Path to Right Livelihood

A Tricycle Daily Dharma about work.
Those of us who start on the path to right livelihood find that our lives are more balanced, simple, clear, and focused. We are no longer strung out in a meaningless cycle of material consumption. The contemporary economy focuses on this cycle of consumption. It doesn't really support our efforts to find meaningful work. Today, work is a means to consume or to pay debt for consumption already indulged in. How many people do you know who really love the work they are doing? How many feel bored and alienated? How many are simply earning the money to spend it on material pleasures? Right livelihood demands that you take responsibility for making your work more meaningful. Good work is dignified. It develops your faculties and serves your community. It is a central human activity. -- Roger Pritchard, in Claude Whitmyer's Mindfulness and Meaningful Work from Everyday Mind, edited by Jean Smith
Most of the people I know have some interest in their work. They care about it. They want to do a good job. Sometimes they have ideas about how to do it better. The Japanese model of continual improvement is predicated on the notion that if given a chance people will want to do a good job. So I don't think it's the case that most people are bored and alienated at work.

On the other hand, few work situations are ideal. One is locked in a relationship with other people who have their own agendas. The agendas of two different people are almost never identical. Yet the demands of a work environment are such that people are forced to work together. Furthermore some people have more authority than others. All this leads to stress and discomfort. So work is never perfect.

I don't think that the primary poles are between "meaningful work" and "earning … money to spend … on material pleasures." They are between a work environment that enables and values one's contributions and one that doesn't. What one does with the money one earns is often independent of the work that one does.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Too many minis

As I was driving in on the freeway this morning, I passed a mini on my right just as another mini passed me on my left. There we were. Three of us lined up across the freeway. Too many minis!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Research = Terrorism in Germany?

Seems hard to believe, but here's a "news" story on MySpace. (I didn't know they had news.)
Germany arrested urban sociologist Andrej Holm because of his academic activities. He was accused of being member of a “terrorist association” called “militante gruppe” (militant group) who is suspected to be behind arson attacks against police and army vehicles. Holm was arrested because his publications contain keywords and phrases, which are also used in the texts written by the Militante Gruppe (especially the term “gentrification”). The warrant also claims that Holm is intellectually capable of authoring the rather sophisticated texts of the militant groups, since he has a PhD in political science. This person is also said to be suspicious because “he works in a research institution and thus has access to libraries, which he can use inconspicuously for doing the research needed to produce the texts of the militant group”.
See this open letter of protest. I haven't been able to find a web page for Andrej Holm that confirms that he is an academic. Most of the Google links fail. Perhaps he was once associated with the Department of Social Sciences at Humbolt University zu Berlin. He is listed on this page as the co-author of a paper by the chair of the department. This 1999 paper lists him as being affiliated with that University. But he is not on the current faculty page.

Friday, August 17, 2007

No wonder it's so hard to build a robot

In a review of Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense by Scott McCredie, Daniel B. Smith writes,
Scientists now agree that the classical five senses are not the only avenues through which we gather information about the world around and, equally important, inside us. Aristotle failed to specify proprioception (the sense of how our body parts are positioned in space relative to one another), equilibrioception (the sense of linear acceleration and head position), thermoception (the sense of heat and cold) and nociception (the sense of pain). Some scientists include hunger and thirst on the list of senses, so that the matter of how many we have, while undoubtedly more than Aristotle suggested, remains unclear.
McCredie wants to add balance to this list.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Every Single Day(?)

Tricycle's Daily Dharma for August 12, 2007 says the following.
The Buddha recommended that every person should remember every single day that we are not here for ever. It is a guest performance, which can be finished any time. We don't know when; we have no idea. We always think that we may have seventy-five or eighty years, but who knows? If we remember our vulnerability every single day, our lives will be imbued with the understanding that each moment counts and we will not be so concerned with the future. Now is the time to grow on the spiritual path. If we remember that, we will also have a different relationship to the people around us. They too can die at any moment, and we certainly wouldn't like that to happen at a time when we are not loving towards them. When we remember that, our practice connects to this moment and meditation improves because there is urgency behind it. We need to act now. We can only watch this one breath, not the next one. —Ayya Khema
I'm not so sure. Knowing that I'm going to die—now or some time from now—doesn't imbue me with the desire to live in the moment. It pushes me to do the things I want to do—such as writing this blog entry. Knowing that I'm going to die makes it more important to me that I write this now rather than wait for some other time when I might have more time and less to do. But I wouldn't call that living in the moment—at least not in the usual way I understand that term as meaning being aware of my immediate experience in the world. It may push me to become more aware of—and want to record—my mental experiences. Perhaps also that counts as living in the moment. If living in the moment refers to developing an awareness of one's subjective experience, however it is being experienced at the moment, then doing what I'm doing now is closer to living in the moment. In that case, it's unlikely that one can live in the moment with respect to all one's faculties simultaneously.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Word of the day: stand up

To assemble, configure, make operational, and start in operation.
It took two days to stand the system up, but it's now running smoothly.
I have been hearing this use of stand up for quite a while. Before using it in a paper I checked to see if it was in any standard dictionaries. I didn't find it.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Eliot Spitzer

In a wonderful talk, Eliot Spitzer quotes (guess who) about the need to temper power with humility.
If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why we have to be humble.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Again, not much time to post, but I'm looking for a definition of belief that gets at it as a subjective experience.
  • any cognitive content held as true (Wordnet)
  • Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something: His explanation of what happened defies belief. (American Heritage)
  • the feeling of certainty that something exists or is true:
    • All non-violent religious and political beliefs should be respected equally.
    • [+ that] It is my (firm) belief that nuclear weapons are immoral.
    • His belief in God gave him hope during difficult times.
    • Recent revelations about corruption have shaken many people's belief in (= caused people to have doubts about) the police.
    • The brutality of the murders was beyond belief (= too difficult to be imagined).
    • He called at her house in the belief that (= confident that) she would lend him the money.
    (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary)
  • a feeling that something exists or is true, especially one without proof (Compact Oxford English Dictionary)
  • conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence (Merriam-Webster)
  • acceptance by the mind that something is true or real, often underpinned by an emotional or spiritual sense of certainty (Encarta)
See also this post where I look for a definition of idea.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Knowledge is subjective experience

In an earlier post, I discussed the problem of religious epistemology. This came up again this morning.

An indirect acquaintance recently died. During the hospice stage (which apparently was very well managed), she wanted to reconcile with her husband about some difficulties they had experienced over the long life of their marriage. (Overall the marriage was apparently fine. But there were some outstanding issues between them that they had never resolved.)

Since this person was associated with a religion to which she was committed—one that believes in an afterlife—I wondered why it was important for her that the reconciliation occur before she died. Why couldn't it wait until afterwards? The answer from someone with a sophisticated religious perspective is that one doesn't know what's going to happen after one dies. It may not be possible to have the sort of reconciliation that one can have beforehand.

Given the volume of religious conservatives in this country today—who seem to be so sure about all their religious beliefs—this struck me as strange. Why wasn't she sure about the afterlife and what it would be like? The answer was that we know nothing about the afterlife except what is written in the Bible—and the Bible is not always clear about it. That's why I came back to the previous post about religious epistemology.

But this seems to raise a larger issue. If religious belief if based on an algebra that one performs on propositions found in the Bible—one decides which of them are to be taken literally, which are to be taken figuratively, etc.—then that sort of knowledge is very symbolic. It's all about propositions and deciding which ones are to be taken as true.

But I don't think knowledge is like that. When I say I know that the keys on my keyboard are black with white lettering, I'm talking about direct experience. That sort of knowledge is subjective. Even knowledge that I accept as a result of hearing or reading words only becomes knowledge when I internalize it and make it equivalent to subjective experience. This is something like what is called the "maker's knowledge" position, which is that one doesn't really understand something unless one can make it. (This came up over the weekend also. See, for example, "Skepticism and the Philosophy of Language in Early Modern Thought.")

I don't have time now to explore this in detail, but it seems to me to be the same sentiment that says that students aren't demonstrating something if they just parrot back an answer. To prove they know something, they must be able to use the information. But to do that means that the knowledge is in some sense internalized and not just a bunch of memorized propositions.

So the bottom line here is that for something to be called knowledge it has to be internalized either as direct subjective experience or an equivalent memory-like phenomenon that we have evolved to be able to produce in ourselves. Some of that internalized indirect subjectively experienced knowledge is what some religious people call faith.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


On my sidebar I quote Richard Feynman as saying
Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is.
and I quote Philip K. Dick as saying
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
I'm in the middle of reading John Searle's Mind. He makes a similar point in much less poetic language.
[There is a] distinction between those features of the world that are observer independent and those that are observer dependent or observer relative. Think of the things that would exist regardless of what human beings thought about or did. Some such things are force, mass, gravitational attraction, the planetary system,k photosynthesis, and hydrogen atoms.
Incidentally, Searle thinks that subjective experience is a level of abstraction. He doesn't seem to be aware of that concept from computer science, though, and he isn't really clear about it. But that's essentially the point he makes. (See my discussion of reductionism, evolution, and levels of abstraction for a further discussion of what this is about.)

I agree with Searle that subjective experience is a level of abstraction. But Seale seems to think that saying so solves the problem of consciousness, that in saying that subjective experience is a level of abstraction that explains why and how we have subjective experiences. I don't agree and don't see why he thinks so. There are many ontologically irreducible levels of abstraction. That consciousness is one of them doesn't explain how we experience it as subjective experience. Seale's explanation doesn't overcome what he calls the zombie criticism: why couldn't all the same stuff happen but without subjective experience?

Here's a talk Searle gave about it in May 2006.

Here's my current approach to epistemology, which deals with many of these same issues.
  1. Ideas are subjective experience in the same category as qualia. (This is the direction in which the "If a tree" paper goes.) Therefore ideas and qualia are both part of Chalmer's "hard problem of AI."
  2. I expect that we will eventually solve this problem and develop a reasonable understanding of how subjective experience comes about. But we don't have much to say about it now. The important point is that solving the problem of how subjective experience comes about (including how ideas come about) is a question for science.
  3. I actually expect that the "solution" to understanding consciousness will be disappointing. It will be something like: that's just the way it feels to operate on that level of abstraction. I know that sounds circular (what does it mean to say "that's just the way it feels"?) Why does it have to feel any way? The answer probably won't be quite panpsychism (that any way of being has some subjective component in some sense), but it may be close. It seems to me that Nicholas Humphrey attempts to do something like that in his "How to Solve the Mind-Body Problem."
  4. Symbols (and language in general) are our attempt to externalize our ideas in order to record, study, and communicate them. In other words, symbols are secondary to and derivative of our ideas. Symbols no more exist outside our minds than do ideas. We use natural mechanisms symbolically, but they are not themselves symbols. The issue of the discreteness of nature is somewhat separate. QM is discrete. Entities (levels of abstraction) are discrete. But they are not symbolic. How would I characterize the difference? Discrete elements are maintained in their state more or less the way bits are maintained in their state.
  5. The symbol grounding problem is not the right problem to attempt to solve since symbols are two steps away from their ground. The real problem is the idea grounding problem. To solve the symbol grounding problem we have to solve (a) the symbol to idea problem, i.e., what we intuitively mean by “semantics” and (b) the idea grounding problem.
  6. We will understand how ideas are grounded when we understand how subjective experience comes about. (See #2 and #3.) Until then, we just have to rely on the fact that we are able to ground our ideas—more or less the same way that we rely on our subjective experience being grounded. We don’t really worry about solipsism. (Searle tells a great story about Bertrand Russell. After a talk a well-known logician came up to him and commented that she was a solipsist and that the position seemed so logical that she was surprised that she hadn’t found many others.) We function pretty well as beings in the world. We have evolution to thank for our ability to ground our qualia and our ideas. If our qualia and ideas were not generally grounded, we would not have survived as a species.
  7. Of course we are not always successful at grounding our qualia and ideas. We have lots of wrong ideas—and we can be fooled about other qualia.. We have all sorts of ideas and subjective experience. Some of them are right, but we can't expect that just because we have an idea or other subjective experience that it will be right. The tag line of my blog (spoken by my cat) is: Humans, smart enough to have ideas; foolish enough to believe them. Richard Feynman once said that science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is. I think that's exactly right. Evolution built us to be pretty good at having ideas and other subjective experiences that match reality, but it doesn't always happen.
  8. Even when our ideas match reality, that doesn't mean our ideas are out there in the world. Our ideas are always in our minds. As I say in "If a tree," hemoglobin carries oxygen. But hemoglobin doesn't have a tag attached to it that certifies that it has the property of being able to carry oxygen. Neither does it have a tag certifying that it's hemoglobin. Nor does oxygen have a tag certifying that it's oxygen. All those sorts of tags are in our minds. Yet hemoglobin really does carry oxygen. So nature may be pretty close what we think it is. (I gather that's a form of scientific realism) It isn't composed of ideas or properties. But it is composed of stable entities.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Experiment with an embedded slide show

Picasa has a button that allows you to embed a slide show from an album on a web site. Here's the Salt Spring album.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Cause of All Suffering

Tricycle quotes the Lotus Sutra as follows.
As to the cause of all suffering
it has its root in greed and desire.
If greed and desire are wiped out,
it will have no place to dwell.
To wipe out all suffering—
this is called the third rule.
For the sake of this rule, the rule of extinction,
one practices the way.
And when one escapes from the bonds of suffering,
this is called attaining emancipation.
I believe that I've done some interesting work that hasn't been recognized. I desire recognition and a community to talk to about this work. Wanting it and not having it causes me suffering. It's all very clear. Yet I still desire it, and I continue to suffer in not having it. Can I chose not have this desire? I don't know. I haven't tried not to have it. But understanding that the desire is the cause of the suffering doesn't automatically end the desire.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Living in the present moment?

Tricycle quotes Thich Nhat Hanh as follows.
When we throw a banana peel into the garbage, if we are mindful, we know that the peel will become compost and be reborn as a tomato or a lettuce salad in just a few months. But when we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, thanks to our awareness, we know that a plastic bag will not become a tomato or a salad very quickly. Some kinds of garbage need four or five hundred years to decompose. Nuclear waste needs a quarter of a million years before it stops being harmful and returns to the soil. Living in the present moment in an awakened way, looking after the present moment with all our heart, we will not do things which destroy the future. That is the most concrete way to do what is constructive for the future.
It seems to me that it takes an awful lot of conceptualization to know "that [a banana] peel will become compost and be reborn as a tomato or a lettuce salad in just a few months [but that nuclear] waste needs a quarter of a million years before it stops being harmful and returns to the soil." It may be important to know these things, but I don't see how knowing them can be equated with "living in the present moment."

What did Thich Nhat Hanh have in mind when he said, "Living in the present moment in an awakened way, looking after the present moment with all our heart, we will not do things which destroy the future?" What specifically is it that we will not do in the present moment with respect to nuclear waste when we live in the present moment?