Author: tnwjackson

This blog is intended to be therapeutic. For me; not necessarily for my readers. I am an evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science and my primary area of research is the evolution of venom in reptiles and, more broadly, the evolution of "exochemistry". On this blog I'll be posting whatever I feel like posting. If it ends up reflecting my personality and interests it may become a little schizoid. In between articles on scientific topics, I'll sandwich pieces of short fiction and excerpts from longer fictional works. I may write "interpretive" pieces dissecting peer-reviewed articles (including my own). Although these days I'm working as an evolutionary biologist, my first degree was in music so it's likely that there will be some music-themed posts. I'm also passionate about art and the creative process in general, so I may publish some thoughts on that. Probably not politics, at least not directly....but then again, maybe. The painting that currently adorns my header was done by my beautiful and talented wife Genevieve. We have a daughter, a very hairy daughter - she's an Australian Shepherd. Our daughter's name is Keneally; she's named after one of my favourite musicians. The title of my blog I stole from Friedrich Nietzche. Well, actually it refers to a concept I often think about and intend to explore in some of my works of philosophical fiction, but Nietzche published the phrase first. Nietzche said a lot of wise stuff, but he also said a lot of stupid stuff so don't go thinking I'm some sort of Nietzchephile. That's all for now.

Bob walks home.

3D man near red question mark

Bob, walking home from the train station, saw a slogan in bright red spray paint on the wall of the underpass.

“The way to defeat fascism is to ban it,” the scarlet letters proclaimed.

Damn right, thought Bob, continuing on his way.

Further down the tunnel was another red slogan,

“The way to spread the values of liberalism is to force people to accept them.”

Hmmmm, thought Bob, scratching his head, I guess that’s right. After all, people don’t know what’s good for them do they?

Emerging from the mouth of the underpass, blinking as the bright spring sunshine stung his maladjusted eyes, Bob saw through tears the final slogan in letters black on the white concrete of the wall before him.

“The way to understand irony is to take it literally.”

Oh, thought Bob.

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Free will and dualism

immanuel-kant
I’ve been planning to write about free will for years but it’s never quite happened. I have, on more than one occasion, planned large scholarly articles….and then failed to write them. The form and content of those potential articles is probably lost forever, oh well. Free will is a huge subject, one of the most written about and argued about subjects in all of philosophy. That’s why every time I start planning to write about it the range of arguments I want to discuss quickly expands, the project becomes bloated, and I slink back to my day job as an evolutionary biologist. Well, maybe it’s because I’m currently between day jobs, but I figure if I don’t start by writing something short and sweet and posting it on my blog (which exists for this very purpose, after all) I might never write anything about it at all. I think that would be a shame (for me, at least), so here goes.

As one of the most popular and controversial subjects in philosophy, and one of those that people have the strongest intuitions about, it’s unsurprising a lot of arguments about free will are somewhat (dare I say it) incoherent. Actually, “incoherent” is a very common word utilised in these arguments themselves, typically directed by proponents of one view towards those of another. I’m going to continue this venerable tradition (mostly because it’s fun)  – there are plenty of incoherent arguments both for and against the existence of free will. If I keep writing about this subject, I might get around to reviewing many of them, but I’m going to start by putting some of my own cards on the table at the outset. I believe that Kant, who probably didn’t believe in free will in the metaphysical sense and who famously considered compatibilism (the claim that free will can exist in a deterministic universe) a “wretched subterfuge”, nonetheless refuted the majority of arguments against the existence of free will. This includes many modern arguments. When a philosopher who died in 1804 can be considered to have refuted arguments still being made in 2016, this is an example of what I like to call “proactive refutation”. How did he accomplish this? Simply by asserting that we “cannot act except under the idea of freedom”. For Kant, all actions (or inactions) result from choosing to act (or not to). This includes making the choice to believe that we have no free will – unless you have been somehow coerced (by another agent) into making this choice, you have made it freely.

There is, of course, a sizeable literature devoted to this claim of Kant’s, and there have been many attempts to refute it, but I think that most of them fail. This is going to be a short piece and I want to get to why I think denying the existence of free will is fundamentally dualistic, but before I do I better try to explain what (I think) Kant is on about. There are complicated arguments about coercion etc – e.g. when one is forced to do something is one free to do otherwise, and if not can one be said to be “acting” in the Kantian sense – but let’s leave those aside for now. I think the most important thing about what Kant is saying is that “freedom” and “autonomy of the will” are part of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the manifest image”. This means that these concepts are part of the level of reality on which humans have evolved to act and on which (in one of Sellars’ examples) we perceive and interact with objects like tables rather than clouds of loosely interacting subatomic particles with a whole lot of empty space between them. Daniel Dennett has developed this line of argument in considerable detail, but the punch line is that arguments from physics (e.g. arguments about determinism) are irrelevant to discussions regarding the existence of free will. Now, most of the arguments from physics against the existence of free will are incoherent (told you!) anyway and wouldn’t demonstrate the non-existence of free will even if they were relevant, but they aren’t. They also aren’t really even arguments from physics, more like arguments from pseudophysics, but that line of argument can wait.

So, a striking majority of arguments against free will are refuted simply by a recognition of the fact that there are many “levels of description” when it comes to reality and that free will is relevant to (and exists on) only some of them. This simple argument takes care of a lot of modern arguments from neuroscience as well as those from physics, but I want to dwell on the former a little longer. To me it seems quite ironic that many people who deny the existence of free will on the basis of evidence from neuroscience accuse those who persist in believing in it of being closet dualists. For me quite the opposite is true  – not that those who deny free will based on neuroscience have a considered belief in dualism that they are hiding, but that their intuitions are guided by (vestigial) dualist notions.

Dan Dennett has caricatured these arguments as “my brain made me do it” and lamented the naïve (in his view) attempts at philosophy perpetrated by certain scientists who have advocated this position. I don’t always agree with Dennett (I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear this), but I do wish that those who consistently lampoon his positions (“Dan doesn’t believe in consciousness!”) would actually take the time to understand them first. Another way of caricaturing the argument from neuroscience is as “the self is an illusion, therefore free will doesn’t exist”. This is incoherent (am I over doing it yet?). Sure, the self isn’t what it might naïvely appear to be (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it is acausal, but I won’t get into that) but acknowledging that simple fact and then using it to justify doing away with free will is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

If you are a monist, you are committed to the idea that everything is, at some deep level, made of the same stuff. This stuff might be vibrations, subatomic particles, atoms, whatever you want. To me, that’s all physicalism. It’s not “materialism”, because matter is not fundamental, but no matter (ha!) how far “down” you go it’s still physicalism (vibrations in fields are physical). Anyway, unless you are absurdly reductionist, you agree that there are entities at some range of levels above your chosen fundamental level. If you have any respect for biology, you acknowledge that at some number of levels above the fundamental you find entities like proteins, cells, and ultimately organisms. Which level is the “causal level”? The position people take on free will often hinges on their answer to this question. A very influential position of the past (famously illustrated by Laplace’s Demon, an intuition pump so potent it is still guiding people’s thoughts today) is that, since the only really real stuff is atoms moving in a void, the atom is the important level for causal analysis. Many neuroscientists seem to think that the cell (specifically the neuron, or perhaps the neuronal network) is the relevant level. The problem isn’t the preferred answer though, it’s the question. It’s meaningless (incoherent?). There is no level of causal primacy. There is no prime mover. This is taking the worst of theological thinking and the worst of reductionist thinking and mashing them together to create a Frankenstein’s Monster of an intuition pump that refuses to die. Forget that question forever if you want to be able to think clearly about the evolution of the universe, including the organisms present within it, all the way “up” to the level of the consciousness that at least some of those organisms possess.

If you don’t believe in free will, you are not just committed to a hard form of epiphenomenalism (the incoherent notion that consciousness is entirely acausal), you are also a (vestigial) dualist. Why? Because you are suggesting that the “you” which is your “self” is causally disconnected from the “you” that is your neurons (and all the rest of your physiology). What would that mean? If you are a physical monist, you must believe that the experience you are having, your sentience, awareness, meta-consciousness and self, is realised due to activity in your brain. You also can’t be an idealist (in the Berkeleyan sense) – you must believe there is an actual reality out there that your brain evolved to allow you to interact with. So, you believe that signals are coming in via your sense organs and ultimately are “transduced” into your awareness. All this is happening in your brain. Consciousness is just an (integrated) form of awareness (actually it’s an affordance-seeking predictive engine of awareness, but anyway). The “self” is something you are (or can be) aware of. So, do signals come in, get integrated and go into your awareness, but then find the neuronal blind alley in which meta-consciousness hides? Can signals go in to this blind alley but not come out? Is the neuronal substrate of your consciousness somehow causally isolated from the rest of your brain? Hmmmm, sounds a lot like vestigial dualism to me  – it’s a recasting of the “problem of interaction” that has long been used as an argument against dualism (how does the soul/consciousness “stuff” interact with the physical stuff?).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. I know I haven’t addressed a lot of arguments that people use to try and refute free will (e.g. some of those glossed over above, as well as arguments from phenomenology and more), but this is enough for now. Ultimately, a lot of the arguing about free will is arguing about the definition of the term itself. There are plenty of people, who I have a great deal of respect for, who are basically compatibilists but who nonetheless claim that there is no such thing as “free will”. I prefer to concentrate on the common ground in such cases, in so far as the real goal of discussion and debate is inching slightly closer to whatever truth of the matter might be accessible. However, arguing semantics can sometimes be very productive too, as long as all parties involved in the debate understand the level on which the debate is taking place. I myself am essentially a fallibilist and this means that I’m not all that attached to any particular way of saying things because ultimately they are all wrong. I’m not a relativist though, which means that some ways of saying things are more right than others, so now that I’ve made a start in my writings about free will you can expect to hear more from me on this subject in the future.

P.S. That’s Kant at the top. He’s on my side, really he is.

Final interview

ancient

It’s forbidden in their world you see. Not for ethical reasons, but because of the risk of overpopulation. If nobody dies…

They haven’t solved the problem of overpopulation?

They have not. Resources remain finite. Space remains finite. Overcrowding…

So they haven’t mastered simulation? World building?

No. Their simulation technology is not sufficiently advanced for people to live full-time within simulated worlds. One reason for that is the amount of power running simulations of such complexity requires. And issues with failsafe technology. But they are really not so different to us in some ways either, you know. Their scientists also have to contend with irrational red tape blocking certain types of research, so they’re not as advanced as they might be. Arbitrary ideologically motivated rules are equally stifling in all worlds.

Indeed. Let’s return to the subject…

Immortality? Yes, they have achieved it. They can stop ageing, prevent all disease, prevent death by trauma. But their own age limit is capped at 120. Once they reach that limit, they are humanely euthanised.

Is there any resistance to that?

I don’t believe so. The date of their death is set at the moment of their birth, so they live their entire lives with that knowledge and have plenty of time to come to terms with it. They are instilled with a keen understanding of social contract theory – make certain sacrifices to enjoy certain privileges. The price of having a life free of the fear of sudden, unexpected death is expected death. Anyway, although it’s strictly prohibited for them to create immortals in their own world, that law doesn’t extend to other worlds.

Such as our world.

Correct. Ours and perhaps others, I don’t know.

How they do it? How do they beat death?

I don’t know, I’ve already told you that. If I knew I wouldn’t be dying, would I? I’ve spent my life trying to understand it and all I’ve managed to do is shorten it.

Your life?

Yes.

You’re dying because of your research?

Yes. You can’t make too many mistakes when you are experimenting on yourself. Studying death is an efficient way to cause it.

What have you done to yourself?

Many things. Mostly protein engineering and tampering with gene expression. Now it’s all out of balance. I’m poisoning myself with the products of my own mutant genes. I’ve accomplished one thing though in my attempts to emulate their achievements.

What’s that?

An accurate prediction of the hour of my own death.

Oh…

I’m on the clock now, that’s why I agreed to this interview. People should know. People must know.

When will you die?

Tonight. Perhaps tomorrow morning.

Are you sure? You look healthy enough to me.

My pancreas and liver are producing enzymes in toxic quantities, poisoning themselves and my other organs. I’m digesting my own muscle mass. Already my kidneys are beginning to clog with cellular debris. It’s a chain reaction in a system far from equilibrium. My organs will begin to fail tonight sometime between 10 PM and 12 AM.

Can’t you do anything?

No.

I see. I’m sorry. Surely…

No, there is nothing. But people must know. Someone must find him.

Who?

The immortal living in our world. Their experiment.

There’s only one?

To my knowledge, yes. They may have other experiments, other treatment groups, in other worlds. In ours there is just one. They watch him. They’ve been watching him for thousands of years.

Thousands?

Yes. He is ancient.

Why have they done this?

To see. To see how one immortal would live, alone in a world of mortals. To see what influence he would have on their evolution. Our evolution. The evolution of our culture, our knowledge, our consciousness, of humanity itself. Would he hide? Would he take control of his world’s destiny? Would he make himself into a god?

Well… he has hidden. That’s the answer to their question…right?

I thought that too. I thought he was a coward, thought he had influenced nothing, changed nothing.

And now?

Now I know.

Know what?

He has changed everything.

***

Early this morning, prominent scientist Dr. Michael Bosnich died of multiple organ failure, apparently as the result of experiments conducted on himself in an attempt to end the process of aging. Sources close to Dr. Bosnich say that as his body failed, so too did his mind and his final hours were spent in raving delusion, asserting fantasies such as the existence of parallel worlds, immortals, and advanced beings conducting experiments on the evolution of humanity. His family asks that members of the public respect their privacy at this time and remember Dr. Bosnich as a great scientist who made important contributions to the field of genomic disease research. In keeping with their wishes, we have decided to withhold publication of the transcript of his final interview.

Painting: William Blake – The ancient of days

Marguerite (excerpt from Noise)

many-worlds-head-625x350

*Click*

“Dr. West?” Marguerite West looked up from the leather bound notebook she had been writing in, closing it and putting down her pen as she did so. The creative engine which had been fuelling the transcription of her thoughts receded from her awareness and was replaced by the form of her colleague Dr. James. The short, fit, balding man was standing before her desk rubbing the greying stubble that textured his chin. He had let himself into her office without knocking, an act consistent with the level of respect he and the other members of the all-male faculty of the Philosophy Department had been showing their new colleague in the fortnight since her appointment.

“Yes, Dr. James? Do come in.” She flashed her slightly too large, perfectly white teeth at the intruder in a genuine, if slightly mocking, smile.

“Ah…” Clinton James averted his eyes from the green irises, red lips, pale skin, and dark hair of his junior colleague, allowing them to come to rest momentarily on one of the grotesque expressionist nudes that decorated her office. He frowned and turned back to the desk, failing to maintain eye contact.

“How can I help?” Marguerite’s eyes were still smiling.

“Listen, I’ve just read your abstract, er…” he glanced at the sheet of paper in his hand, “’Integrating the Bayesian Brain with the Many-worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’…” he paused, “… and, to be honest Dr. West, I’m not sure if it’s not absolute nonsense.”

“I see,” the corners of Marguerite’s mouth began creeping towards her ears again and for a moment James was reminded of the Joker. Why did this insufferable young woman smile so damn much?

“Ah… perhaps it was intended as a joke?

“Not at all.”

“Right. Well, you see, we are not particularly enamoured of the Everettian interpretation of Quantum Mechanics here, Miss….sorry…Dr., West.”

“Oh?” Marguerite ran her tongue over her incisors. It was an entirely unconscious action, but she noticed Dr. James noticing it. The man flinched and she smirked inwardly.

“Please, Dr. West, this is serious,” perhaps not so inwardly, “the Department has a reputation to uphold and this is a major international conference.”

“Indeed.”

“What’s more, it’s your first public talk as a member of faculty and we were thinking perhaps something closer to your recognised area of expertise…”

“For example?” The terseness of her sentences was at odds with the tone of her voice, which was gentle and good humoured, and the smile that still split her features. This incongruity made James even more uncomfortable.

“Well, perhaps de Beauvoir’s continued relevance…” he ventured before being interrupted by a snort that his young colleague had only half attempted to stifle.

“So…because I’m a woman I should lecture on feminism?” Although her facial expression remained unchanged, West’s voice had acquired a slight edge.

“Ah, no, not necessarily…” Dr. Clinton James, 52 year old tenured lecturer, university squash champion, rock climber, philosophical advisor to politicians and the nation’s economic elite, felt like a 12 year old boy in front of this woman, twenty years his junior. He trailed off and fell silent.

“What exactly is your issue with Everett, Dr. James?”

“Well, we’re none of us physicists, of course, and we haven’t had a genuine philosopher of physics in the Department since Dr. Costlan left…”

“And what was his opinion of Many-worlds?”

“He liked to say that it was ‘not even wrong’, Dr. West, and I’m afraid that judgement has held sway here ever since.”

Marguerite was beaming again, “Well, you should be.”

“Sorry? Should be…?”

“Afraid. Intransigence founded on ignorance is not a good look for a Philosophy Department, Dr. James.” Marguerite settled back comfortably in her chair, reversing the crossing of her legs, her eyes sparkling. James, once again quite unable to meet her gaze, turned, said something to the nearest wall, and exited West’s office as abruptly as he’d entered. Even before the door shut behind him Marguerite had picked up the thread of her thoughts and resumed writing at a feverish pace.

*Click*

Sensory Deprivation

This is a dark short story about the origins of consciousness during the development of the brain. It’s probably not suitable for children….

sensory-deprivation

We wanted to investigate consciousness. How it’s formed. How the sense of self develops in response to environmental stimuli. It was science. The purest kind. Blue sky. A quest for knowledge, pure and simple. Was our research unethical? Many seem to think so. I’ll let you be the judge.

The first thing you need to know is that these babies were not going to be born otherwise. Their parents didn’t want them. We had an arrangement with several major abortion clinics. We met with the mothers, explained our research. Offered them good money. We never pressured anyone. Is it unethical to put a newborn baby into a sensory deprivation tank? I don’t know….well, maybe I know now but I didn’t know then. Anyway, I still don’t know if it’s more unethical than preventing them from being born at all. I mean…any life is better than no life right? That’s what the beefeaters say; I’m a vegetarian. Anyway, that’s not why I’m here you know? No one really cares about those babies. It’s the clones…

What? Fair enough. I’ll explain.

People want to know where it comes from. Consciousness. The self. Does the brain create it, or just “download” it? Is it something that forms in response to complex environmental and social cues or is it “out there”, waiting for a brain that can support it? A lot of people believe that. Like it’s the soul, immortal. The Eternal Oneness, or whatever.

So how do you test that? Well, one way is to keep brains isolated as they develop and see what happens. Simple. The best kind of science. But not so simple really….you need treatment groups, controls. Need to test the effect of genetics, different environments. You need a lot of brains, a lot of treatment groups. So…we got a lot of babies. It wasn’t hard. Nobody wants kids any more. Too expensive. Too restricting. Too much responsibility. Not that they want to stop making them of course. You tell me who’s unethical….

Well, sure, maybe they just haven’t worked out how it happens. Wouldn’t surprise me. It’s not as if they teach biology in schools any more….

Yeah, you’re right, I wouldn’t want to bring a child into this world either. Not after we’ve screwed it up so much. Damn it’s hot…you’d think they’d have air-conditioning in these cells…

Yeah, right. So we got a lot of bubs. All sorts of racial combinations, different social backgrounds. We divided them into treatment groups….

Well, you can’t have just one brain in each treatment group. Don’t you know anything about statistics? You need multiples. Replicates. So yeah, that’s where the clones came in. That’s why I’m here talking to you in a room with no windows…I guess that’s appropriate somehow. Sensory deprivation. Only my room reeks of piss and shit. My own, thank God. I don’t know how you

It’s an expression.

“Playing God,” they said. Whatever, we gave those clones an opportunity. We gave all our babies a shot at life.

Yeah, so some of them got no sensory input. Seven years floating in total silence, absolute darkness. Pitch black. Some of them had a little light, a little sound. All the way up to ones with full-blown family lives. AI families of course – they all had to be in the same tanks. Controlled environments. But for some of them we simulated touch, human contact, the whole shebang. There was a whole range of sensory treatment groups from nothing all the way up. A smooth range of variables. 30 points on the treatment curve, 12 different genetic and socioeconomic combinations at each point, one natural kid and two clones for each combo. 1080 kids. It was beautiful. The greatest experiment ever conducted on the origins of consciousness in the developing brain….

The results? How the fuck should I know!? Seven years mate. Seven. Years. We were just opening the first tanks when the boys in blue kicked down the doors. Farkin’ heroes. I don’t even know what they’ve done with my children. My babies…

Destroyed? And I’m the one in prison…

Simulated universes?

consciousness-300

The following post is an off the cuff response to a recent article (link below) and to an idea that is floating around a lot these days, (perhaps largely due to its popularisation by Elon Musk via Nick Bostrom), but has a much longer history:

http://motherboard.vice.com/en_uk/read/why-you-dont-want-to-live-in-a-simulation-a-response-to-elon-musk?utm_source=mbfbads&utm_campaign=interest

This is a fun article, but there are numerous things “wrong” with the simulated universe thought experiment (it most certainly isn’t a “theory”), not least of which is the fact that you can’t (at least in science, theology is another matter) base a generally applicable statistical argument on premises for which there is no evidence, i.e. the premise that it is possible to generate such a simulation (even if {and this is already an if} it’s possible in principle, this doesn’t make it possible in practice).

Note that claiming functionalism is “our best theory” (I happen to agree that it is, but many do not) is vastly different from claiming that we could generate an experience with the complexity and coherence of that generated by the universe/multiverse in which we find ourselves. This is a bit of a bait-and-switch.

It also makes assumptions about the nature of time and the generation of complexity that are not even close to being “accepted facts”.

It also suffers from vulnerability to infinite regress, as stated in the article. As a cosmological argument (i.e. a way of explaining why we find ourselves in a universe like the one in which we find ourselves), the simulated universe is essentially theological. As well as infinite regress in the form mentioned in the article, it also suffers from infinite regress with regard to the “problem of fine-tuning” (which is not really relevant to this particular article, I know).

Anyway, it’s a great thought experiment and some fantastic short stories (not least of which by Stanislaw Lem, long before Bostrom wrote about it) have explored it. But it remains great science fiction, which I love but find slightly irksome when presented as plausible science fact.

When in doubt, try gospel: the virtues of interpretation

2013_Blind-Willie-Johnson

I am a big fan of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation,” and I’ve written pieces espousing similar positions in the past (e.g. https://tnwjackson.wordpress.com/2015/03/11/can-i-just-dig-it-please/). On the other hand, I’m also a big fan of interpretation – contradiction is the spice of life (What? That isn’t how that saying goes? Whatever, smarty pants.).

I’m a scientist, an atheist and a lover of gospel music (amongst other things). The constant bickering between “science” and “religion” (as if either of those things is a single entity) that pollutes so many information streams today (Ack! Memetic warfare!) is often boring at best. “Religion” has indeed been associated with its share of atrocities (not quite as many as “humans”) throughout cultural history, but it has also been associated with much of lasting value. If you can’t see the “good” in something because you’re blinded by the “bad”, here’s an easy 4-step process:

  1. Read the Wiki entry on the “nirvana fallacy” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana_fallacy
  2. Have an icy cold shower.
  3. Read Alan Watts’ The Book.
  4. Have a piping hot shower.

Will that help? No idea, but it probably won’t do you any harm (be sure to get warm before you start step 3).

Anyway, I dig gospel. Gospel and the blues are very closely related, so closely related that the song I’m about to discuss can be found on compilations of music from either genre. Whether you’re religious or an atheist, unless you’re an idiot (no offence, idiots!), then you’ll probably agree that the “African American” originators of these musics were having a seriously rough time, and perhaps that the music was a “coping mechanism” – a way to focus on something other than how incomprehensibly awful the way one group of humans treats another can be.

I know what you’re thinking (I can see the future, too) – “how does this relate to you, atheist middle class white boy of 2016!?” Well, hush for a second and I’ll tell you. On the surface, gospel songs might appear to be about God, but really (like most songs), they’re about the “human experience”. Check out these lyrics:

“I said no, don’t worry,

no, please don’t worry,

no, don’t worry,

see what the Lord has done.

Just keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

see what the Lord has done.”

What on Earth was Blind Willie Johnson (in my chosen version of the song) on about? Well, you’d have to ask him (good luck), but for me “keep your lamp trimmed and burning” means “pay attention”. A lamp is like a torch (https://tnwjackson.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/a-metaphor/), it’s a piece of technology designed to augment our senses, to help us see in the dark. He’s saying keep your eyes open, keep your senses sharp (trim that lamp, in case it burns itself out) and keep your awareness projecting outward. The “dark” could be the confusion we all experience sometimes in everyday life, in which our attention is constantly attracted by the “wrong” things; the “lamp” is your awareness, or a thinking tool that augments it, something that can help you see through the BS and focus on how absolutely glorious the world really is (“see what the Lord* has done”), despite everything.

OK, so maybe you think my middle class white boy interpretation is facile. That’s fine. It’s always up to us to choose which things to pay attention to and which things to ignore (and what a “superpower” that truly is). Regardless, it’s nothing more or less than my interpretation, anyway. For the good stuff, proceed directly to the source:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjHl-57_I0g

 

* “see what evolution has done” had too many syllables, I guess.

 

The sacredness of objects

 

guitars

For a variety of reasons, catharsis prominent among them, I will be posting a lot of guitar clips on my blog and FB in the near future. As some of my friends know I lost several guitars recently, an experience which hurt. Beloved musical instruments, through which one has experienced many hours of lucidity, are very personal objects. Perhaps, for atheist musicians like myself, they are the equivalent of sacred objects of ritual through which believers find communion with their deity of choice. Perhaps they are not the “equivalent” at all.

Anyway, part of moving on is remembering the good times, to which end I’ll be posting some old recordings made with lost friends. The other part of moving on is celebrating the present and looking forward to the future, so I’ll also be posting some more recent noodlings. Enjoy my lo-fi babies….or ignore, denigrate or ridicule them if you prefer – catharsis is achieved in the act of giving birth 😉

This is the second last piece of music I ever recorded on the guitar that was most dear to me. It’s essentially a free improvisation, so it’s semi-abstract, but for me that’s its charm:

BluesbyJacksons

Billy and the daemons.

Later that “day” in hyper-dimensional space, Billy bumped into Laplace’s Daemon, who was looking dejected.

“Hey, LD, what’s up?” Billy asked, cheerfully.

“Oh, hi Billy,” the daemon rumbled. His voice, almost subsonic, sounded hollow. “I’m feeling a bit low, to tell the truth.”

“Cheer up LD, what’s wrong?”

“I feel pretty useless, Billy.”

“Oh come on.”

“I’m not good at anything…”

“That’s nonsense LD! You know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe! That’s pretty awesome!”

“I thought so too, but now I don’t know…”

“What happened?”

“I failed to predict the outcome of the US presidential election…”

“Oh, bummer…but you’ve predicted a lot of other stuff correctly, right?”

“Well, not as such, no…”

“But…I thought prediction was your whole thing LD?”

“So did I…but I’ve never actually tried to predict anything before now.”

“Wow – isn’t that what you were created for?”

“I guess not. I guess I was created as an intuition pump like some smart arse philosophers have claimed…oh man, this sucks – I was so determined to try,” the daemon let out an almighty sigh. “Ha! ‘Determined’!” he suddenly shouted, slapping his daemonic thigh ironically.

“What’s an intuition pump LD?” chirped Billy, his ears ringing. He’d missed the joke but was always excited to learn new things.

“It means I was created just to convince people that prediction was possible in principle. You know, to show people how obvious and logical determinism is and how incoherent the idea that puny creatures like them could have ‘Free Will’ is,” the daemon made little bunny ears with his daemonic fingers as he pronounced the words “Free Will”, “…but I never really thought to test my powers.” He paused, shaking his daemonic head, “I mean, it was so obvious!”

Suddenly, Tegmark’s Daemon appeared in a puff of mathematics.

“Hi TD!” chirped Billy, whose irrepressible chirping was starting to get on the daemonic nerves of Laplace’s Daemon.

“Hi Billy! Hi LD – I hear you’ve had a spot of bother bit of predicting the future old chap,” said the newcomer.

“Bloody hell,” growled the older daemon, “everybody knows… I’ll be a laughing stock at the next meeting of the Council of Daemons.”

“Cheer up mate,” replied TD, trying to console his friend, “it’s not your fault. You just don’t know anything about quantum indeterminacy, that’s all.”

“What’s that?” asked LD, without enthusiasm.

“Would you like me to show you?”

“Not really…”

“Yes!” exclaimed Billy, who knew it was rude to interrupt when daemons were talking to each other but was unable to contain his excitement.

“Excellent!” said Tegmark’s Daemon, ruffling Billy’s hair affectionately before opening his daemonic mouth and spewing forth a huge jumble of equations. While he explained them to his eager young student, Laplace’s Daemon picked his daemonic teeth disinterestedly with his daemonic claws.

Some “time” later, when Tegmark’s Daemon had finished his daemonic explanation, he turned to his fellow daemon and said, “So now you know, LD – it’s a bit harder to predict the future than you thought, because you have to analyse all possible universes and work out which one you’re in! You couldn’t possibly have known…”

“Whatever,” grunted the downcast daemon, brusquely interrupting his younger colleague.

Tegmark’s Daemon shrugged his daemonic shoulders, “OK chaps, I’m off then,” he said, and promptly disappeared in another puff of mathematics.

“Fucking precocious upstart,” muttered Laplace’s Daemon, alone with Billy once more.

“I feel bad for you LD,” said Billy, “but you have to admit, that was pretty cool!” The boy was beaming in the afterglow of the brief encounter with his favourite daemon – Tegmark’s.

“Piss off, kid.”

“Aw, don’t be sore LD. What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know…probably start a psychic hotline.”

 

 

 

Art: William Blake’s “The Number of the Beast is 666”

A metaphor.

We are all in a dark room.

We all have torches.

Torches are tools for seeing.

*

All our torches are fundamentally the same, but they have different batteries.

Batteries are tools for thinking.

Our choice of batteries affects the brightness of our torches.

*

The beams of our torches can be focussed or diffuse.

The more we focus our beam the brighter it becomes.

The brighter the beam, the more clearly we see what we are looking at.

The more clearly we see what we looking at, the less we see everything else.

The more diffuse our beam, the more we see.

The more we see, the less clearly we see it.

*

The room is crowded.

We can’t see beyond the width of our torch beam.

We can’t see anyone else’s torch beam.

We often bump into each other.

Bumping into each other is an unfortunate accident.

*

The room’s darkness is not absolute.

If we switch our torches off our eyes can adjust.

If we let our eyes adjust we can see everything, dimly.

*

Get the best batteries you can.

Vary the width of your beam constantly.

Switch off your torch for a while every single day.