science

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

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.

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.

 

 

 

Does the fact of evolution threaten your beliefs?

In a previous post, I pointed out that evolution is an observable fact, similar to the observable fact (for example) that there are rocks and a dog in my garden (if you don’t trust the photo, come over and I’ll show you). I also differentiated between the fact of biological evolution and modern science’s best explanation of its mechanism – the Theory of Natural Selection.

Towards the end of the (very brief) post, I stated that the fact of evolution and the ability of the Theory of Natural Selection to explain it do not disprove the existence of a creator. I also stated that evolution does not only occur in biological systems and listed a few “other” systems in which it occurs. I misspoke in one of these assertions – it’s certainly true that evolution occurs in non-biological systems, but the examples I gave (language, culture and anthropogenic technologies) were all biological systems….my bad.

Regardless, it seems some critics of the piece didn’t read all the way to the end, because a number of responses on social media (and one here) suggest that people felt that claiming evolution as a fact threatened their beliefs. Does it?

Evolution is (again) “descent with modification”. It occurs in non-biological systems, such as (a better example!) the universe (or multiverse, megaverse, or whatever your preferred flavour of “….verse”). One of the products of this cosmological evolution is biology, but the evolution of the universe as a whole is not a biological process. In this context, what “evolution” means is that the future states of the universe are dependent upon (because descended from) past states. Every time the universe changes, it doesn’t blink out of existence and get rebuilt from scratch in a nanosecond – new states are always “built from” old states. This is the same in biological evolution of course and is one of the reasons there is so much evidence of past evolution present in the world today in the form of shared DNA. This is the evidence that allows Richard Dawkins to say “…when you eat fish and chips you are eating distant cousin fish and even more distant cousin potato.”

Some might say that calling the history of the universe its “evolution” dilutes the meaning of the word beyond recognition, but there are actually some deep similarities between cosmological and biological evolution, including the creation of order from chance variation (there are plenty of great authors to read on this topic, e.g., David Christian, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss and Seth Lloyd). In this way both the evolution of the universe and the evolution of biological systems are fundamentally different from the weathering of rocks in my garden, which it might be a stretch to refer to as their “evolution” from rocks into sand (although we might have an interesting discussion about that sometime – you bring the beer).

In the range of biological systems currently present in our little corner of the universe, a number of forms of evolution are in operation, including but not limited to natural selection. Evolution can proceed according to the selection of a designer or designers, as is the case for the evolution of tools and technologies such as the computer on which you’re reading this, and the evolution of artificially selected “cultivars” such as Australian Shepherd dogs (like Keneally in my garden). It can proceed without the need for a designer, as in standard natural selection. It can proceed through a combined process of designer-driven and designer-less selection, as in the evolution of a language, in which two forms of designer-less selection occur – natural selection (on us, the organisms that use the words) and memetic selection (on the words themselves) – along with the directed selection of words and conventions for their use by designers (e.g., the Académie française). Evolution can even occur in the absence of any selection pressure at all, as in genetic drift.

The principal belief system threatened by acknowledgement of the fact of evolution is Essentialism, which is essentially (hah!) the doctrine that things have an immutable essence from which they cannot change significantly and to which they always return. The most influential proponent of Essentialism in the history of Western Thought was Plato. Needless (hopefully) to say – Plato was not a Christian. Platonic Essentialism was very influential on Christian theology, but Christians are certainly not committed to it. Multiple Popes have acknowledged the fact of evolution (http://time.com/3545844/pope-francis-evolution-creationism/). In 2014, Pope Francis (though he wasn’t the first to say something of the sort) said “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” – even the faith can evolve.

Those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and believe in a creator and those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and see no need for a creator differ in that the latter apply (or apply correctly) a simple logical principle – Occam’s Razor. Those who do not acknowledge the fact of evolution are wrong (sorry!). The principle of Occam’s Razor is often misunderstood as “the simplest explanation is always the best”. This misunderstanding often leads to “arguments” of the “God did it. Boom!” variety. This is silly because an omnipotent and omniscient creator is hardly simple. Regardless, Occam’s Razor is actually the maxim “entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”. In modern scientific terms, this might be translated as “do not postulate additional causes when sufficient causes have already been identified”. Colloquially, this translates as “don’t make stuff up”. Occam’s Razor is a very useful principle but there is no external agent (like a God, for example) that says you must apply it. You can choose not to – you can acknowledge the fact of evolution (and the presence of rocks in my garden) and leave your belief in a creator untouched….if you really want to.

New article published on The Conversation

stephensii2

Here’s an article of mine that’s just been published by The Conversation, a great webzine devoted to connecting researchers in all fields of academia with the public. Mine is the first in a projected series of “Why I Love: X” articles in a similar format:

https://theconversation.com/why-i-love-surrounding-myself-with-venomous-critters-42996

Comments on Nietzsche’s “Man Alone With Himself”, part 1.

Nietzsche

If you’ve read my About page, you know that the quasi-namesake of this blog is a collection of aphorisms by Friedrich Nietzsche. I didn’t name the blog after Nietzsche’s collection as such, the phrase just came to me when I was thinking of appropriate titles and it only occurred to me after the fact that it might be construed as a Nietzsche reference. In one of those amusing little twists of circumstance, it has now quite clearly become a retrospective Nietzsche reference, as I’m at this precise moment writing the preamble of an article discussing first the title itself (mine or Nietzsche’s?), and then an aphorism from Friedrich’s collection. Before I begin, I should probably make it clear that I make no claims to being a Nietzsche scholar, or indeed a Nietzsche fanatic. He’s just one among the many philosophers in whose works I find ideas worth thinking about and discussing. My interpretations are my own (as far as can be said of such things) and are, of course, entirely open to disagreement and refutation.

Anyway, what exactly does “man alone with himself” refer to? For me, there are at least two ways of interpreting it. One, perhaps the more obvious of the two, refers to the fact that writing is something one does “alone with oneself”. Basically, right now I’m having a “conversation” in my head and transcribing it1. Seeing that (as far as I know), “I” am the only inhabitant of my head, I must be having this conversation alone with myself. Hopefully, dear reader, you exist and are at this very moment (well, not this moment, which is mine, but that moment, which for you is “this very moment”) taking in the results of this soliloquy. The truth is though, that I don’t write for you. I write to help myself structure the otherwise chaotic stream of ideas careening around in my “teetering bulb of dread and dream”2. I contend that all writing and all creation is like this – composing music, making films and painting pictures are no different. We may hope that others will understand and value our creations, but they can only be interfaced with (read, watched, listened to) after we have created them. Fundamentally, the act of creation is something we do alone with ourselves3.

Another, perhaps more profound, way of thinking about the phrase “man alone with himself” is to think of “man” as “mankind”, which in these more enlightened times we might translate as “humankind”. As a symbolic species investigating the causes and attributes of the reality in which we find ourselves, we humans are profoundly alone. Some of the present gaps in our understanding are undoubtedly the result of the perspective bias that results from our particular size, speed, location, fragility, etc. Of course we use many fancy instruments to extend our perspective way out into the vastness of the cosmos or way down to the level of the ultra-itty-bitty-small, but our perspective bias continues to constrain what we can perceive and how we can think about it. Understandably, we find it especially difficult to be objective about ourselves. We have difficulty treating the elements of our experience as scientific objects. Consciousness, free will and death are notoriously difficult concepts to consider impartially. Perhaps if some other scientific species existed that could investigate us in the way we in turn investigate other species, they’d be able to convince us that there’s nothing mysterious about us being here or about us perceiving the world in the way we do; that we’re just another evolved species struggling to survive and understand, aided by the symbols we have invented…..OK probably not, but it might help.

Anyway, more on both those interpretations in later posts. In this “series” of articles I’m going to select an aphorism or three (or as many as I feel like selecting, OK?) from Nietzsche’s (henceforth FN) Man Alone With Himself (henceforth MAWH) and discuss it. It’s really a wonderful bunch of thoughts on a variety of subjects, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to read and think. MAWH is part of a larger collection called Human, All Too Human, and all the aphorisms are numbered in relation to the larger work. Today’s aphorism (number 635) is one of the longer ones in MAWH, so I’m going to break it up into small groups of sentences and intersperse them with my reactions (FN in italics, me, well, not). The translation of FN’s text is by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann.

635

All in all, scientific methods are at least as important as any other result of inquiry; for the scientific spirit is based on the insight into methods, and were those methods to be lost, all the results of science could not prevent a renewed triumph of superstition and nonsense. (emphasis added)

Firstly, it seems peculiar to me that the translators chose “result” in the first statement, because here FN is specifically (and crucially) differentiating between the results and the methods of science. I’ve written on this previously (here). It is as critically important today as it was in 1878 (when MAWH was first published) to understand that what differentiates scientific investigation from other modes of inquiry is not the results, not the answers (or indeed the questions), but the methods through which the results are achieved and the answers discovered.

Clever people may learn the results of science as much as they like, one still sees from their conversation, especially their hypotheses in conversation, that they lack the scientific spirit. They do not have that instinctive mistrust of the wrong ways of thinking, a mistrust which, as a consequence of long practice, has put its roots deep into the soul of every scientific man. (emphasis in original)

Depressingly, science is still taught in schools by rewarding the rote learning of facts rather than by encouraging students to develop an understanding of concepts. This may be why so many people seem not to understand what science actually is. It is not a body of knowledge or a collection of facts to be memorised.

Interestingly the “mistrust” goes both ways – mistrust of scientific ideas is as common today as mistrust of unscientific ideas. To me, both forms of mistrust stem from a lack of understanding of the way in which science operates. When Nietzsche says “mistrust” in this context, he means a healthy scepticism and the development of critical thinking faculties. On the other hand, I think “mistrust”, taken literally, might come closer to the contemporary meaning of “cynicism”, which is something like “intrinsic mistrust” – not trusting information on principle, without investigating its qualities any further. This cynicism is evident in both the anti-scientific conspiracy theorists who think anything “mainstream science” has to say is false (because corrupt) by default, and the apologists of science (including some scientists) who think anything outside the mainstream is false (because “woo”) by default. Perhaps if scientific education was a little more rigorous both of these groups could have their membership decreased. Scepticism is good; cynicism is not only not good, it is actually antithetical to science.

For them it is enough to find any one hypothesis about a matter; then they get fired up about it and think that puts an end to it. For them, to have an opinion means to get fanatical about it and cherish it in their hearts henceforth as a conviction. If a matter is unexplained, they become excited at the first notion resembling an explanation that enters their brain; this always has the worst consequences, especially in the realm of politics.

I think this speaks for itself – it’s common to crave certainty, to desire final answers. We want to know the answers to questions so we can put them in little boxes marked “solved” and get on with other things. Part of today’s mistrust of science stems from the mistaken notion that science promises certainty and then consistently fails to deliver on that promise by undermining itself with yet more answers to the same questions – “If that was certain, why do we need this?” When there is conflict in science, for example biologists debating the fine points of evolutionary theory, some people see the disagreements and think, “If even the scientists can’t agree, the whole thing must be wrong!”

Science really isn’t in the business of finalising solutions; it’s in the business of constantly refining them. Religion on the other hand…..

Therefore everyone should have come to know at least one science in its essentials; then he knows what method is, and how necessary is the most extreme circumspection. (emphasis in original)

Absolutely, Friedrich. But actually it seems to me that what we need is better education in philosophy of science – especially for our science educators! If you’re not going to work in a scientific field, you don’t need in depth knowledge about any particular scientific field, but everyone (perhaps especially politicians!) in today’s world needs to understand how science operates in general. It also seems to me that understanding the specifics of any particular field of science doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the epistemological methods/goals/limits of science. This is actually what’s important. So, what we really need is for people have a solid grounding in epistemology (i.e. to learn what knowledge is and how we can gain it).

OK, I’m only halfway through 635, but I think I’ll leave it there for now (the next bit is extremely misogynistic, anyway).

 

1 When Nietzsche was writing the original Man Alone With Himself, he was doing the same.

2 This charming phrase comes from a poem by Russell Edson, but I pinched it from Douglas Hofstadter’s wonderful book I Am A Strange Loop.

3 Of course in the not entirely unlikely event that no one ever reads this article it will forever remain solely a conversation I had with myself.

The science of consciousness, “why” questions, and philosopher David Chalmers (Part 1)

consciousness-300

Consciousness is something we are all intimately familiar with – we not only possess it, we inhabit it. Unfortunately, deep familiarity and deep understanding do not always go hand in hand and the vast majority of us know very little about consciousness – how it arises, how it evolved or what its function is. Indeed even at the cutting edge of science many questions about consciousness remain unanswered. The study of consciousness is one of those branches of science (theoretical physics is another), increasingly rare in the 21st-century1, in which philosophical and experimental science stand side-by-side on almost equal footing. Attend a conference of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC), as I did earlier this year, and you will find the papers almost evenly divided between the philosophical and theoretical or experimental approaches.

Not only are many questions about consciousness yet to be answered, many scientists and philosophers are unable to agree as to the very nature of the questions themselves. One particularly contentious question is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness research. The hard problem, as elucidated by philosopher David Chalmers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhRhtFFhNzQ), the man who coined the term, is the “why?” of consciousness – why do certain types of brain activity give rise to the experience of subjectivity? Chalmers says that identifying the brain activity associated with the various subsets of conscious experience constitutes the “easy problem(s)”. He maintains that even when “neural correlates” for all conscious experiences have been identified the hard problem will remain unsolved.

A founding member of the ASSC, Chalmers believes that the hard problem is a scientific question for which a scientific answer is possible. In his 1994 paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, he states that pessimism regarding the possibility of a scientific theory that explains consciousness is premature despite the fact that reductionist explanations of consciousness have, in his view, failed. Chalmers believes that a non-reductionist explanation is required and therefore that the hard problem may be answerable via panpsychism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panpsychism) – by treating subjectivity as a fundamental property of matter, rather than something that arises secondarily through functional evolutionary pathways. Essentially, Chalmers is suggesting that what is generally considered a question for biology (in which there are both properties and functions) should be treated as a question for physics (in which there are only properties). Although this seems like a category error, in itself it is not an intrinsically “unscientific” approach. However, leaving aside his claim that reductionist theories of consciousness have failed to account for subjectivity, let’s consider whether or not the hard problem is indeed a scientific question.

I propose that we can divide why? questions roughly into two discrete categories: “mechanistic why?” and “metaphysical why?”. An example of a mechanistic why? is the kind of question evolutionary biologists routinely investigate, e.g., “why is the venom of some Australian snakes so toxic to lab mice?” Such a mechanistic why? can be further divided into two subcategories – it is either a question about property or a question about function. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has referred to these as “how come?” (property) and “what for?” (function) questions. Rephrased, we can derive either “what are the specific biochemical properties of the venom that make it so toxic?” (property); or “what are the evolutionary selection pressures that have resulted in the venom being so toxic to lab mice?” (function), from this one mechanistic why? A mechanistic why? is therefore a question that can be easily and effectively rephrased as one or other of the two kinds of what? A metaphysical why?, on the other hand, concerns the “ultimate reason” for things being as they are. A classic metaphysical why?, derived from the Anthropic Principle, is: “why are the physics of our universe such that on this planet the conditions are precisely right for life to arise and humans to eventually evolve?” Questions such as these have been amusingly termed “vertiginous questions” by Scott Aaronson (http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1799).

Science is not fond of metaphysical why? because they do not function as standard hypotheses – they generate no predictions and are thus fundamentally untestable. Although there is no universally accepted definition of the scientific method, it is often considered that a major pathway2 through which science advances is the generation of testable hypotheses. Scientific hypotheses generate predictions about observable reality in the format “if A (the hypothesis) is true, then B will be observable.” It is not strictly speaking necessary that a hypothesis be immediately testable with current technology, but it must generate predictions that are testable “in theory”. Questions about “ultimate reasons” generate no predictions.

Like experimental science, the field of metaphysics concerns itself with what? and largely eschews why? Here is a modern definition of metaphysics (emphasis mine):

“Metaphysics is about what could be and what must be. Except incidentally, metaphysics is not about explanatorily ultimate aspects of reality that are actual.” (Conee and Snyder, 2005)

So, a metaphysical what? asks “what is actual or possible?”; whilst a metaphysical why? question asks “why are things actual or possible?” An example of the former is “are there atoms?” An example of the latter is “why are there atoms?” If science eschews metaphysical why? because they are fundamentally untestable, why should metaphysics eschew them? After all, metaphysics is concerned with the possible as well as the actual and the testability or predictive power of metaphysical questions is not relevant. One reason may be that answers to metaphysical why? only beget more metaphysical why? – to ask a metaphysical why? is to set in motion a never-ending chain of questions that beget questions that beget questions. Perhaps another reason is that answering a metaphysical why? (i.e. postulating an “ultimate reason” ) would seem to require the existence of what Daniel Dennett has termed an “invisible intentional system”. There is a major branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the asking of metaphysical why? – theology.

So what about the hard problem of consciousness? We’ve established that it’s a why? – but what sort of why? Let’s begin by examining the question in more detail, first as it was posed in Chalmers’ 1994 paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, and then in his more recent elucidation of it in the previously linked TED talk. In the 1994 paper, Chalmers initially defines the hard problem in the following passage (emphasis mine):

Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”

Although it contains the word “why” four times, there’s nothing in this passage that makes it explicitly clear what kind of why? Chalmers is asking – taken out of context, he could be asking a question about the mechanisms from which subjectivity arises or about the selection pressures that have favoured the evolution of subjectivity. As we’ve seen, however, Chalmers defines the hard problem in relation to the easy problems. In the same paper, he tells us that the “…easy problems of consciousness include those of explaining the following phenomena:

  • the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
  • the integration of information by a cognitive system;
  • the reportability of mental states;
  • the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
  • the focus of attention;
  • the deliberate control of behavior;
  • the difference between wakefulness and sleep.”

In the TED talk, he tells us explicitly that identifying the neural correlates of consciousness will not answer the hard problem. During the talk, he phrases his why? in the following way:

“We know that these brain areas go along with certain kinds of conscious experience, but we don’t know why they do.”

And tells us that the “real mystery” is “why is it that all that physical processing in the brain should be accompanied by consciousness at all?”

Chalmers thereby makes it clear that one avenue of interpreting the hard problem as a mechanistic why question is closed to us – he explicitly tells us that the mystery is not what kinds of brain activity subjectivity arises from, but why it arises from this brain activity. So, despite his desire to frame the hard problem as a question for physics, for Chalmers the “hard question” is not a “how come?” (property) question about the brain. Nor, apparently, is it a “what for?” (function) question – at no point in his discussion, in either the paper from 1994 or his TED talk, does Chalmers mention evolution. In fact, he tells us that unlike Daniel Dennett he finds a functional explanation of consciousness to be unsatisfactory. It is therefore clear that his why? can not be interpreted in terms of selection pressures favouring the evolution of subjectivity.

It seems we can be reasonably confident in ruling out the hard problem as a mechanistic why? altogether. Chalmers says that he is “a scientific materialist at heart” and that the panpsychist approach he advocates “opens up the way to do science” with consciousness, but then he explicitly disavows both possible scientific interpretations of his why?, including the one “opened up” by reframing it as a question for physics (i.e. a question about properties). It appears Chalmers’ hard problem is a metaphysical why? – a search for the “ultimate reason” that subjectivity exists.

In Part 2 of this article, I’ll be considering why (ha!) we feel so compelled to ask why?

 

Footnotes:

1 A compelling case can be made for the point that the generalised “separation” of science and philosophy (including philosophy of science) is to the detriment of scientific thought.

2 There are others, but they are less relevant to the asking of specific questions (i.e., the generation of hypotheses).

SIDS and the Tripedia vaccine – a think piece.

vaccine

Amongst the many anti-vaccination memes meandering through cyberspace is one that claims that the FDA has “admitted” an association/causal link between the Tripedia vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Lets leave aside the fact that SIDS deaths are, by definition, unexplained (i.e. the cause of death remains unknown even after autopsy), and examine the evidence presented in this meme.

Here’s a website boldly proclaiming the FDA’s admission of this “shocking fact”:

http://www.whydontyoutrythis.com/2014/04/fda-reveals-shocking-statements-on-vaccines.html

On the website, they provide a link to the Tripedia vaccine insert and ask the question – “How many doctors administering these vaccines have actually taken the time to read the insert?” Before asking whether or not the author of the article has actually taken the time to read the insert, I want to briefly consider the issue of causation.

The FDA reports all adverse events that occur within a specific period of time following the administration of a vaccine (or other drug) during clinical trials and thereafter (those that are reported to them). Does this mean that all these reported events are caused by the vaccines?

Now, as David Hume definitively demonstrated way back in the 18th Century – the confusion of correlation (co-occurrence) with causation is a basic malfunction of intuition. Briefly, Hume states that the following of event A with event B, even if this occurs so frequently that the two events might be considered “constantly conjoined”, does not in any way demonstrate a causal link between the two. This seems obvious, but it’s actually counterintuitive because we quickly become so used to seeing B follow A that we begin to infer the imminence of B each time we observe A. Our brain automatically creates the impression of a casual link.

In modern science we’re very familiar with this phenomenon; so familiar, in fact, that we have a maxim that warns the uninitiated about its existence – we like to shout “correlation does not imply causation” from the top of our lungs every time we see people conflating the one with the other. In order to avoid confusion as much as possible, we use statistics to tease apart correlation and causation. Statistics are boring so I’m not going to get into them, but generally we use them to demonstrate that the chances of a given result having occurred by chance (i.e. of it being the product of correlation) are less than 5% or less than 1% before we (tentatively) accept a causal link between two events.

So, the FDA does indeed report that SIDS has occurred after the immunisation of babies using the Tripedia vaccine, but does this actually demonstrate a casual link between the two events? It doesn’t, because no statistics have been done to assess whether or not the apparent association could have occurred by chance alone. There’s a fairly good reason why no statistical analyses were conducted in this case though; lets have a look at what it actually says about SIDS in the Tripedia insert:

“Causes of deaths included seven SIDS, and one of each of the following: enteritis, Leigh Syndrome, adrenogenital syndrome, cardiac arrest, motor vehicle accident, and accidental drowning. All of these events occurred more than two weeks post immunization. The rate of SIDS observed in the German case-control study was 0.4/1,000 vaccinated infants. The rate of SIDS observed in the US open-label safety study was 0.8/1,000 vaccinated infants and the reported rate of SIDS in the US from 1985-1991 was 1.5/1,000 live births.”

So, is this an “admission of a shocking fact”? How many people claiming it is have actually read the insert I wonder? It says that the average rate of SIDS observed post-immunisation, between the German and American studies, was 0.6/1000. Meanwhile, the rate of SIDS in the US general population from 1985-1991 was 1.5/1000, or 0.9/1000 greater than amongst the test cohort. Oh my! That is a “shocking fact” – immunisation with the Tripedia vaccine reduces the risk of SIDS!!

Oh. Damn. Correlation does not imply causation!

Head in Hands

Disclaimer: the above article is an opinion piece and does not imply anything it does not state directly.