Monday, 30 September 2013

Is it Islam's fault?

The usual back-and-forth is proceeding about the role of Islam in horrific terrorist acts.  As usual, the different sides seem to be hugely over-simplifying the situation, which is worrying as to stop such acts we need to truly understand their origin.

It seems odd to put the blame primarily on Islam for such acts when the vast, vast majority of Muslims (like any other group of people) are peaceful.  It's also a problem because Islam is so very varied, that you have to specify which type of Islam at the very least. So, if "Islam" is said to be the cause of terrorism, it's not a very effective cause.  But that doesn't mean that belief in Islam isn't involved.  There may well be a toxic brew of effects - politics, background and faith, with all three contributing to the nightmarish situation of terrorist violence.  The problem is that just saying 'it's religion' doesn't solve anything, as we have to find out how the factors interact - what the dangerous formula for fundamentalism is.

Where there really is a problem is when there is flat denial of the influence of religion, when it's taken out of the equation of extremism and not allowed to be thought of as possibly part of the problem.  This is why platitudes about "nothing to do with Islam" are irrational, and worrying.  They are a denial of the search for truth, they are question begging.

We may find that faith isn't a significant part of the problem, it may be that it's one excuse for tribalism and terrorism and others would be found if faith was not involved.  But we can't pre-judge this.

It's time to stop allowing political sensitivities standing in the way of the search for truth.  That search for truth has to involve everyone, including religious leaders.  If they are truly concerned about terrorism, they will help.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The mind is physical

Our minds are physical.  It may be possible to imagine a mind without a human body, but it's not possible to truly conceive of a mind that is not within time and within space.  That's a strong claim, but not too hard to justify:

Everything about our mind and experience involves time.  We could not remember if there was no past, we could think if there was no possibility of progression of thoughts, we could not perform reason or experience emotion if there was no time for beliefs to change and emotions to change.  Our minds are things that continue from time to time, as the stories of our lives play out, hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

But what about space?  Consider pain.  We don't just know we have pain, we feel pain within a sense of what we are.  We can recall a toothache in our jaw, a backache in our back, a stubbed toe on the end of our foot - pain has a location.  The location may be phantom, such as referred pain (when a pain feels like it's in one part of the body but the cause is elsewhere), or pain that seems to be in a missing limb, but the confusion only reveals the significance of mental models of location.

Our experiences of vision contain dimension.  It's not possible to imagine seeing a thing without that thing having the mental attribute of size.  When we hear we often can pick up the direction of sounds, and we can imagine that direction.

There are also other dimensions of mind which are not so obvious and yet must involve physicality - the storage and retrieval of memories involves partitioning of some kind - memories have to be kept separate somehow in order for recall of distinct things to be possible.  Any form of partitioning, no matter how indirect, must involve dimensionality.

Our minds are bound to time and space, and anything that we would identify as having the characteristics of mind are equally bound.

Recognising this physicality is not any form of reduction of the status of mind, only revealing the necessary scaffolding that is needed by consciousness.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Meditation (me too!)

Sam Harris has posted an excellent lesson on mediation:

I thought it might be interesting to show how I meditate, as my method is, I believe, much easier. A couple of years ago I was taught how to get into a state of mindfulness by therapists, and it's something I do these days to calm my mind.  I find it very relaxing and peaceful.  This isn't like other approaches to mindfulness I have come across, as I don't focus on the body.

First, get into a situation where you can relax.  This can be sitting, lying down or even standing. What matters is that you can comfortably remain in that situation.  Now find something visual to focus on.  It should be something simple and calming, such as a tree out of the window.  It doesn't really matter as long as it's simple.  Now while staying as relaxes as possible focus your attention on the object, while working to keep your mind clear.  As soon as any thoughts come to mind (and they will), dismiss them. If your attention wavers from the object, draw it back gently.  The aim is to be focussed on the object while thinking of as little as possible.

What can happen after a while is you start to lose a sense of time and self.  You may find new perspectives of the object appearing - you may, for example, have a sense that a tree is filling your field of view even though it's far away.  Most importantly you should be in a state of calmness and peace, and there will be a wonderful feeling of mental relaxation.

Don't worry if this doesn't happen.  It will take practice and it may take many minutes even when it does.  What is beneficial is the act of working to clear your mind, learning to control your thinking.


Thursday, 19 September 2013

Why there is no soul - part 2 - Information

In Part 1 I explained that, at least according to what science has shown us, there can be no thoughts or feelings or beliefs or anything associated with the conscious mind unless there is activity of brain cells, activity which is itself inextricably linked to the behaviour of particles - atoms, ions, electrons.  I described what happens as a set of stories, each story at a different level of reduction, each story being true and all stories being linked.

What I'm now going to consider is where the content of the stories comes from.  The linkage of the different levels of reduction tells us something important - all the content of the 'higher' (larger scale) level of story must be present at the lower levels.  The story of the mind is present in the language of the activity of brain cells.  The story of the activity of brain cells is present in the activity of the particles.  If this were not the case, the different stories could not be as locked together as they are, a locking together which physical causality insists must be the case.

How can such complex stories be told in the language of mere particles?  It's because the relationships of particles can have endless richness.  There is no limit to what can be represented by particles linked by the known physical laws.  The simplest of mathematical systems can result in infinite richness, as we can see in the details of fractal systems like the Mandelbrot Set, and the interactions of the particles of matter and energy that make up our bodies aren't so simple.

Physics provides a fabric on which the most complex dynamic patterns can be woven, patterns that we may need to step back to the level of biology to understand.   But no matter how complex these biological patterns, all the information for these patterns is written in physics too.  I'll explore what this means in part 3.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Climate change and the nature of science.

Climate change is real, and it's mainly due to human production of vast amounts of carbon dioxide.  This is simply expressed, but in many quarters it's hugely controversial, when it should not be.

What's fascinating is how many people seem to have a very strange idea about how science works.

A scientist is someone who tests out ideas against reality.  A good scientist is someone who is good at testing ideas against reality.  A scientist is paid to test ideas against reality.  Scientists compete for money to do their work.  They compete against each other.  They are successful if they can show that they are better at coming up with ideas and testing these ideas against reality.  Because of this competition it pays scientists to find fault with each others work, but because science is about tests against reality, the faults must be true faults.  Scientists get to publish their work when competing scientists are prepared to recognise the quality of their work.  Science is full of competition, some friendly, some not.  Everyone is out to succeed, and reality is the judge.

Remember this:  reality is the judge.  This means that there isn't the degree of bias that you might suspect that could come from how a scientist gets paid.  The reason is that you don't hire a scientist if you know the answer you want to get - you hire someone who writes fiction.  There's no point paying for laboratory work if you know the answer you want to get.

The idea that scientists could somehow work together to invent climate change results is absurd, because scientists don't get money from working together - they are all out to find fault with each other.  And - reality is the judge.

The idea that you can pick the views of a particular scientist and say that he or she has the right view is absurd, because unless you have expertise in their field the only reason you are saying that they have the right view is because you already know what you want the right view to be.

The way a layperson should decide what is the right view to support, for now, is statistical:  what is the consensus view?  That's the only way a layperson can decide the view to support.  Anything else is simple prejudice, and a rejection of science.

So, climate change is happening, and it's mainly due to human production of carbon dioxide.  That the overwhelming scientific consensus.  If you aren't an expert in climate science and you disagree with that, then you are just making stuff up.

How do we detect curved space?

What does it mean to say that space is curved, and how do we measure it?

It's simpler to look at things in two dimensions.  Imagine a flat piece of paper.  How would we measure its flatness if we were living on the paper, like ants, not able to perceive a third dimension?  There's a neat way of doing this.  Get a ruler, and mark out a line.  Now move the ruler around, always keeping the ruler pointing in the same direction relative to yourself.  Move back to the marked out line.  If the ruler is still parallel to that line then the surface you are on is not curved.  If the ruler is no longer parallel to the line then you have moved over a curved surface.  The ruler has been twisted - not by you, but by the curvature of space.

We can do exactly the same in three dimensions.  We use a ruler, but this time, a line is marked in three dimensions.  Move the ruler around, keeping it pointing in the same direction relative to yourself.  Now move back to the original line.  If the ruler and the line are not parallel then you have moved through curved space!

Curved space is a prediction of Einstein's General Relativity, and we can actually measure its curvature using very, very precise gyroscopes, which remain pointing in the same direction.  If such gyroscopes are put orbit around the Earth and space is curved and twisted by the Earth, the gyroscopes, like the imaginary ruler, will also twist.  This has been done!

Pigluicci on Consciousness

Nice video on consciousness by Massimo Pigluicci:

I don't completely agree - I think there are more direct ways to demolish the 'Hard Problem' of consciousness, and I don't accept that 'eliminative materialism' need mean that qualia don't exist - what it means is that common beliefs about things such as qualia are wrong.  'Illusion' doesn't mean something doesn't exist - it can also mean that what we think about something is mistaken.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Why there is no soul - part 1 - reductionism

Reductionism is widely misunderstood.  It's often thought that reductionism in science means that, for example, thoughts are 'only' the activity tiny particles - atoms, electrons and ions - doing what they do according to physical law.  That's the wrong way to express reductionism.  The correct way is: "thoughts are the activity of tiny particles", but that doesn't exclude thoughts being other things as well.

What do I mean by 'other things'?  To see this, consider a computer.  A modern computer is made out of billions of tiny switches.  It's reasonable to say that a computer program consists of the settings of many of these switches, but that doesn't tell you much.  To know what a computer program actually does you need to look at a higher level, to see that this section of the code draws some graphics, and that section of the code draws a the image of a plumber, and the whole thing is a Mario Game.  Both the lower-level description of the program in terms of switch settings and the higher level of the program in terms of functions and objects are true.  Reductionism doesn't erase the higher level description - instead, it shows what the higher level is made of.

Reductionism means that more than one story of what is going on in reality can be true at the same time.  It's true that millions of switches are changing in a computer and it's also true that a computer game is being played.  Both stories can be complete, and both stories have to happen in lock-step; it's just that some stories are more useful at understanding what is going on.

Now let's look at something less directly mechanical: waves on a pond.  Drop a pebble into a pond and waves will ripple out from the point where the pebble enters the pond.  These waves may spread out and bounce of various objects in the pond and create a complex pattern for a while.  What is happening to the water can be described both in terms of waves and also in terms of the physical interactions of vast numbers of water molecules.  Again, both stories are true, and both stories have to happen.  When the wave bounces off the side of the pond, the wave story and the molecular story both describe what has occurred.

The thing that needs emphasizing here is the necessary link between different stories.  Anything that happens has to be an effect in the stories at once: nothing visible at the level of waves can happen without having a significant effect at the level of molecules.  It may be possible for molecular effects to be too small to be visible to the human eye, but the reverse is never true - there can be no waves without the movement of molecules.

This tells us important things about how our brains operate.  There are different levels of reductionism, different levels of story.  The lowest level is that of particles doing what particles do - atoms, ions, electrons and so on.  There is a higher level of brain cells receiving signals, sending signals and processing and storing signals in the various ways that brain cells do these things.  A higher level still is the thoughts and feelings and memories that are the properties and activities of our minds.

What reductionism says is that there can be no thought, no feeling, no memory, without directly associated activity in brain cells, and directly associated activity of particles.  The stories are necessarily tightly linked.

What this linkage means I'll explain in part 2

Saturday, 14 September 2013

If we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

This is a broad question about how species arise.  It's sometimes answered by saying that we didn't come from the monkeys we see around us today, but we and monkeys came from a common ancestor.  This doesn't seem that helpful an answer to me, as it can't be denied that the common ancestor of humans and monkeys was more monkey-like than human-like.

One way to look at this question of speciation that might help is to think about territory. Imagine monkeys living in a large area of forest.  The forest does not go on forever, and the edge of the forest is likely to be a rather different environment than the broad area of the forest.  Then there is beyond the forest, which might be grassland.  The point is that some members of the monkey species will come across new environments, and there might be some members of those species which are more suited to those new environments, perhaps with longer (or shorter) limbs, for example.

Species can arise not because there is some constant pressure to diverge from a common ancestor, but simply because populations grown and environments aren't constant and infinite.

(Post asked for by @futbol91 on Twitter)

Friday, 13 September 2013

What is the light speed barrier, really?

What does the speed of light being the fastest possible speed really mean?  It's not as simple as it first seems. The speed limit only applies to the speed of objects seen to be passing each other.  

For example, consider a very distant galaxy.  It may be moving away from us very fast because of the expansion of the universe; its speed may be a significant fraction of that of light.  The faster a galaxy is moving away from us, the more its light is red-shifted.  Eventually this galaxy will be moving away from us faster than light, but we will never see this, as its light will be red-shifted into darkness.  We will see the galaxy disappear.

Another example is a spaceship travelling close to the speed of light.  It can, from the passenger's point of view, travel faster than light because of time dilation and distance contraction.  Accelerating at 1 g it would be possible to get to the centre of the galaxy in decades, even though its about 30,000 light years away.   However, nothing is seen to be passing the ship faster than light because distances will seem shortened in the direction of travel.  Nothing is seen to be passing the ship faster than light from outside the ship, because from that viewpoint the ship never travels faster than light!

Light speed isn't the barrier it seems to be at first - it's just the limit at which things can be seen to travel.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Mind is necessarily physical?

We are so used to the way our minds work, it can be quite a surprise to realise what it has to do to work as it does.  Minds can make decisions, they can imagine, they can remember, they can reason.  Just looking at one of these abilities - memory - tells us a lot about what must be needed for a mind to work.

Memory needs some form of storage.  Retrieval of memory needs some sort of indexing of the storage so that the right memories can be brought to mind.  There also has to be some sort of categorisation of memory, so that the memory of something which is like another thing can be recalled.  It should also be apparent that whatever provides these memory functions can't itself be a mind, otherwise that would not explain anything - there would be a recursion.  From all this it seems clear that mind has to need some sort of physical substrate, some parts which can change state and which can interact in reproducible ways.  

So, mind seems to be necessarily something physical, because of the nature of the functionality that necessary for mind to actually do what a mind is expected to be able to do!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Why Plantinga is wrong about human mental abilities

Alvin Plantinga questions that evolution alone can result in humans having reliable beliefs, and uses this as an argument against naturalism.  As you might expect, I disagree!

Let's take an example that has been mentioned in this context:  why would a human run away from a predator (say, a hungry tiger).  There are a large number of false beliefs that would result in someone escaping from a tiger: the tiger wants to play, and running away will be fun!  Tigers remind me of apples, so I'll go climb that tree and get some.  Tigers have some magic ability to cause floods, so I had better get somewhere high away from the tiger.

It's true - there are plenty of false beliefs that can result in escape, but these are all fragile and isolated.  A belief about a tiger won't be protective against a lion.  A belief that one should seek apples won't work if there are no apple trees.   All of these false beliefs can result in death by tiger if there is a slight change in circumstance.

True beliefs, on the other hand, are both robust and versatile.  A true belief that a tiger is dangerous because of its teeth and claws works with bears, lions, crocodiles, even snakes (just look at those fangs!).  True beliefs can survive the 'Chinese whispers' process of cultural transmission because they are hugely simpler than convoluted false beliefs, and because true beliefs are actually true - they survive continual testing against reality.  The belief that tigers cause floods doesn't survive such tests.

One basic reason why such true beliefs arise and how they persist is because what is going on in both evolution and culture is a form of science: beliefs and mental faculties are being varied randomly and tested against reality with survival as the result of successful experiments.

Another reason why true beliefs are more robust is that they can fit together: true beliefs can combine to form new beliefs which extend our ability to survive.  We know that bears are strong (one truth), and we know that their teeth are dangerous (another truth), so we should definitely avoid angry bears.

Of course, these days there are aspects of reality that are beyond unaided human faculties.  We investigate those aspects of reality using science intentionally, and not just incidentally.  We have computers that can think and reason far faster and more reliably than we can.  We have instruments that can extend the reach of our senses to astronomical degrees.

The key thing here is that evolution tends to result in reliable cognitive faculties about the environment we evolved in because evolution is itself a form of natural science - Nature tested against Nature.

Physics, homosexuality, and 'typical observers'

One of the strangest principles of physics that I keep coming across is that of the 'typical observer'.  For reasons I have never seen explained, we should have a problem in science if we aren't 'typical observers' of reality.  I have never been able to understand what this is all about, especially when physicists try and talk about future observers as if it's somehow possible to take a statistical sample which includes things which haven't happened yet!  Why 'observing' should have any scientific implication eludes me.  Does an observer have to be self-aware?  If so, why?  If not, then why aren't ants more typical observers?  What about bacteria?  Atoms?

I know that I'm not a 'typical observer' because I'm gay - so I'm not even a typical human!  I see this 'typical observer' stuff turn up in supposedly respectable articles in New Scientist.  If anyone can tell me what the point of this concept is, I would be grateful.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Sam Harris vs Sam Harris on morality

Moderator: Our two debaters here today are very well-known writers, bloggers and speaks on various subjects - morality, philosophy, science and religion. Today they challenge each other's views on the subject of morality.

Sam Harris: I believe it's obvious to any rational person that our minds are products of evolution and their thoughts and feelings are fully determined by physical laws.  This determinism is why I insist that there is no such thing as free will and why I suggest that human moral values can and should be determined by science.

Sam Harris: Hold on there a minute.  I think you are overreaching.  As I wrote in my blog entry "The Mystery of Consciousness", I don't accept that conscious experience can be fully explained by science.

Sam Harris: How is that relevant to a discussion of morality?

Sam Harris: Morality has everything to do with conscious experience.  We don't just know we are in pain, we feel pain and that is one way we can suffer.  Knowledge of pain alone doesn't cause suffering.

Sam Harris: But, using science we can determine if someone is feeling pain by examining their brain states using modern tools such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

Sam Harris:  I thought I had made clear my view that science can't fully explain consciousness.  So, you aren't going to be able to get at true conscious experience using scientific tools.

Sam Harris: That is just playing with words.  There is so much correlation between the results of scientific investigations into the way our bodies work and people's reports of pain that we can be confident about what science shows us.

Sam Harris: No - conscious awareness is what matters.  When some of that awareness is lacking in people with brain disorders the result is moral failings such as lack of empathy for others.  Empathy - one of the foundations of morality, is about what we feel when we find out about the suffering of others.

Sam Harris: Come on now, Sam.  You have just connected 'brain disorders' with 'empathy' - that contradicts your own position that science can't understand conscious experience.

Sam Harris: I said that science can't fully understand conscious experience.  I don't doubt it can make some progress, enough for some correlations; enough to identify people who have disorders of conscious awareness that reveal the vital part such awareness should have in moral questions.

Moderator: final statements please, Gentlemen.

Sam Harris: Science can determine what people will say they will experience when they experience suffering, and when their well-being is increased through the reduction of that suffering.  Science can and must be used to determine moral values.

Sam Harris:  Unless we can know what conscious awareness really is, we can never fully understand the nature of mental experiences; what it means to suffer; what it means to thrive.  And so, questions of morality will always remain to some degree purely subjective and so beyond science.

Moderator:  Thank you Sam, and Sam.  I can see that this debate will run and run.  Goodnight all.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Why I gave up dualism through philosophy

I'm not a dualist.  I don't believe that mind and matter are in any way separate.  I used to believe this, but I was forced to rethink my position because of a clever philosophical argument - a philosophical argument FOR dualism!

The philosopher making the argument was David Chalmers, in his excellent book "The Conscious Mind".  Chalmers says that the one thing we can be sure of is our own consciousness, and we can see that consciousness isn't the same as the physical mind because we can conceive of a reality where everything is physically identical to our reality, and yet no being has consciousness.  Because we can conceive of this, then consciousness is clearly not just known physics.  Chalmers called these unconscious beings 'p-zombies' - where 'p' stands for 'philosophical'.

This convinced me for some time, until, one day, I really thought hard about it and I was shocked by what I realised.  According to Chalmers, everything that I could say about my own consciousness would be said by my equivalent p-zombie.  Except (Chalmers says) what my p-zombie says is false.  I realised that nothing I said about my own consciousness being non-physical could possibly be justified, because no matter what arguments I came up with, the same words would be spoken by my zombie twin.  Therefore, no thought I have about consciousness being non-physical can be justified by my own thinking, because whatever thinking I do, my zombie twin will report exactly the same thinking!

Chalmers' argument FOR dualism became, for me, the strongest argument AGAINST dualism.

So what was the difference between me and my zombie twin?  It took me some time to come up with an answer.  It may not be the right answer, but it's an answer that works for me so far.  The difference is that my zombie twin doesn't exist.  It's fictional.  We can have consciousness because we exist.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Why science needs philosophy

There's a widely held view that science can make philosophy redundant, that philosophy has a declining role in the understanding of our world.  That's wrong.  Without philosophy, science is just data collection.  Let's look at some examples.

1. Philosophy can help us understand what it means to talk about 'ultimates'.  To give an example, some String Theory says that the ultimate constituents of the universe are extremely small vibrating strands of something, and the behaviour of particles is determined by how those strands vibrate.  It doesn't take much philosophy to understand that these strands cannot be the ultimate thing because a vibrating object necessarily has identifiable parts, such as nodes of vibration.  Philosophy can lead us to realise that it may not make any sense to talk about ultimates, because philosophy can allow us to investigate what attributes some such ultimate might have, and to explore if they are consistent.

2. Philosophy can help us look at the subject of multiverses.  What does it mean for a region of space, or some spacetime domain to be a 'multiverse'.  Can a universe that does not connect to our time and space be thought of as existing at all?  This is a question of philosophy.

3. At some point we will make an artificial mind.  How do we know if this mind is conscious?  Should we grant such a mind rights?  Is it murder to turn such a mind off?  These are questions of philosophy.

4. Does reductionism make sense?  Can we explain what happens in our brains using neural networks?  Is there some extra causal effect at the level of brain cells that is just not present when dealing with the physics of the material the cells are made of?  This is, again, a subject for philosophy.

Philosophy is the process of thinking about meaning.  We will never be in a position to not have to do this, and so we will always need philosophers to help us interpret science.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Why Sam Harris is wrong about Morality and Science

This is not intended to be part of any competition, just an exploration of ideas!

I think that Sam Harris is generally right in some respects about morality, particularly in that science really can and should inform moral choices.  For example, there are matters of cultural and religious tradition that science can show are objectively harmful and cause suffering, such as Female Genital Mutilation, and scientific findings should lead to clear and unambiguous rejection of such cultural traditions.  

But, trying to pin down morality is like trying to wrestle a snake.  The problem with discussing morality is similar to the problem with discussing free will - there is such a huge disagreement about the meaning of terms that communication can be difficult.  I am a 'compatibilist' when it comes to free will - I believe that free will exists in a deterministic reality (indeed, I go further, and believe that free will needs a deterministic reality), but I recognise that this definition of free will is rejected by many (including Harris).  The same goes for morality - there are ongoing philosophical debates about moral realism: are moral values things that actually exist in some way, or are they abstractions?  While there is continued disagreement about what morality actually really is, science certainly can't determine any moral values, assuming science ever can do this.

There is also the question of what 'well-being' actually is when it comes to morality.  We have mostly moved past the view of 'spare the rod and spoil the child' when it comes to punishment of children at school, but there is still a question of whether experience of suffering is 'good for character', leading to a happier later life.  The business of how suffering should be partitioned throughout an individual's life and throughout society seems insoluble.   To use a simplistic Star Trek scenario - should the "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one"?  Once a decision has been made about weights of needs, then science can inform us, but how to make the decision?  Is there a limit to the suffering of an individual we should allow to reduce the suffering of others?  Who decides?

Morality is a maze in which we don't even know if there are exits.  If someone decides that we should deal with the maze by blasting down the walls, science can help.  But is that a moral way to deal with the puzzle?