The Consequences of Being Fake: Plato v Jesus

When questioning the historical case for Jesus it’s clear that there is zero evidence that he existed, other than the claims early Christians made, which later Christians simply repeat, often thinking that the more people believe a lie the more truth it gives to the claim. Non-Christian scholars that investigate the Historicity of Jesus are relying on no additional evidence.

The stories in the gospels are all we have. Other so called independent claims about Jesus, such as those from Josephus, are no more than hearsay. Josephus merely states what he was told by Christians, or by others repeating what Christians told them. The stories about Jesus may be based on a singular real man, or the mix of a number of stories of one or more of the many prophets of the time, or they may be entirely fictional, or any combination. There is zero evidence of any asserted miracles: making a blind man see, turning water into wine, … the resurrection – all fiction, because there is never any evidence to support the supernatural claims for any religion. At best, we might act as if a mortal fake prophet existed, who might have been called Jesus, but even then it is probable that any factual truth was embelished; and the ‘miracles’ are pure fantasy.

The Christian response to this is often a complaint that this point of view is far too sceptical and biased, because we would not be as sceptical about the existance of Plato, for example, or any historical figure from the past for which there is no direct record.

What’s your take on Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Were they fictional too?

But it is not the case that philosophers don’t question the existence of anciant philosophers. We can be just as sceptical about the existence of Jesus and Plato. The crucial point is, what are the relative consequences of such scepticism, or specifically, what are the consequences of both Plato and Jesus not having actually existed?

Doubting The Existence of Plato

Taking Plato first, what would it mean had he not existed at all? Well, it would mean all the works attributed to him were not his, but were authored by one or more other people. Even if Plato was responsible for compiling the works attributed to him, perhaps he plagerised the work of others. So one way or another, Plato, as a living person, might have been a fiction or a fraud.

What would be the consequences of this being the case? Very little. Suppose evidence came to light, some unearthed documents, that made it highly likely he did not exist. Some historians might have to revise their texts in light of this evidence – not an uncommon occurrence in history. Nevertheless, to philosophers it wouldn’t mean much at all, because the body of work attributed to Plato stands alone, whoever the actual author or athors were. But this is nothing new. Philosophers already accept that there can be doubts about the real source of much ancient philosopy. Worse case is that the term ‘Plato’ is no more than a label for a body of work, the ‘Platonic’ work. The philosophy contained in that work is what is important.

Doubting the Existence of Jesus

Now, apply the same scepticism to Jesus. Suppose it came about that new evidence revealed the the religion built around a fictional Jesus was made up by some very mortal Jewish revolutionaries. What would be the consequences?

They would be catestrophic for Christianity. It would show clearly that it was a cult. No Jesus, no miracles … no Christian God! Every Pope, every bishop, priest, nun, monk, pastor for 2000 years would have been living a lie, no matter how much they believed it ti be true. Every church and cathedral would be monuments to a man and a god that never existed. Every child indoctrinated into Christianity would have been raised on lies.

Even without such evidence it’s easy to see the consequences of an ever decreasing number of religious believers over generations. Church congregations dwindle, churches decline into a state of disrepair.

But try to imagine what would happen to the Vatican, today, if evidence emerged that completely repudiated the Christian story.

First there would be denial of the evidence. If they can cover up the abuse of children by priests, for the sake of the good name of the church, imagine how far they would go to bury this news.

And, believers need to believe. Islam claims Jesus was a prophet, not the son of God, not Christ. But even the Muslim religion would be damaged, since Islam relies on at least Jesus being a prophet. If the new evidence disprove this, Islam would be damaged, because Mohammed could no longer be trusted. Nevertheless, some Christians might turn to Islam, ignoring this difficulty, or perhaps to Scientology, or Buddhism, Hinduism, who knows.

But I suspect many Christians would just ignore this revelation of the falsity of Christianity. The cost of giving up would be too much.

My mother, raised as a child to be a Catholic, converted to Protestantism when she married my father, had many conflicts with the two churches, and eventually gave up on organised religion. But she never gave up praying, to a God she could not be sure was what she had been taught. When I questioned her, should could not, woukd not, explain what she actually thought this God entity was. He amounted to no more than a sky fairy she thought was listening to her prayers. She wasn’t even sure shexwas a Christian in any meaningful sense – it became a label she used on official forms that asked for one’s religion.

So, if it could be shown Christianity is fake, academically it would destroy the religion’s credibility … if it’s possible to have any less cerdibility among atheists.

But Christianity as a religion would likely live on. Too many professions rely on it.

We have seen many ‘Christian’ scholars make hilarious claims about how the Jesus story need not be literally true while being true in some other mysterious sense all the same. Surely this is how the bishops at the First Council of Nicea fooled themselves while trying to figure out what the Trinity really meant.

Remember, in living memory, a failed science fiction writer stated he would start a religion, did so, … and still Scientology has believers. There are serious flat earthers. There are 9/11 truthers (“it was a false flag job, the towers were not brought down by planes but by explosives”, etc.) There are many crazy beliefs in the world. Christianity is merely the biggest. One has to be the biggest, and one day that may be Islam. But the argumentum ad populum fallacy is strong among the religious.

Plato v Jesus?

If Plato did not exist, then no big deal, no consequences of any consequence at all. Just a shrug of the shoulders of philosophers, and some book editing by historians.

If Jesus did not exist, it would mean the total collapse of any Christian claims about Jesus.

But in reality, many if not most Christians would keep on following the lie, the fantasy; and children would continue to be indoctrinated. The many failed ‘End of the World’ prophecies didn’t make the next prophet pause to think it through.

Perhaps the realisation of that last point will make some Christians pause and think about how gullible they are being. Christians KNOW how gullible are Muslims, Hindus and other believers of other fake religions.

What does it take to make YOU wonder how gullible you are?

Frank Jackson, James Garvey, Mary and the Awful Knowledge Argument

James Garvey of TPM has this piece on an interview with Frank Jackson, where Jackson seems to have turned to physicalism, but I still don’t think he gets it yet.

A point to make at the outset: Refuting the Knowledge Argument does not in itself make the case for physicalism. A physicalist point may be used in an explanation of the physicalist understanding of the phenomena the Knowledge Argument is trying to describe, but the refutation of the argument is a logical one, and the physicalist comment only supports that refutation, by offering the physicalist view as an alternative. Continue reading “Frank Jackson, James Garvey, Mary and the Awful Knowledge Argument”

Is Death Bad For You? No, Don’t Laugh. This Is Philosophy.

Jeez. Another philosopher making hard work of something simple. How Should We Feel About Death? – Ben Bradley, Syracuse University, Published online: 24 Feb 2015

What are the rational constraints on our desires and emotions concerning death? We might rephrase the question in terms of appropriateness or fittingness: what attitudes or emotions is it appropriate or fitting to have concerning death?

The first question was a reasonable one, while the rephrasing is philosophically futile. The term ‘fittingness’ is one of these profundities that is dragged out when emotionally charged woo is being concocted out of a straight forward question. Continue reading “Is Death Bad For You? No, Don’t Laugh. This Is Philosophy.”

John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins

For a philosopher that likes to point out the nuances of the philosophy he thinks Dawkins misses out on, Gray is awfully sloppy with his own thinking – sloppy or malicious, possibly both.

“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins – His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion”

In what way is Dawkins close minded? Closed to ideas that lack evidence to support them, Continue reading “John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins”

Brain in a Vat

Coel has put up a post on one of philosophy’s favourite topics: Brain in a vat (BIV). I’ll try to get to other sources, such as the Massimo Pigliucci post Coel refers to, but for now I’ll respond to Coel’s post only.

So, “[the BIV problem] supposes that we are a brain kept alive in a vat, being fed with a stream of inputs generated by an Evil Genius. Everything that we experience as sense data is not real, but is artificially simulated and fed to us.”

Continue reading “Brain in a Vat”

What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.

Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism. Continue reading “What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.”

Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

Dan Dennett has provided Sam Harris with a refutation of the incompatibilist notion of free will, and support for the compatibilist view.

Dennett fails totally. Here’s the post.

Dennett still does not get the incompatibilist perspective. In fact part of the problem is the philosophical literature. It is typically hopelessly loaded with fine-tuned and rather meaningless variations on the issues of free will. Continue reading “Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy”

Colin McGinn – Hopeless

Philosopher Colin McGinn makes a real hash of reviewing How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, by by Ray Kurzweil. I can’t comment on the book itself, because I’ve not read it. But there’s enough wrong with the content of McGinn’s to know that he isn’t the person who should be reviewing it. Well, not for a fair critical review. If the New York Review of Books merely wanted clueless philosopher to stir up some hyperbole, then fair enough.

But McGinn is one of those irritating philosophers that seems wilfully ignorant. So I’ll respond to some of the content of the review, which is here.

Let’s start with the obviously philosophically suspect:

“However, that claim seems obviously false.”

It doesn’t matter what the specific claim is of Kurzweil. When you hear that from a philosopher, that something is obvious, think ‘mind already made up’. Though his review may be critical, it contains little critical thinking. I always thought it was obvious that philosophers challenged the obvious. I’m obviously wrong in that assumption, and I’ve been shown to be wrong by several philosophers, thereby showing again that the obvious isn’t always so.

McGinn’s main gripe seems to rest on his misunderstanding of patterns and pattern recognition. From the computer science perspective I can see where Kurzweil might be coming from. McGinn starts off badly and never picks up.

“Pattern recognition pertains to perception specifically”

No it does not. Pattern recognition is about matching patterns, and they don’t even have to be in the same encoding. Patterns of visual perception need be nothing like the corresponding neural content; but nevertheless, similar visual patterns can stimulate similar neural firing patterns. There can be a correspondence between visual patterns as perceived and patterns in neural circuits, synaptic connections, firing. It’s not a simple one-to-one correspondence, because the brain has history and merges many sources of pattern.

The pattern of an image taken by a digital camera will be persisted in the camera in states of transistors, and they need have nothing like the geometric spatial correspondence of the original 2D representation of the 3D scene. In transmitting the image over the internet the image data may be compressed and encrypted beyond all recognition (by humans). The compressed encrypted pattern is still a pattern with a direct correspondence to the original geometric image (in lossless compression). And at the other end the data may be decrypted, decompressed and displayed in the same geometric pattern as the original. This would not be possible if there was no correspondence, no pattern, being preserved along the way.

The internal brain representations need not have the same lossless fidelity I’ve just described. It appears that brain memories and perceptions are very dynamic and not at all the high fidelity representations we subjectively feel they are. Nevertheless, patterns are what it’s about to a great extent.

The same can apply to audio signals. And vibrations from earthquake monitors. Things we humans can’t detect can be transformed into patterns we do recognise, so we see patterns in graphs of data that we couldn’t see just observing the original source. So, though stock market data comes in from all over the world to a computer system, and though there is no way humans could directly detect patterns in that data, it can be transformed into stock market graphs that we understand the meaning of very well: patterns.

Pattern recognition is so much at the heart of how we put contextual meaning to visual stimuli that we have the phenomenon of Pareidolia. We ascribe meaning where there is none when our pattern recognition is overly active.

You only have to watch this TED video to see the importance of patterns.

McGinn misses the big picture. In the above video the context of a pattern is in itself a greater pattern. What we perceive moment by moment is only a fraction of what we experience and learn over time. The momentary visual perceptual patterns are not the full extent of the patterns being recognised. In the video the different meanings of two identical geometric shapes only acquire their respective meaning in the context of the surrounding patterns.

“In what way does thinking involve processing a stimulus and categorizing it?”

Thinking isn’t limited to that. Thinking is the dynamic on-going processes in which many partly autonomous regions of the brain are doing their own thing, and we perceive that as thinking. The fact that I have to use the phrase “we perceive that as” is the unfortunate teleological language we have become accustomed to, which may even be evolved as part of our evolutionary development of language and its use to identify a self. That we have this limitation in language use is no excuse for McGinn to make naive claims as to what is obvious – claims to the obvious discredit the whole of philosophy.

“When I am thinking about London while in Miami I am not recognizing any presented stimulus as London-since I am not perceiving London with my senses.”

But McGinn is way off the mark here. The stimulus in this case is not coming from the eyes, but from the brain. When his brain starts to think of London (whether in London or not) it reconstructs in the visual cortex the patterns of neural activity that are activated when he sees London. When he thinks of London, and in particular Big Ben, say, then the various experiences of Big Ben he has had, directly, or on the TV News, or on post cards, have all contributed to his brain’s learning of what London means to his brain, so that just thinking about London conjures up these internal experiences again, some as pseudo-visual images.

“There is no perceptual recognition going on at all in thinking about an absent object.”

There is both perceptual reconstruction, and subsequent perceptual recognition.

“This point seems totally obvious and quite devastating…”

For heaven’s sake, stop with the ridiculous claims to the obvious. If all this was obvious there would be no debate! You want to witness devastation of an idea? Try Dennett’s 1991 review of McGinn – see later.

“The notion of “pattern” has lost its moorings in the geometric models of letters and faces: Are we seriously to suppose that dreams and thoughts have geometrical shape?”

No! This is dreadful. Geometric patterns (by which McGinn means spatially geometric) are only one type of pattern. There are non-spatial geometries, patterns.

“At best the word “pattern” is now being used loosely and metaphorically…”

No. It’s just that McGinn doesn’t get the actual broader meaning of ‘pattern’. It is McGinn’s limited knowledge that is holding him back in this respect.

“Why is remembering that I have to feed the cat itself some kind of pattern?”

Because it is a pattern of neural activity that has evoked conscious awareness of something that must be done, and with it are associated patterns of various kinds, only some of which may be related to visual experiences, of cat and food. When McGinn remembers again the next day many of the same neurons will fire again, in similar patterns!

“What has happened is that he has switched from patterns as stimuli in the external environment to patterns as mental entities, without acknowledging the switch”

Maybe because it is well known that patterns are everywhere in all this and the external patterns on the retina are just one of the many patterns. Without reading Kurzweil I couldn’t say what his intention was, but my guess would be that he didn’t feel the distinction would be necessary to make, or that he made it but McGinn missed it.

“… blithely proceeding as if everything mental involves perception”

Well yes and no. It’s not all visual perception; and it’s not even all conscious perception. Are we restricting the use of the term perception to only the external events on the retina? Or beyond and down the optic fibres? Or through the parts of the visual cortex? Or do we include the reconstructions and merging of immediately acquired and stimulated reconstructions? It’s all so complicated that McGinn’s use of the term perception is very limiting; so showing how little McGinn actually knows about any of this.

“When I see an apple as red, do I recognize the color as a pattern? No, because the color is not a geometric arrangement of shapes or anything analogous to that…”

What? Is he serious? Geometric? Colour is not a pattern system? Does he not know what spectra are? This is unbelievably ignorant. My guess is that his understanding here is based on ancient philosophical notions that he’s not been able to shake off. It’s as if 200 years of science have passed McGinn by.

“When I see an apple as red …it is simply a homogeneous sensory quality”

He’s even confusing himself now. When he sees a red apple he isn’t merely seeing ‘red’, as if the old philosophical ‘redness’ is what determines colour perception. He should watch the Beau Lotto TED talk.

“Is the sweetness of sugar or the smell of a rose a pattern?”

Yes! The nose and tongue are chemical pattern recognition components. When they detect chemical patterns they fire off neural signals. The pattern of the periodic table of elements is a representation, a model, of the physical patterns of the different elements. And more complex atomic patterns, as molecules, stimulate specific receptor patterns in nose and tongue. The whole of biology is about patterns. DNA is about patterns, pattern recognition, pattern building.

“Then there are such mental phenomena as emotion, imagination, reasoning, willing, intending, calculating, silently talking to oneself, feeling pain and pleasure, itches, and moods-the full panoply of the mind.”

Emotion is very much pattern recognition. We recognise patterns in the world and they stimulate our emotions. It’s because the stimulating patterns are different that we cry at sad events and laugh at funny ones. Imagination is the construction of patterns, of worlds, images, ideas. Reasoning is the attempt to discover and build patterns of logic. Willing (don’t get me started on free will) is the causal effect of internal patterns that drive behaviour, that make motor neurons drive muscles. Talking to one’s self is the use of language patterns internally.

This is all getting to be too much ignorance. I’m beginning to suspect wilful denialism.

“In what useful sense do all these count as “pattern recognition”?”

It’s not just recognition. It’s also pattern creation and reconstruction. We learn by both experiencing the world, but also by probing it, and it is in this way we build patterns that on the whole start to have a related contextual significance; and therein lies meaning.

Eventually McGinn moves on to the teleological languages used in neuroscience.

“There is another glaring problem with Kurzweil’s book: the relentless and unapologetic use of homunculus language.”

Three points here. First, that seems to be the language we are stuck with. Maybe it’s evolved – evolving with us, so that it is a very part of our nature to think teleologically. It certainly seems very difficult to escape. Second, coming to us so easily it’s very easy to use, and therefore convenient and efficient: evolutionary biologists that think we are physical systems and that DNA has no intellect or purpose of any kind that we might associate with agency, they still use teleological language. Third, the first two points explain why people like McgGinn find it difficult to shake off the notion of teleology, particularly with regards to humans, and why when they see teleological language used as metaphor they take it to be literal. In this case McGinn thinks Kurzweil’s use of such language is literal. There is no homunculus!

“Presumably (I am not entirely sure) Kurzweil would agree that such descriptions cannot be taken literally: individual neurons don’t say things or predict things or see things-though it is perhaps as if they do.”

He’s not entirely sure? Then he really doesn’t get it at all. He is missing the whole point of the absence of teleology that physics, chemistry, biology, evolution has been hinting at.

“People say and predict and see, not little bunches of neurons, still less bits of machines.”

Well, since people are big bunches of neurons then it is the neurons doing it, but not as some thinking homunculi. It’s the whole mass of neurons and their behaviour that gives the impression of a person, a self. This is the mental illusion that hides the physicalism of what we are! The very ‘self’, ‘I’, that we feel we are is a living metaphor – we are our own homunculus.

“First, homunculus talk can give rise to the illusion that one is nearer to accounting for the mind…”

It’s a metaphor!

“But if we strip our theoretical language of psychological content, restricting ourselves to the physics and chemistry of cells, we are far from accounting for the mental phenomena we wish to explain.”

Now I agree we are far from accounting for much. But if only the likes of McGinn, and Nagel, Chalmers and Tallis, could apply their critical scepticism to their own ideas of what conscious is; or even more, apply it to their certainty of what it cannot be, then they’d be on reasonable ground. But that isn’t what this is about. For these guys it isn’t about a fair appraisal of how far science is getting on in the understanding of consciousness, because they don’t seem interested in the science. They seem more intent on maintaining the special nature of humans as non-animals, or at least animals with minds that are some way free of the very physical constraints of the brain. Oh yes, they admit the mind has something to do with the brain, and while not being able to say what the mind has to do with the brain they are very keen to say to what extent the brain is not the mind. These guys are philosophers. They don’t spend the time covering the science to appreciate how far it goes in not finding a mind and how far it sees only evidence consistent with physicalism.

“Neurons simply emit electrical impulses when caused to do so by impinging stimuli; they don’t recognize anything in the literal sense.”

They do! In a literal sense. The problem here is that McGinn is restricting ‘recognise’ to the teleological homunculus kind that has traditionally been associated with mind. When a component, be it a neuron or computer chip, responds to some patterns and not to others then there is a real and literal physical sense in which the input pattern has been recognised.

“Recognizing is a conscious mental act.”

Only if you define it as such. And here we find the limitations of McGinn. He defines recognition as something that only conscious systems can do; and surprise: only conscious system can do recognition, when so defined! He is making it so by his own definition, his own restriction of the use of the word. Now that human teleological meaning may be the source of the word, but it is now a well-used word in many sciences, and especially in computer science. Much language has been adopted and does not retain its teleological significance. I don’t suppose McGinn has much problem with the term ‘memory’ when applied to computers.

The last bit of interest is McGinn’s understanding of signal processing and information processing. He lacks understanding.

” in sober neuroscience textbooks we are routinely told that bits of the brain “process information”, “send signals”, and “receive messages” – as if this were as uncontroversial as electrical and chemical processes occurring in the brain. “

It is uncontroversial. Well, maybe it’s as controversial to McGinn as is Evolution to Young Earth Creationists.

“It is a collection of biological cells like any bodily organ, much like the liver or the heart, which are not apt to be described in informational terms.”

You’ve got to be kidding me! First, the liver. It does process signals. Mostly chemical ones. The heart? What on earth does he think drives heart beats? And neurons? Please! Neurons are all about signal processing. Even a simplistic description has them summing input signals before they decide to fire; transmitting neurochemicals in accordance with other factors in compex signalling from one neuron to another; they process signals to learn, to habituate, inhibit, etc. Please, McGinn, learn some biology.

“It can hardly be claimed that we have observed information transmission in the brain, as we have observed certain chemicals; this is a purely theoretical description of what is going on.”

Where has McGinn been this last hundred years? Try looking up Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Better still read this.

Still not convicned? Try this list. Seriously, go down this list and just look at all the indicators of signal processing, information processing. And don’t forget it is chemical too, not just electrical.

“The answer must surely be that the brain is causally connected to the mind and the mind contains and processes information.”

What mind?!! Where is it? What is this mind he is so stuck on? He dismisses all evidence of the pattern recognition features of brains, and of their signal processing operations, but with no evidence whatsoever insists there is a mind?

“That is, a conscious subject has knowledge, memory, perception, and the power of reason – I have various kinds of information at my disposal. No doubt I have this information because of activity in my brain, but it doesn’t follow that my brain also has such information”

What is this I, this conscious subject? He looks for it but never demonstrates it.

“To create a mind one needs at a minimum to create consciousness, but Kurzweil doesn’t even attempt to describe a way for doing that.”

Well, first, that’s not true. It appears the minimum we think is necessary is a brain. We have not yet seen consciousness outside a brain that we know of. It’s quite possible that we don’t understand what consciousness is; so that it may turn out to be nothing at all but behaviour of a complex brain. There is nothing else on offer. So, it’s quite respectable to suppose that as we come to understand more about the brain we will be able to figure out how consciousness comes about, and then build non-wet conscious systems. We already attribute consciousness to many non-human animals that aren’t even close to having some of the capabilities McGinn points out in humans. The trouble for McGinn is that he doesn’t understand or cannot define consciousness either, and so is in no position to decide how close scientists have come to it. This next statement demonstrates his ignorance:

“Clearly, unconscious processes of so-called “pattern recognition” in the neocortex will not suffice for consciousness, being precisely unconscious.”

I could write another whole post on why McGinn is wrong in his assessment of physical laws and the technological limits computing power. But I’ve had enough.

Is McGinn truly a philosopher? Has he no critical skills at all? Is he so poorly out of date, still sticking to the same thinking he had way back when? Here’s Dan Dennett on McGinn back in 1991:

“I find his thesis not just incredible and ludicrous. As a fellow philosopher, I find it embarrassing. It is not that I disagree with McGinn about the possibility in principle that there are phenomena that will forever defy human understanding, but just that I find him arriving at his pessimistic verdict about consciousness after such a paltry canvassing of the opportunities.”

What was Dennett disappointed in? McGinn’s claim that human brains were never meant to understand consciousness. Well, they were never meant to understand chemistry, maths of any kind, or for that matter, philosophy. The intellectual capabilities of our brains seem to go way beyond what they were ‘meant’ to do (as if they were ‘meant’ to do anything – be as wary of ID language as of teleological language).

McGinn thinks we do not have the capacity to understand consciousness? Well then how does McGinn assure himself that he knows enough about consciousness, or human brains, to be able to make that claim. It’s a self-refuting claim. Not, note, that this makes the opposite affirmed, that we will understand consciousness. Just because McGinn’s brain is not wired for understanding consciousness, or some basic principles of critical thinking, does not mean that the subject cannot be understood.

Really, you should read the rest of Dennett’s review. I’ll give up on McGinn as a lost cause.

Empiricism, Materialism, Physicalism avoiding Solipsism

Great post on Reductionism over at Emil’s blog.

I wanted to respond to comments there by Peter and Brendan, and give my perspective on their points about solipsism, materialism, science, and how it all fits together for me. Turned out to be a long comment, so I thought I’d better post it here rather than intrude too much and go too far off-topic on Emil’s post. I’ve covered most of this before – links included below.

Peter asks, “How can anyone be sure that what they are experiencing, … In other words, what reason is there for me to refrain from becoming a committed solipsist?”

I’d say nothing is stopping you. I agree with Emil’s take on solipsism and other rationalist philosophies. But my personal perspective is that it boils down to a rational choice. Considering just solipsism v materialism, to some extent the choice is arbitrary. You could ask what the consequences would be in each case, comparing what is the case with what you think is the case:

1) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in solipsism. I’m not sure what I learn from this. It seems that I imagine the world, including you and this conversation. I acknowledge that it might be you that’s imagining me as part of your solipsistic experience, so that I’m a figment of your imagination. What I feel is me thinking is actually you thinking the thoughts in some subset of your solipsist consciousness. How do we tell which is which? Do we have any control over this? Instead of being a mind that imagines being a material life form on an imagined material earth, can I choose to switch arbitrarily to become a life form on the surface of the sun? I seem to be limited to imagine only the earthly being I appear to be. What if I walk in front of a bus. It’s only imagined, so will I simply continue as if I hadn’t? Our (mine or yours) solipsist experience seems to be limited by what seems like a material reality.

2) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in materialism. I can’t distinguish what actually happens here from (1), except perhaps I suffer less anguish over whether I am a constrained mind. Though I am a solipsist mind, I go along with the material illusion. Consequences?

3) Materialism holds, I believe in solipsism. Again, I’m not sure what the outcome might be. I could conceivably die trying to test my solipsist existence by attempting to defy gravity; or maybe I pick a fight in a dark alley somewhere. I’m not sure how I’d distinguish my mental experience here from being absorbed in a gaming system as some avatar. The physical reality might soon make itself known to my mental experience.

4) Materialism holds, I believe in materialism. No problem. Business as usual trying to figure out how all this works.

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if you choose solipsism. You have to do an awful lot of work to get anywhere it seems with solipsism other rationalisms, idealism, transcendence or theism. Lots of inner contemplation, meditation and maybe praying. But it seems you still need to eat. It is sometimes claimed by theists that there are no atheists in foxholes. This is clearly untrue. I’m much more convinced that there are no solipsists at lunch time.

I don’t know any committed solipsists. If I did it might be worth a charge of assault to punch one on the nose. Dr Johnson’s “I refute it thus”, while not an actual logical refutation, I do find his kicking a rock is still pretty convincing. Peter, if you’re visiting this post, do you actually know any committed solipsists yourself? Are you personally persuaded? Your answers might in part answer your own original question.

My route from Cartesian doubt to empiricism, avoiding solipsism, is here and here. The material world is so persistently in-your-face. It seems more productive to try to understand it rather than persist too much with deep scepticism about it. If it turns out that I’m wrong and that I am a solipsist mind then I just hope it comes out in the wash. In the meantime I’ll enjoy that lunch.

Once you choose to accept materialism a lot of consequences follow.

Science (evolution, biology, etc.) tells us we are physical systems no different from the rest of the material world. We are just made up of stuff in some complex way, as Emil describes well as reductionism. From evolution and biology we learn we evolved from animals with much less capable brains, and even from animals with no brain at all.

Our ancestors were very clearly interacting with the rest of the world, of which they were simply components. This interaction was physical, chemical, electromagnetic: when microbes touch there is a greater or lesser degree of chemical interaction as their outer cells come into contact, with electromagnetic interaction of the individual atoms and molecules (the machinary of chemistry). This in turn caused physical and chemical reactions within the bodies, to greater or lesser extent: the touching body is an obstacle, food, or predator.

Neurons and simple nervous systems that don’t fit our loose definition of consciousness are owned by animals that interact with the environment with a greater degree of autonomous control. Memory becomes possible. See Kandel on Aplesia and other sources. More complex brains do more complex stuff, have more complex memories, can predict more about the environment, even if not consciously: a cheetah tracking prey that is trying to evade it.

Sadly we don’t have access to our ancestors in the process of becoming conscious as we are. But it’s not too much of a stretch to infer the following.

The lighting up of human consciousness may have been quick or slow, in terms of evolution, and in terms of generations – we don’t have the details. The species distinction doesn’t really matter here: in the trail back through our ancestors there is no point, we think, where a daughter is not of the same species as the mother; and yet, if these various ancestors could be brought together, they would be classed as one or more species different from us and each other.

As an analogy for the onset of human consciousness and self-awareness take an infant. It’s not clear that a new born has much of a conscious cognitive life. It can certainly respond with basic consciousness, as much as some animals can, but less than some adult animals. Do you remember your early infancy, your birth? Conscious self-awareness seems to creep up on us; and more advanced cognition comes from the physical experiencing development of the brain: learning. It’s hard to look back as an individual, and as a species, to see and acknowledge how conscious self-awareness emerged. There is a gap, and we have had the tendency to fill it with a soul of one sort or another. I feel this gap contributes to our special respect for our conscious mind, and our deification of it – at least to the extent that we think it a spark provided by a deity.

Then there is the physical sensibility of the brain, or lack of it. Though the brain can sense the outside world and something of the inner body, through sight, hearing, touch and the other senses, the brain can’t actually feel itself in the same way. There is no sense in which the brain ‘feels’ its neurons working away, as it can feel an arm moving or touching something. Introspection seems to stop at the mushy level of concepts, thoughts, internal images and sounds – but it can’t locate them. Do you feel neurons flashing in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s as you form and interpret speech? Can you feel in your brain where the concept, the thought, the conjured image of your grandmother is located? No, but neuroscientists can detect at least some of the neurons that are associated with that sort of perception (a summary article, a particular article, recent paper from Quiroga himself).

Our working brain, our conscious selves that are self-aware are only remotely self-aware. Our introspective brains build a vague concept of self the way they build vague concepts of anything else. Our brains even build a concept of mind. And it’s a detached mind, it appears, because of these limitations on our introspective capabilities. This is the nature of the illusion of consciousness. Yes we have consciousness, we experience it. The illusion is that the conscious self is a mind detached from the physical brain: dualism.

Emil said, “Dualism may represent the majority of the population, but certainly not the majority among scientists or philosophers.” I would be more inclined to say the among scientists or philosophers most are non-dualists, intellectually, but, as with visual illusions, none of us can overcome the mental illusion as we go about our daily lives – we feel like free-thinking minds somehow embodied yet not quite part of the furniture. We feel like dualists.

On top of this there is a massive cultural history from philosophy and theology that has constructed quite a different story; one in which the mind does exist as a separate special non-material entity, a soul in some stories. These are excusable stories from an excusably ignorant past. The excuse is wearing thin.

This ancient perspective, which still exists, mainly with theologians, but also with philosophers, particularly those that don’t follow neuroscience, biology generally, or evolution, is what I refer to as the problem of The Primacy of Thought – where they feel that our primary source of knowledge is our conscious mind. I agree that we perceive the world through our minds, but the evolutionary evidence is that we are primarily experiential animals with a brain upgrade that enables us to reason (an interesting process in itself). We and our world are physical, and even though our mental experience of that world goes on in the mind, that mind itself is actually the busy active dynamic brain.

We can infer all this empirically from what we know from science. We can’t prove it logically to the satisfaction of pernickety philosophers, but it’s a more fitting explanation that any fanciful philosophical ideas. All the evidence is not in yet. The hard problem of consciousness remains in the mind (brains) of many philosophers, and particularly theologians who desperately want there to be a soul. It’s not a complete story by any means.

It’s even a bit of a just-so story, though one that is consistent with all existing evidence. I’m sure philosophers that don’t like it would be quick to point that out. But it’s a damned site better than any other on offer, better than any theology or any of the non-materialist philosophies.

And of course, being an empirical perspective on materialism it not only all holds together, it is also open to adaptation in the face of new evidence. Even while waiting for more concrete evidence of physicalist accounts of consciousness all we would need to drop the idea would be some counter evidence. I don’t see any. Not a bit.

Personally I think the evidence is overwhelming already. As Emil puts it, “If you pay attention to the history of neuroscience, you would understand why physicalism has conclusively won the argument … “. Really, start looking at the evidence. Look at all the examples of how changes to the brain, drug induced or physical, including intercranial (open skull) probe sensing, and stimulation, show a direct cause and effect relationship between the physical brain and conscious experience.

The Confusing Philosophy of Free-will

Over at Jerry Coyne’s place Brad asked for some links to the topic. Physicalist commenter offered some that included a link to this page at Stanford.

Unfortuneately the ‘incompatibilst’ term there is not the same use of the term on the JC post comments.

And so welcome to the wonderful mixed up world of philosophy.

I’ll make some general points but also try to focus on this issue of incompatibilism. It’s worth asking ‘incompatible with what?’ and then note the following points.

1) The incompatibilists (I’ll get to incompatibilist later) commenting on the JC post are determinists who claim that free-will is incompatible with determinism, and that we live in a deterministic universe, and so there is no free-will. But this particular free-will that is rejected is that of dualism – the notion of the mind being something separate from the body, that for religious believers has some existence of its own that might live on after death of the body, such as the soul. We incompatibilists determinists think there’s no evidence for such a mind, and that everything is physical, and so the brain is a physical system and that free-will is merely the human feeling that we do have such a mind. This is why we think free-will is an illusion – that is the dualist free-will is an illusion.

2) Compatibilists also think everything is physical. They don’t think there is a separate mind, or a soul. They are not dualists in this respect. But, they think that what happens in a human brain is so complex and so self-contained that it does make sense to think of it as free-will.

One part of the dispute is about whether, for low level philosophical and scientific purposes, we should abandon the use of the term ‘free-will’ to describe what both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on. There are other issues, such as that about the attribution of responsibility, that seem to cloud the dibate, but the core issue is whether we should use the term free-will for what both sides really do agree on, that is what is happening in a brain, particular when some behaviours are framed as (a) ‘it makes decisions’ (compatibilist) or (b) ‘is caused to produce an outcome that we commonly call a decision’ (incompatibilist)

3) The term ‘determinist’ sometimes causes confusion because we all accept that quantum physics introduces indeterminism into our understanding of the universe. There are several sub-issues here. Even a fully deterministic universe would still be indeterminate to humans because it is too complex to determine all the detailed outcomes. And quantum events, once they occur, have deterministic effects. And quantum effects are not sufficient to give back the dualist the free-will they are looking for. All this has to be accounted for when interpreting how incompatibilists determinists use the term determinism. Many, possibly most, compatibilists will also agree with these points, so determinism isn’t specifically a problem of contention. Except that a few compatibilists do wonder if quantum effects play a part in what they perceive to be free-will. Having said that, non-compatibilists would probably agree that quantum effects can have a moment-by-moment effect that makes the universe and any brain process (e.g. a decision) indeterminate, but would still not call this free-will. So, even give or take some variation in the strictness of the use of the term ‘determinism’ many compatibilists and incompatibilists still agree on the physical basis of brain function and still dispute the use of the term ‘free-will’.

4) Now for the Stanford ‘Incompatibilism’. The title and the introduction to that article use the term to describe what is essentially a dualist free-will account. It is portraying incompatibilists as those people who think that there is a free-will that is incompatible with determinism. Meanwhile in our discussion here some of us have picked up on the use of ‘incompatibilists’ as being the determinists that think free-will is incompatible with determinism.

From the Stanford article: “According to McCann (1998: 163-64), when one makes a decision, intrinsic to the decision is one’s intending to make that very decision.”

When compatibilists make such statements the determinists see this as a dualist statement – but in this instance it is a dualist statement. The qestion is, what caused the ‘intending’? Answer: physical activity in the brain. What caused ‘that’ physical activity? Answer: more physical activity. The problem for determinists is that when compatibilists make such statements we know they don’t really mean dualist free-will decision, but the compatibilists object when we say this is not free-will because it is still a determined outcome.

More from Stanford: “Kane holds that a free decision or other free action is one for which the agent is “ultimately responsible” (1996b: 35). Ultimate responsibility for an action requires either that the action not be causally determined or, if the action is causally determined, that any determining cause of it either be or result (at least in part) from some action by that agent that was not causally determined (and for which the agent was ultimately responsible).” [my emphasis]

This is pure dualism. This is not the determinism that we incompatibilists or determinists here are suggesting is the case. This is not the free-will of compatibilists.

There is a distinction that isn’t made clear. Determinist incompatibilists are those (including me) that infer from all available evidence that the universe is deterministic (broadly) and that non-material minds do not exist, and therefore free-will is an illusion. Dualist incompatibilists are those dualists (proponents of a non-material mind, or a soul) that infer from their conviction to dualism that determinism cannot be a full description of the universe. Quite often we find philosophers not being clear on this distinction, declaring incompatibilism an unsustainable position because they are only thinking about the dualist incompatibilists. Dan Dennett seems muddle on this point – at least as he writes in his derision of incompatibilism.

5) What’s been happening in the particular JC post is that we’ve adapted the language to use the terms compatibilist and incompatibilists (using the latter as opposed to determinist).

Now it may well be that we non-professional-philosophers do misuse philosophical terms sometimes, but we’re in good (bad) company, since many professional philosphers seem to change the meaning of words at the behest of their own free-will (ahem, which they don’t have, of course).

This is also why this ground is covered so often in so many ways, why points are made and re-made in different terms. It’s all part of the process of trying to understand what the hell is going on in the context of incomplete science, and a mad history of philosophy that’s all over the place.

Some people deride this process (Oh no! Jerry Coyne is banging on about free-will again! Enough already!). Well, maybe they can only take so much. But for the rest of us these are interesting points, with interesting outcomes (how we view responsibility) that depend on how we view human behaviour, and even how we frame it (free-will as an illusion or a reality).

So, I’m afraid you’ll have to wade through a lot of crap from all sides. At least you can narrow it down to what is basically a love-fest threesome: dualist (actual separate free-will), compatibilist (an emergent free-will worth having), incompatibilists (free-will is an illusion). They are the three main categories, with lots of overlap.

My Problems With Compatibilist Free-Will

While trying to get to grips with compatibilit free-will I’ve been looking at stuff from Dan Dennette and David Chalmers. Then along comes this post from Jerry Coyne. Trying to clarify my appreciation of the compatibilist case I asked specific questions of ‘Another Matt’, and had the response I was sort of hoping for (i.e. it confirmed what I thought was the physicalist case from compatibilists) from ‘coelsblog’

So, at least in the causal chain I think compatibilists and incompatibilists are on the same planet. But several points of contention remain, as I see it, as an incompatibilist. Not all compatibilists need hold all these points of view, but that some do, and that these points are raised frequently, causes misunderstanding for an incompatibilist such as myself. This is why I think many incompatibilists see compatibilists being closer to dualism than the underlying physicalism that many compatibilists really hold to.

1) Language and Level

A great deal of the disagreement does seem to revolve around the use of language and, for want of a better word, the ‘level’ at which autonomy is considered. From my response to Another Matt at Comment 7, and coelsblog’s response to me, that at least this incompatibilist agrees with all the underlying physics of that compatibilist, and that the main disagreement is what we are prepared to call free-will.

It seems that the compatibilist, while arguing about the appearance of human behaviour from what we all agree ‘appears’ to be the free-will perspective, is prepared to label that level of autonomy as free-will, while the incompatibilist is focused on stressing the reliance of this higher level autonomy on the physical foundation from which it emerges. The incompatibilist claim that free-will is an illusion is both explicitly denying dualist free-will, a view that the compatibilist agrees with, but also stresses that it’s the dualist free-will that is the illusion, and as such does not like to name the higher level autonomy as free-will bcause that causes confusion elsewhere.

2) Property Dualism (PD)

This page seems to contain a concise statement of property dualism:

“Like materialism, it holds that there is only one type of substance: physical. Property dualism denies the existence of immaterial minds that somehow interact with the physical world, animating unconscious bodies.

Where property dualism parts with materialism is that it does not attempt to reduce mental states to physical states. Mental states, according to the property dualist, are irreducible; there is no purely physical analysis of mind.”

This sounds like the incoherrent guff of irreducible complexity from ID proponents. Everything we know of is reducible to physical laws, except the mind? As much as dualism is denined in one breath it seems to be re-introduced in its negative guise of something not being reducible to physical explanation. In this sense it also sounds very much like sophisticated theology: of course there is no actual ontological God entity, but still, God is within us, we are God, God is the mystery of the univerese, blah, blah, blah.

Property dualism of mind seems no more coherent than property dualism of biology, or chemistry. It comes across to me as two hidden assumptions:

(i) I (the property dualist) want there to be free-will, for some reason. This might be because I fear the consequences for social order (see point 3), or because I fear the implied fatalism.

(ii) I am using the argument from incredulity, because I really can’t see how my conscious subjective experience can be explained.

Not very convincing positions to hold. PD seems to be an invented philosophical notion the sole purpose of which is to uphold a position one is already committed to. Big fail.

3) Fear of Consequences

Dan Dennett in this conversation makes this point very clearly.

“Free-will worth wanting … responsibility … all compatible with science … if only that’s what scientists were telling us … but scientists have been on a rampage writing ill-considered public announcements about free-will which … in some case verge on social irresponsibility … The recent flood of books by neuroscientists has very little worthwhile stuff and a lot that’s seriously confused; and now, as we’re actually beginning to get some scientific confirmation, it makes a difference … because … some research shows that if you present people with the claim that science has shown that we don’t really have free-will … they will actually behave less morally; they will be more apt to cheat.”

Yeah, OK, let’s pretend guns don’t exist, because if we say they do they might be used to kill people. I find it astonishing that a philosopher would use an argument from social concern to attack an argument from evidence – evidence that he actually agrees with: that there is no contra-causal free-will. Dennett wants to insist on using the label associated with dualism, because that might persuade people to be good; or, that to remove that label and emphasise the reality of physicalism might lead them to be bad? This doesn’t fit with Dennett’s arguments against religion, where he acknowledges that religion might persuade some people to be good, but that’s not a good enough reason to claim religious beliefs as truths.

Now Dennett may well be a comptibilist from point (1); but then he should stick to arguing that point instead of using the ‘fear of consequences’ argument that is also used by the religious .

Of course the fears are unfounded. There is no escape from responsibility in incompatibilism. Deterministically caused autonomy results in a focul point of action and responsibility: the human being. Avoiding the notion of free-will that is clouded by religious notions, such as the notion of evil, allows us to weigh the attribution responsibility more rationally and less emotively.

4) Qualia

Qualia appears to be a made-up concept used to give a name to internal brain states, as observed by the brain, to give impetus to the notion that these brain states, these qualia, are inexplicable, irreducble, in terms of physical brain states.

This is associated with point (2), but it’s also associated specifically with questions like “What does it feel like to be a bat?”

The idea that this cannot be answered, the incredulity gap again, is what proponents of qualia are relying on.

My view is that qualia, like any other metaphor or model, might have its uses, but it does not pose a problem to the physicalist explanation of subjective experience. The way I look at subjective experience, which of course is a subjective view, is as follows.

Any animal brain senses its environment, and also senses its own body and acts as a control system that allows the animal to survive in its environment. Part of that process is prediction – the automatic prediction of the path a prey animal is taking as it is pursued, for example. This involves feedback systems that continuously monitor and react to the environment, and the animal’s own body.

From there a ‘more advanced’ brain can also start to include itself as part of the environment – it can monitor its own processes, to a limited extent. This is rudimentary self-awareness. It aids survival because it allows the animal to not only improve its basic motor responses to the environment but also helps it to improve its own ‘mental’ processing of those responses: adaptive programming.

Below this conscious level there is still subjective experience of the brain body system doing its basic stuff – still a subjective perspective, but not conscious, or not self-aware, not the ‘higher level’ conscious subjective experience that this post addresses. The autonomic nervous system, or any non-biological feedback system, could be said to have this low level subjective experience by virtue of the feedback mechanisms it employs – the sensing of one’s own state.

When an animal acquires a conscious self-aware subjective experience, in addition to the non-aware non-conscious subjective experience, then ‘this’ is what it feels like (i.e. how we feel about our subjective experience).

So, when wondering what it feels like to be a bat we can only guess that a bat might or might not have sufficient capability to actually be aware of what it feels like to be a bat

What we can say is that our high level subjective experience is what it feels like to have higher level subjective experiences. Neither us or bats can say what it feels like to have lower level subjective experiences because there is no mechanism available to report those experiences to the self, to the higher level, in our case, and possibly no self to which such experiences could be reported if there were such a mechanism for a bat. Some lower level subjective experiences become higer level subjective experiences by simply delivering messages into the parts of the brain that are aware – e.g. for pain.

I realise I’m taking a liberty with the use of ‘subjective experience’, but I’m extending it into the unconscious with some justification I think. These lower level experiences are certainly subjective in the sense that they belong to, are experienced by, only those parts of the system that experience them. And I think this move has greater justification than inventing a qualia of the gaps.

5) ‘I’

Who is this ‘I’ or ‘Me’?

Many compatibilist statements that resemble this one, “Do humans choose their actions freely”, can be normalised to the first person I/me: “Do I choose my actions freely”

Some similar examples, taken from Jerry Coyne’s post:

  • “exercising their own power of will” -> “exercising my own power of will”
  • “who selects one of these options and enacts it” -> “I select one of these options and enact it”
  • “because I choose to when I might have other thoughts” – Normalised.
  • “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” – Normalised.

This one attributed to Dennett here:

  • “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit themselves and their own purpose” – “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit me and my own purpose”

My question to compatibilists is, what is this ‘I’ if it is not the physical brain-body system? Many, if not all, compatiblists seem to resort to this ‘I’ without explaining what it is, what mechanism is used, what process, what entity it is. Could some compatibilist explain what this ‘I’ is.

To me, a determinist, the ‘I’ seems like a label for the as yet poorly understood complex events that go on in a brain and result in that brain ‘making a decision’. It’s the ‘self’ that experiences self when a michine can examine its own examining processes, when a computer program can monitor its own programming. This process will be determined by all the past history of the development and learning of that brain, and the current inputs that cause the brain to think a decision is necessary. The process will appear as one that has a most recent causal focal point in that brain – that brain has had data wizzing about according to how brains work, and has eventually come up with an output, a decision. Because the brain isn’t fully aware of all this processing now, and the detailed history of development and learning that brought it to this point is not evidence that the brain just ‘made up its own mind’ in any sense that is similar to what a dualist mind would supposedly do. This is the problem with compatibilism for me, this ‘I’ that goes so unexplained that it sounds like a free uncaused mind.

This is how I see it: we are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. When “I” say “my brain” is doing it, that’s my brain talking about itself in the first and third person, as the first person possessive of the second. I am me, the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”. We don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. There is no other credible possibility on the table.

It sounds like the compatibilist is saying that, yes, it’s all physical, but that it transforms into something that is not physical and yet isn’t dualism. There seems to be a mysterious gap that compatibilists argue for, while we incompatibilists insist that no matter how complicated it gets there is no room for anything other than causal determinism. Either that or the compatibilists simply can’t get their own brains around their own understanding of free will.


Though I can see where compatibilists and incompatibilists agree, within elements of point (1), on the physical basis for consciousness and free-will, I also see the labelling of free-will, property dualism, and fear of consequences, qualia, ‘I’, all as positions held by dualists, including the religious, and that’s why I see the compatibilist case not being distinct enough, such that it does lead incompatibilists to see compatibilists being closer to dualists in many respects.

Compatibilists sometimes wonder why incompatibilists make them out to be dualists. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it might not actually be a duck, but it’s easy to make the mistake. Point (1) I can agree on to a great extent – that’s where the common ground lies.

It’s still fine for incompatibilists to use terms normally associated with free-will when appropriate – e.g. in every day language. I don’t have a problem using the ‘free-will’ metaphor, any more than using other metaphors. I might say, “I’m flying!”, meaning that whatever I’m doing I’m doing at higher than normal rate; but if I thought I was literally flying it would be an illusion (or a delusion, according to how I felt I was literally flying). I’m happy to use metaphorical language of free-will, knowing it’s metaphorical, while even at the same time realising that to some extent my brain still feels the illusion to be true.

16,000 Out of Ten Billion Processors Prefer Cats

Wired reports on cat recognition. Two wins here: cats are the best; and evolution beats ID.

Google’s mysterious X lab built a neural network of 16,000 computer processors with one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, it did what many web users might do — it began to look for cats.

The “brain” simulation was exposed to 10 million randomly selected YouTube video thumbnails over the course of three days and, after being presented with a list of 20,000 different items, it began to recognize pictures of cats using a “deep learning” algorithm.

Take that ID suckers! If a few thousand processors can do this, then a few billion years for evolution to result in systems that recognise and operate in their environment (i.e. life) is a snip. The BBC reports:

The work of the team stands at odds with many image-recognition techniques, which depend on telling a computer to look for specific features of a target object before any are presented to it.

Damn! I’ve been using the Godly method of divinely commanding my software to work, when all the time I should have used evolutionary techniques. Note to self on next sales pitch:

Here’s a computer. Here’s some random code I threw together. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. It should figure itself out eventually. Disclaimer: being evolutionary, when it does eventually work there’s no telling what it will work at.

On second thoughts, that does sound a little like how I work.

The Primacy of Thought

A few recent blog posts have raised the issue of the primacy of thought, particularly these two:

John Loftus at Debunking Christianity quotes James East in this post.

Mike D at The A-Unicornist on this post.

The problem for me with theism, and some philosophy, is the primacy given to the mind and a failure to appreciate how humans, and all animals, are inherently constrained by our senses: Thought v Experience.

The trouble with ‘thinking’ is that by the time we humans started to do it reasonably well a lot of evolutionary water had passed under the bridge, but we had no clue about our sensory non-thinking heritage, so our point of view was skewed. It’s as if we came into the world as a fully formed thinking entities or souls, that just happened to reside in a corporeal body. The mental awakening of an individual human as they grow from childhood to adulthood is also a metaphor for the awakening of the species. So, quite naturally I think, we discover we can think and presume this is our greatest capacity, and not knowing its limitations we come to think the mind has some powerful ability to discover knowledge all on its own. Our very familiar relationship with our own minds, our subjective experience, is so overwhelming that it clouds our view so that we see it as the be-all and end-all of knowledge acquisition. This is the source of our conviction to the primacy of thought.

Here’s James East expressing this very experience (as quoted by John Loftus. My emphasis):

I was a Christian for nearly 20 years – starting as a young teenager, after being raised in a “very Christian” family. By the time I was able to think for myself, I basically believed everything already, so it was only natural to accept the salvation that was on offer when it finally clicked.

And here’s Articulet’s reply (my emphasis again):

Yes – boy can I relate! And don’t feel ashamed for falling for Christianity – probably most of your favorite people have – and most of the smartest people you know. But these are the memes that have survived through time.

In the extreme we have characters like Alvin Plantinga who suppose, for no good reason I can see beyond the persistence of ‘memes’, that we have mental capacities that are reliable routes to truth, when really we have no idea what ‘truth’ is.

Science has a limited practical interpretation of ‘truth’, which basically is the degree of correspondence between our various methods of discovery – so even in that sense ‘truth’ is not the all-or-nothing truth of logic. Epistemology is a mess because it is supposed that there is some real achievable certain ‘truth’ to be found, some absolute certainty out there waiting for us to discover, perhaps in the mind of God, that imaginary essence of truth itself, by virtue, maybe, of our sensus divinitatis.

I remain surprised that some otherwise bright people cannot grasp the link between our acknowledged fictions, and cannot recognise religious thinking for what it is: imagination allowed to run free and unconstrained by the senses.

Our thinking ability is more limited than we tend to think. Some of our recent ancestors will have had an even more limited capacity to think (and we see that in many of our existent cousins); and distant ancestors would have had no nervous system at all. But all of them, right back to the simplest celled organisms, have had a sensory interface with the world, even if it’s a simple chemical boundary. We are still, biologically and evolutionarily, sensory beings. Our evolutionary upgrade, a thinking brain, is an enhancement I’m sure; but a recent one that we are still learning to use. But it is useless in its own right, when acting alone. Try growing a brain in a child deprived entirely of senses and see what happens. Empiricism rules: we are sensory beings with an added capacity to analyse what we sense, to recognise patterns, to plan, to predict, to test again.

Common sense experience alone should be sufficient to tell us our senses and our reasoning are flawed. Our naturally developed faculty, our human knowledge acquisition system, our empirical nature, is only improved by the rigour of science. Even where science is still justifiably criticised as flawed, it’s still the best we can do. Science is, after all, practised by a flawed empirical system – the human being. All claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ have no foundation beyond wishful thinking. There’s only this one way of knowing, succinctly described as empiricism, but more rigorously practised as science. We can do it poorly or we can do it well, but that’s all we can do. We have no other faculties available to us that we know of.

We all acknowledge the human faculties of intuition and insight, but those that would put such faculties above science still don’t really get where these faculties fit in. Science uses them – that is scientists use them. They are part of the whole human knowledge acquisition system. But these faculties are also known to be suspect. The point being that science, the rigour of science, is the application of methodologies that weed out the useless intuitions and explore and expand on the good ones. In contrast to this approach the religious in particular, and some philosophers, are content to accept their intuitions without question, or at best only with questioning that also lies within the framework of their dogmas and schemas. They insist on this primacy of thought.

I feel that the failure to recognise this is why many theists and philosophers have been historically, and still are, so committed to the mind and the imagined capabilities attributed to it: reliable logical reasoning, freedom from bias and emotional drives to believe what we want to believe, a capacity to transcend the skull through thought alone, the ability to communicate with an imagined super being, the reliance on notions like faith. Until they grasp this view of what we are, our empirical nature, they will remain stuck thinking they have some pure, and possibly divine, route to knowledge through the mind alone.

Of course we could deny this empirical nature of ours, but to start down that road we would have to deny first the evolutionary theory that tells us this is how we got here from pre-thinking ancestors, and how this is the type of being we are. And once on that path, eventually, any significant contribution of the senses can be ditched. If the mind is really the route to knowledge, then the end of the line is solipsism. I can’t refute the solipsism hypothesis, but I’m content with not needing to.

Zeno’s Paradoxes of Motion

Zeno’s Paradoxes crop up occasionally. There are several paradoxes labelled as Zeno’s. Two of these are: Achilles and the Tortoise, and, the dichotomy paradox (or the race course paradox)

These are all basically the same sort of problem, about breaking down motion into an infinite series of ever smaller steps.

The runner of a race goes like this:

A runner starts running the length of a race track. At the half-way point he has covered half the distance, with half remaining. When he gets to half the remaining distance he still has the other half of that second distance remaining. At each ever shorter half-way point he has covered half the distance remaining, but always has half the distance to complete. This continues, with remaining half-distances remaining, indefinitely. He never completes the race.

What’s actually happening, with the runner of a race, is we tend to assume him to be traveling at a constant speed S, and yet the never ending half distances make it appear that he never completes the race. Paradoxical? Only if you think of a normal runner at constant speed, while thinking of this runner with each half length taking the same time.

Constant Speed

Supposing that we look at his position, x, at times, t, and X is the length of the track:

x0, x1, x2, x3, …, xn, x(n+1), …
t0, t1, t2, t3, …, tn, t(n+1), …

The difference between each is:
dxn = x(n+1) – xn: dx0 = x1 – x0, dx1 = x2 – x1, …
dtn = t(n+1) – tn: dt0 = t1 – t0, dt1 = t2 – t1, …

The paradox tells you that dx is being halved each time, but may neglect to tell you that if the runner is moving at constant speed then dt is also being halved each time:

dx1 = dx0/2, dx2 = dx1/2, …
dt1 = dt0/2, dt2 = dt1/2, …

The time intervals are halving too.

So, the speed is still constant: dxn/dtn = S, period to period.

Constant Time Intervals – Reducing Speed

The other view of the paradox, the one presented when looking at the detail, thinking only about the distances, leaves you with this impression:

dx1 = dx0/2, dx2 = dx1/2, …, dx(n+1) = dxn/2
dt1 = T, dt2 = T, … where T is constant. If the paradox is expressed with the intention of declaring a never ending race then this will be stated explicitly.

So, s the speed is halving each step:

sn = dxn/T = dx(n-1)/2T = s(n-1)/2

which would take infinite time to complete.

So, what you think you’ve got is a half-life-like expression: where the distance is asymptotic to the end point and never actually reaching it, in principle:

Stopping Time, or Never Ending?

Once the constant speed distance intervals become smaller than a part of the runner’s foot, and the time intervals become smaller than we can detect, he seems to become stationary. You’ve stopped time – it’s as if the runner can never complete the race. But of course you are supposedly looking at the runner in real time (in your mind’s eye), while being able to see these ever smaller distances and times, as if you see him stop. But in reality, at constant speed, these smaller intervals flash by in real small times and we do see the runner complete the race.

With the constant time intervals the runner actually runs slower and slower in real-time. Again he appears to become stationary because each interval (let’s say T = 1s) his distances are really getting smaller and smaller each second. Asymptotically, in principle, he never reaches the end – or, more specifically, the total time (the sum of all the T’s), extends indefinitely with the number of intervals. He would have to run so slow as he approaches the end that he would again appear to freeze.

Finite sum of a convergent infinite series

Another way of looking at the constant speed scenario is by summing intervals.

Assume the total distance is 100m, and the time taken to travel the distance is 100s. The speed S is:

S = 100m/100s = 1m/s (Ok, so he’s 10 times slower than Carl Lewis on his first 10s 100m)

Normalised to unitless 1 (i.e. 100m = 1 and 100s = 1):

S = 1/1 = 1

The paradox states each distance interval is halved, and in total you have a finite sum from an infinite series:

1 = 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + …

The same must apply for the time intervals:

1 = 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + …

So, again, the speed is 1/1 = 1.

If Ttot is the time to complete the race: Ttot = S/X

Then half the distance at constant speed: Th = Ttot/2

The series view is then:

Ttot = Th + Th/2 + Th/3 + …
Ttot = Th + Th(1/2 + 1/3 + …) = 2Th

Infinite sum of a divergent infinite series

For the constant time interval we have a divergent series:

So, the times at each x are:
x0, x1, x2, …
0, T, 2T, …


Ttot = T + 2T + 3T + … -> infinity

For a more detailed look at the maths of all this try these pages from S. Marc Cohen at Washington.


What we are led to believe is that we have a paradox concerning a single type of motion, with contradictory results. But it is simply two definitions of the motion of travel, neither of which is explicit in the statement of the paradox, and neither of which is problematic in isolation.

Some formulations may state explicitly that the time intervals are constant – in which case there is only one single description of motion, and you just have to avoid the trap of having the motion of a constant speed runner in the back of your mind to avoid coming over all paradoxical.

So, it’s not a real paradox:

“a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.”

The ‘paradox’ contains two actual truths masquerading as a self-contradictory single truth, or a single truth that you have mistaken for two. You have been conned.

Getting Real

Constant speed
We could object that it takes time to accelerate at the start of a race (even at 10m/s), but the example here just simplifies the case of a variable speed natural runner.

Constant Time Periods
The constant time interval is even more unrealistic. There is a difficulty with infinitesimal distances, even in the case of the constant time intervals. The atom on the tip of the runner’s nose is sufficiently large to jiggle back and forth across the finish line as the runner is halving his speed on approach to the finish. And good luck with dealing with this as you approach the Planck length.

Half Life:
In practice the half life of a piece of caesium isn’t infinite. A mole of caesium contains 6.022 × 10^23 atoms – which is a finite number, so it would eventually decay to zero.

But, it is a thought experiment after all, and philosophers, even back in Zeno’s time, weren’t too hot on thinking through thought experiments. Don’t get me started on ‘the heap‘.

It’s True! – Harry Redknapp

I posted on the nonsense that is the It’s True! claim, which theists are apt to use directly themselves, or which is the basis of the supposed truth of their religious books – that the books contain words proclaiming the truth of the books. LOL!

Well, of course religion isn’t the only source of this stunning[ly useless] argument. It turns out that it’s a favourite defence of the guilty in a court of law, and no doubt some innocent people too, when they become desperate.

Harry Redknapp used this very move in court yesterday. The story so far, from the Guardian piece

Redknapp and the former Portsmouth owner Milan Mandaric, who both deny two counts of cheating the public revenue, have told the court that the $145,000 paid in May 2002 and a further payment of $150,000 in May 2004, were paid by Mandaric as “seed money” for investments to be made on Redknapp’s behalf.

Here, from the BBC

Under cross examination on Thursday, Mr Redknapp said he lied to reporter Rob Beasley about the source of payments to the account because he did not want negative stories ahead of a cup final.

The Tottenham boss said: “I have to tell police the truth, not Mr Beasley – he’s a News of the World reporter.”

So, he lied to the reporter, but he didn’t lie to the police and he didn’t lie in court, honest. It’s true!

Remember, Hitler put his signature to the Munich Agreement, of which Chamerlain said on arriving home to England, “This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine…“. Churchill didn’t buy it, “We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat… you will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi régime.

Of course, Hitler subsequently, metaphorically, wiped his own arse with his copy, and flushed.

All gullible people please take serious note! Liars will not only lie, they tell you they are telling the truth when they are not! It’s part of what they do. It’s what it is to be a liar! When someone says, “It’s true!“, without further justification, then you not only don’t have to believe them, I really recommend you ignore their proclamations and seek evidence of the truth.

Which of Harry’s truths is a lie? Because they are inconsistent. He claims he lied to the press. But if he admits to lying there, can he be trusted now?

Well, perhaps this is convincing, from the Metro newspaper…

Harry Redknapp - Not a liar
It’s true!

The Spurs football manager was even reduced to shouting from the witness box at prosecutor John Black QC.

“You think I put my hand on the Bible and told lies?” he exclaimed. “That’s an insult, Mr Black, that’s an insult.”

No Harry, it’s his job. The whole point of this hand on the Bible bollocks (funny how religion is in on the lies again) is that it doesn’t work, except when told to the gullible. If you are innocent of the charges Harry, the Bible won’t help, and if you’re guilty, the hand on the Bible isn’t working.

“Everything I have told you is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God…”

“I am not a liar.”

Well, that’s that then. Case dismissed? FFS!

Post Script…

Harry is currently manager of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, who denied my beloved Manchester City a place in the Champions League three years ago, though we turned the tables last year. They are now one of the serious contenders to our title hopes this year.

But, Harry is a great football manager, and Spurs are a great club that I actually like. I have no idea whether he’s guilty or not – that isn’t the subject of this post. So this post is in no way biased. Honest! It’s True, I tell you, it’s true!

The Rescue of Philosophy of/in Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

I obviously don’t mix in the right internet circles. For some time I’ve been seriously disappointed by what I’ve seen of modern philosophy. It’s so exasperating, and I’ve come across so many examples, that I’ve not had chance to blog about them – while I’m contemplating one, up pops another to get my goat, and in the end they pass me by.

I’ve managed to make some points, here: Plantinga, Law, Coyne: Theology, Philosophy, Science, here: Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science, here: Thought v Experience.

But there are plenty more examples out there, of how philosophy isn’t keeping up with science in the interesting stuff of metaphysics. It’s too much to expect of any fallible human, which accounts for all humans, that those of us who are philosophers should be perfect thinkers, just because thinking is their speciality. So we do have to cut them some slack.

Well, it’s not all bad. This piece, What Happened Before the Big Bang? The New Philosophy of Cosmology, tells us how philosophers are doing their bit. It starts with this, which carries the sentiments of may scientists:

Last May, Stephen Hawking gave a talk at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in which he declared philosophy to be dead. In his book The Grand Design, Hawking went even further. “How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Traditionally these were questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,” Hawking wrote. “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” [my emphasis]

Ross Andersen tells us about groups of philosophers in the US and UK who are staking a claim for philosophy, which is good news. There’s a real place for philosophy in both pushing the boundaries of thought, in going where science is yet unable to, and for scrutinizing science itself, and scientists that do science, to make sure their critical thinking skills are on the ball.

Ross talks to Tim Maudlin, at NYU, who puts Hawkins in his place.

Tim doesn’t reveal anything here that I’ve not already heard from scientists. Some scientists are pretty good at the philosophy associated with their subject. Lawrence Krauss, Peter Atkins, Sean Carroll, Neil deGrasse Tyson, …, there are a ton of popular scientists who tell it like it is, or how it seems it might be, without wondering off into the realms of fancy that many philosophers tend to do.

But the project seems like a good idea, so I’ll have to dig deeper and keep an eye on them.

Here’s one bit where, for me, Tim gets it dead right:

Now, one can first be a little puzzled by what you mean by “how likely” or “probable” something like that is. You can ask how likely it is that I’ll roll double sixes when I throw dice, but we understand the way you get a handle on the use of probabilities in that instance. It’s not as clear how you even make judgments like that about the likelihood of the various constants of nature (an so on) that are usually referred to in the fine tuning argument.

This is a point I’ve tried to make to a few fine tuning enthusiasts. We don’t have the first clue as to what’s required in the universe manufacturing process. We don’t know a damn about the probabilities involved.

And this:

Now let me say one more thing about fine tuning. I talk to physicists a lot, and none of the physicists I talk to want to rely on the fine tuning argument to argue for a cosmology that has lots of bubble universes, or lots of worlds. What they want to argue is that this arises naturally from an analysis of the fundamental physics, that the fundamental physics, quite apart from any cosmological considerations, will give you a mechanism by which these worlds will be produced, and a mechanism by which different worlds will have different constants, or different laws, and so on. If that’s true, then if there are enough of these worlds, it will be likely that some of them have the right combination of constants to permit life. But their arguments tend not to be “we have to believe in these many worlds to solve the fine tuning problem,” they tend to be “these many worlds are generated by physics we have other reasons for believing in.”

“I talk to physicists a lot” – Wow! This is what we want to hear. That can’t be said of many philosophers, and even less for many theologians.

Tim finish with this:

I will make one comment about these kinds of arguments which seems to me to somehow have eluded everyone. When people make these probabilistic equations, like the Drake Equation, which you’re familiar with — they introduce variables for the frequency of earth-like planets, for the evolution of life on those planets, and so on. The question remains as to how often, after life evolves, you’ll have intelligent life capable of making technology. What people haven’t seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It’s not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that’s not true. Obviously it doesn’t matter that much if you’re a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there’s a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence. There is just too much we don’t know.

Yes! A philosopher gets the insignificance of human intelligence on both evolutionary and cosmological scales! This is so promising.

Still, I can’t let him get off with a free pass. There’s the minor quibble that maybe, once intelligence emerges, that either there’s only really room for one intelligent species, because they wipe out the others (along with all the non-intelligent species they wipe out too); or, that there’s just one remaining intelligent species on this planet is down to just plain evolutionary bad luck – the others happened not to be fit for survival at the time they arose.

There’s the distinct possibility that, given enough evolutionary time, other species could evolve to become intelligent examples. Given that we are here, that doesn’t seem likely at the moment. But an asteroid, or human action, could cause the extinction of human and much mammalian life on this planet. Then, left to its own devices, who’s to say earth wouldn’t see the rise of intelligence again, from a completely different branch of the tree of life. We can speculate, philosophically, but we don’t have the data to be sure of or to rule out these very plausible outcomes.

As I said, I minor quibble. I’m looking forward to finding out more about these philosophers.

Ideas, Concepts, Thoughts – Physical Instantiation In Brains

[This is part of a set: Thinking][This is part of a set: Consciousness]

Abstract ideas, concepts, thoughts, occur in human brains. But how are they instantiated in those brains? Physically.

There are patterns of matter and energy in the universe, sometimes called ‘fractures in the continuum’, or ‘lack of conformity’. In informational terms there are distinctions – distinct data patterns. These are synonymous to all intents and purposes, though some philosophers may object to this – but then I think if they object to this they’ve got bigger problems with solipsism anyway. Certainly from an inductive point of view this acknowledgement of the correspondence between reality and the patterns or distinctions in it is sufficient.

On this basis, everything is essentially data – including human brains. The change in human brains that occurs when thoughts flit through them or when they remember something is merely brain matter changing state, changing pattern. Conversely, everything is also material – including data, by virtue of the fact that it consists of the organisation of matter into distinct patterns, whether that’s a configuration of electrons in the capacitive element of a logic transistor, or the configuration of synapses in a human brain.

Even when we think in our minds of abstract data existing in some Platonic plane, that very idea itself has an existence in the formation of matter in the brain. The odd thing to grasp with this is that we have this abstract notion that there is nothing abstract, it’s all real, except the abstraction itself, which doesn’t have some separate reality independent of physical reality.

I think it important to note that all ideas, such as ‘idea’, ‘concept’, ‘abstract’, along with religious ideas like ‘soul’, ‘God’, are all inventions of the human mind – as is ‘mind’ of course, so I should really say, inventions of the human brain. No science has ever discovered the existence of a material object, or any trace of energy, or anything else, that is a ‘soul’, or an ‘idea’, or a ‘concept’, other than their physical instantiation as patterns in matter/energy.

So that when philosophers talk about these as if they have some existence, it’s pure invention with no verification through evidence. What we do find are patterns in matter which are used to represent these, which then invokes something in the brain.

Representation = Physical Implementation.

So, the word ‘concept’ itself invokes the concept of ‘concept’ in my brain as I read it. But given that this is happening in a material brain then there is little more to expect other than the word on the screen has triggered a corresponding pattern in the brain: word on screen, light to eye, retina activity, complex neuronal activity, triggered concept recognition.

This is why I think that even when talking about human ‘knowledge’ in the brain we are better sticking to terms like data, or information. This view also unifies the idea of knowledge as data within human brains, and outside them, on paper, in books and databases, and even unifies the idea with the material world.

Data = Physical Distinction

I accept that as a matter of convenience we will want to differentiate between the places where this data/matter resides. So, on some occasions we’ll talk about ‘the body of human knowledge’ when we mean the accumulation of all of what has at sometimes been in some human brains and has been translated into common media, such as books. On other occasions we’ll talk of how a person ‘knows some proposition to be true’, when we are talking about their commitment to the correspondence of the proposition to some relating thing or event in the world outside the human head. But when looking at this in the whole, and at the same time looking for how all this ‘knowledge’ exists in some detailed but unified way, it’s easier to talk about information, data, matter.

Let’s compare software. A piece of software is only ever an abstraction in a human mind. There is nothing you can touch that is a Microsoft Word program. When you buy it on disk you are actually taking with you a disk with some pattern on it. Look at the pattern on the disk and you see pits in a CD. You do not see nebulous software. When you install it onto a PC there is real physical energy transfer, from the CD reader, through the system, into magnetic patterns on the hard drive. Other than wear and tear and any decay, loss of fidelity on the disk through laser action is entirely incidental – the disk pattern largely remains. Software has not been transferred. It has been copied – re-represented. When it’s loaded into PC memory and run, it’s just bit states in the memory. Programs are data; data is information; information is distinction in physical state.

Abstractions, ideas, concepts, are our software. They don’t exist in any physical sense other than they are patterns. They are patterns in the brain, no matter how permanent, like long term memory, or how transient, like short term memory, or even non-memorised flashes across areas of the working brain.

Take a concept, any concept. Can you hold one? Or are they fleeting brain content? If I have the concept of a car, and I draw that car on paper, and show that paper to someone, and they recognise the pattern as representing a car, their brain will likely construct, immediately, a concept of a car. At no time did that concept exist on the paper. Only a representation of it existed. If the other person did not share the concept of car, had they never seen one (our classical ‘jungle native’, ignorant of all technology), then, they would only see lines on the paper – and might even mistake the paper for some kind of leaf or some object they are familiar with. The lines in which we see a car would not invoke the concept of a car in anyone ignorant of the human technology.

An example used by Sam Harris is language. When I hear English spoken it triggers patterns in my brain. My brain recognises the words and converts them into brain patterns that emerge into consciousness as concepts. This is to a great extent unconscious, thanks to my having learned English from childhood. I have limited experience of other languages. If I listen to a French speaker speaking quickly I may pick up only a portion of the content, and may miss some key words so that I get the story completely wrong. I know some French but I’m not fluent. My brain is not attuned to the sound patterns of quickly spoken French. If I listen to Korean it will be pure noise. I don’t know that I know any Korean. Just as someone who has no experience or knowledge of cars would not recognise a line drawing of a car, so my brain does not pick anything useful out of Korean. It’s noise.

Information theory relies on distinction for any information at all. In our physical universe distinction amounts to different states of matter/energy; and dynamic states at that. The whole point of the heat death of the universe is the complete and utter loss of distinction. Our very existence relies on distinction in states of matter. Our brains undergo dynamic changes to the matter of which it is constituted to form distinct states.

Is it surprising that thoughts, concepts, ideas, only came into being along with our evolved brains, and even more so when our brains acquired language? But, you might ask, what about the thoughts of God? Well, so far, all the evidence points to God coming into existence, as a concept, along with the development of human brains. I don’t know of any encoded record of God being present along with any fossils. Our first notions of gods appear with the early artifacts of creatures that were already human.

Epistemology is a problem for philosophy. Knowledge doesn’t have a satisfactory water tight definition that gets us anywhere. Far simpler to accept the information theory use of knowledge which is more about the correspondence between what we have in our heads and the material experience it represents. The problem is that we are inundated with continuous experiences from our first conception, though cognitive experiences await some rudimentary brain development in the fetus. By the time we’re old enough to think consciously about ideas like ‘concept’, ‘knowledge’ and other ‘abstract’ ideas, our brains are already full of them. This leaves us with the impression that they have some sort of abstract life of their own, but they don’t. They exist as brain states, and changing states: behaviour.

I find it odd that anti-physicalists want to use the insubstantial ephemeral nature of ‘ideas’, ‘concepts’, as evidence of a real and active ‘mind’ that is distinct from the brain. To my physical brain, my mind, the very nebulous nature of ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ is evidence of their non-existence in any independent reality, and better as evidence of their existence only in the brain.

Re-running The Universe: Determinism, Indeterminism, Quantum Stuff

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

The philosophical persuasiveness or either determinism or indeterminism has been made foggy by the success of quantum physics, in particular the apparent indeterminate nature of the world, that is the result of quantum physics.

One question that arises is the extent to which we can be sure, or not, that the universe is deterministic. Does ontological determinism hold?

[This follows from another post which assumed determinism for the points made. It ignored quantum stuff.]

From the point of view of a scientist there is the laudable position that we go wherever the evidence leads – and I agree with that. It appears that all the science is telling us that we live in a quantum indeterministic world, but with determinism at the macro level that allows us to make limited predictions.

So, if anyone wants to argue on the basis of evidence, then that’s it. The world is a deterministic+indeterministic mix. But it is indeterminate anyway, epistemologically, to those entities within it.

At our macro level we can still argue that there is a determinism that appears as a result of any quantum event, once it has occurred. Once a particle has had a causal effect on another, to a measurable degree, then the outcome is, within limits, deterministic.

One question that often arises is this. If we ran the universe again, would all the same events occur? The quantum non-determinist would say that, no, it would not, because quantum events are by nature indeterminate and would result in a different outcome.

But, given that we can’t re-run the universe this is a speculative position. Here I give several alternatives that I see. What follows assumes there is some sort of existence of something outside our universe – that our universe is contained in some way, so that the starting conditions can be set up the same way, down to whatever detail one might like to speculate about.

Determinism seems to require causality, otherwise what does it mean for one state to be determined by prior states. On the other hand, if there is a genuine time symmetry, then effects would cause causes, when considering time reversal. A one-way time dimension can also be causal the one way (which is what we perceive), and yet even in this universe Galilean physics is time reversible. Anyway, putting time issues to one side for now, here we go:

1) Indeterminate Universe. In this case there might or might not be causal relationships. It might be the case that there is no causality, just correlation – weak observed correlation. How does a completely indeterminate universe allow for predictability? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe what we perceive as repeatable predictable outcomes – say from y = mx + c – are just coincidental correlations. If the universe is so indeterminate in actuality, in practice it’s difficult for us to figure that out, to ‘determine’ its indeterminism, as it were. This is somewhat like the reality-solipsism dilemma – we can’t tell the difference. The point though, in the context of this post, is that to re-run this universe with the same starting conditions will result in a different universe each time.

2) Deterministic Universe. In such a universe every event is determined causally by prior events. This is a point of view that might have been held prior to our discovery of the quantum indeterministic nature of the universe. In such a universe it would re-run exactly as it did on a previous run. On the face of it, at the macro level, it seems a reasonable working hypothesis. We observe what we think are deterministic connections on many levels of science, and other than quantum indeterminacy, we’ve observed no evidence against determinism.

3) Quantum Indeterminate Universe. In such a universe, even with identical starting conditions, the re-run would produce a different universe, because of the truly indeterministic nature of quantum events. This seems to be how some scientists view the consequences of quantum physics in our particular universe. But this seems to require some knowledge of facts outside our scope. Consider, if the quantum indeterminacy is, at some other level, actually determinate, but our understanding of physics is mistaken, then how would we tell the difference? Only a re-run of this universe would reveal the true quantum indeterminacy because a different universe would appear on each run.

4) Quantum Determinate Universe. In this universe even the quantum events are determined – though I refuse to speculate on how that might occur. Note though, that to the entities contained within each ‘run’ of that universe the quantum events would still be non-deterministic, because those entities are contained within the re-running universe and are bound by the evolving quantum events that are taking place. So, on each re-run, the inhabitants of the universe are convinced that their universe is non-determinate because of the observed quantum events, and yet on each re-run the very same quantum events are occurring, deterministically, and each re-run produces an identical universe.

Now, (4) is purely speculative of course. But then so are all of these options, because we don’t have a view of our universe from the outside and over re-runs of it. So, I don’t see any justification for being dogmatically committed to any of these views.

Perhaps the important point is that we do not know what our science is telling us about the deep status of our universe. It is all metaphysical speculation. And, I repeat an earlier point, to us it’s all indeterminate anyway. We cannot tell the difference between a determinate and an indeterminate universe if we ar a part of it.

Ontological Determinism, Epistemological Indeterminism, Laplace’s Demon

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

What follows is putting aside any quantum stuff for the purposes of this point about the difference between ontological determinism and epistemological indeterminism. Adding ontological indeterminism, through quantum indeterminacy or some other means, doesn’t really alter the points made. It also ignores relativistic effects.

This is purely about classical determinism and how, if that were the case in our universe, we still have problems of indeterminism. It’s also about the implications for our view of free-will.

But it begins with a response to some fears of determinism.

In Sean Carroll’s post on Determinism (in the context of Free will) a comment by Katherine included two quotes. One was from Stephen Hawking:

The ideas about scientific theories outlined above assume we are rational beings who are free to observe the universe as we want and to draw logical deductions from what we see. In such a scheme it is reasonable to suppose that we might progress ever closer toward the laws that govern the universe. Yet if there really is a complete unified theory, it would also presumably determine our actions. And so the theory itself would determine the outcome of our search for it! And why should it determine that we come to the right conclusions from the evidence? Might it not equally well determine that we draw the wrong conclusion? Or no conclusion at all?

Well, “Yes” to the last two questions, and “It needn’t” to the first of the last three.

Katherine also quotes Conway and Kochen in a similar mood:

It is hard to take science seriously in a universe that in fact controls all the choices experimenters think they make. Nature could be in an insidious conspiracy to ‘confirm’ laws by denying us the freedom to make the tests that would refute them. Physical induction, the primary tool of science, disappears if we are denied access to random samples.

Well, so what. To paraphrase Lawrence Krauss, science tells us how the universe is, not how we want it to be. If we learn from science that the universe is deterministic, and it happens to be that way, then yes, that determinism determined that that is what we would find. And if we conclude it isn’t deterministic and yet it actually is, then determinism has determined that we make that mistake. We’re stuck with that. Does that make you, the budding Nobel Physicist just embarking on your studies give up and throw in the towel? Well, that was determined too. It’s no good denying determinism because we don’t like it. We should only deny it if we figure out that it isn’t the case (and accept we may have been determined to make that mistake).

If the universe is totally deterministic then that is what it is. If we do eventually observe that this is the case, then this is what we observe, no matter how much it messes with our minds (which too would be determined, obviously). It could be that the determined universe does determine evolution and that our current interpretation of evolution is describing how we see it so far. Natural selection would then simply be the determined outcome of prior states and processes.

A different deterministic universe might have determined no evolution and no entities with self-awareness that could observe the universe the way we do. It’s laws may have had room for evolution, but it simply might not have occurred given the a different starting state.

The Conway and Kochen paper was intent on saving free-will, which seems to be necessary for some people. But why the desire to save free-will? Now, I don’t think we have free-will, that is real free-will beloved of dualists and theists. I do actually think, for now, that we are effectively mechanistic systems. What I’m not clear about is the extent to which determinism holds (given that there are possibilities that allow for quantum mechanics being deterministic – the jury is still out). But I don’t think that has any consequences for any physicalist version of free-will that matters.

So, whether we like it or not, no matter what the implications are for free-will, what if the universe is actually deterministic?

Thinking for the moment about entities within the universe, I don’t see how determinism precludes there being such entities that observe and alter the universe (i.e. ones that do science). It just means that the altered states are just more bits of the determined outcome.

There’s a significant difference between a deterministic system and the capacity for some entity to determine (calculate) its states – the capacity to actually do the math to predict some total state in the future. That a system is deterministic does not require that the system, or any bit in it (e.g. us) actually has to do any predicting of any sort. It just plays out, as determined by its laws (as those laws are, not necessarily as we currently understand them).

Determinism rarely requires that perfect prediction be practically possible – only prediction in theory. – Wiki on Determinism.

To actually determine any one complete state from the starting state you must be an outside observer. The problem for an observer inside the system being observed is that they are part of the system. The observer needs the capacity (e.g. memory + processing system) in order to contain every little detail of the system. But then that capacity (memory + processing system) is also part of the observed system, and so you need more capacity to store data about the state of that sub-system, … This is part of the point of Laplace’s demon, that requires ‘arbitrary’ capacity to do the maths. Perhaps it should be phrased as ‘adequate’ capacity, and it should be made clear that the demon can’t be part of the system.

So, even if the universe is ontologically deterministic, it must be epistemologically indeterminate to internal entities.

Whether it is epistemologically deterministic to external entities is another matter – e.g. Leplace’s demon, God or some other deity, or some other non-intelligent entity like a universe-computer.

But I don’t see reason to suppose that a deterministic universe requires either an observer, or a creator. We have a dataset of 1, as Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of pointing out. We haven’t the slightest clue as to what’s required in the business of universe creation (active agent) or coming into being (passive mechanistic systems).

The only practical matter for now, to us, is that the universe is practicably indeterminate, because we’re in it. Quantum effects only add to that indeterminacy. In this sense, whether ontological determinism actually holds or not isn’t important.

But as a convenient model determinism is helpful because it should make us think twice about attributing mysterious explanations (like dualist free-will, or the soul) to indeterminate events, or attributing agency where we have no reason to. If we can overcome the fear of determinism and its threat to our hubris of being human and special and immune to the discoveries of science, and just be prepared to face up to what science exposes of the universe to us, or about us, then maybe we can move on from some of the ancient myths that still hold us back.

See also: Re-running The Universe: Determinism, Indeterminism, Quantum Stuff