Meme Engine


What I've been thinking about...

Philosophy with 8-year-olds

I just listened to a really interesting episode of Philosophy Now from 2011, in which Peter Worley from the Philosophy Foundation enables a little philosophical discussion with a group of 8-year-olds.  His approach was simple and effective.  He constructed a little figure out of handy objects (a ball, a notebook and 4 pencils) and laid it on the carpet:

He asks, "How many things do we have here?"

The kids discuss it, and Worley expertly facilitates a discussion of concepts among the children, without imposing philosophical cannon or anything heavy-handed like that.  In short order, the kids come up with so many ideas that are the seeds of really important topics:

  • This might be “thousands” of objects if we count all the “atoms and molecules”.
  • We might decide if this is “one” or “six” objects based on whether they are attached together… and this might change over time.
  • Since we have “notebooks”, “balls”, and “pencils”, maybe the answer is that we have “three” things here.
  • If we count all four pencils as one object, do they have to be identical?  What exactly do we mean by identical?
  • If we count each of the “thousand” atoms, perhaps we should say there are “a thousand and six” things, counting the pencils, book and ball as well as the atoms they are made of.

I’m rephrasing, but each of these ideas came from one of the kids in the discussion!  It’s really interesting to hear some young interpretations of what it means to say that objects are made of atoms (One boy put it that he was made of atoms “on the inside”, but he was still a person).

But in the talk of whether pencils and stationary-figures count as objects separate from their constituent atoms, I can hear echoes of the modern Mind/Brain debates about what is to be counted as “real”.

I don’t know if I have an objective reason for feeling philosophy is so important, but to hear philosophical curiosity in this children made me smile is spite of myself as I listened.

I recently posted this quote:

You can’t *discover* that the brain is a digital computer. You can only *interpret* the brain as a digital computer. - John Searle

… and I think it’s worth going into this a little more.

Searle draws the distinction between “subjective” and “objective” things by taking about what is observer-independent and what is not.  He often cites physics for observer-independence: The force of gravity, the ratio of electron to proton mass, etc.

For observer-dependent phenomena, he’s mentioned money, occupation, and many others… but he keeps coming back to the example of a knife.

An object being a knife is observer-dependent.  That is, it’s only a knife because lots of us think it is.  He points out that knife-like objects could be used perfectly well as paper-weights, and if that’s all they were used for, then that’s what they would be.  Their user-dependent identity would be paper-weight.

On the other hand, a naturally occurring sharp stone could be a knife just as well as something from a kitchen drawer if a community consensus declares it so.

"Knifeness" as a given quality can be more or less appropriately given.  It may be more effective and appropriate to name the sharp stone a knife than, say, a comb - though both might have some utility that way.

The upshot is that Searle thinks “being a computer” is just such an observer-dependent quality.  While an abstract algorithm might be said to be “objectively calculating”, any embodied instance of computation relies on human interpretation for its usefulness, and even its very definition.  Could a pocket calculator be said to be doing math its buttons were pressed by a curious cat?  If there were no humans anywhere?  What if the screen were broken, but the internal operations were intact?  Could those inner workings still be said to be *objectively* adding 5 and 6?

In a previous post I went into several computational interpretations of a falling rock:

This is why a rock falling may be regarded as a computation of a) the strength of gravity, b) the position of the rock, c) the air resistance, d) etc, etc, etc.  It all depends on which data you take to be “inputs”, and which “outputs”.

For Searle, “discovering” the brain is a digital computer is like “discovering” the rock is about air resistance, or that money has intrinsic value.  Those things are not so much discovered, as defined into existence.

Searle does not think the Mind is defined into existence though.  Clearly, to be continued…

You can’t *discover* that the brain is a digital computer. You can only *interpret* the brain as a digital computer.

- John Searle (paraphrased)

… the ‘content’ of a medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked ‘What is the content of speech?,' it is necessary to say, 'It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.


Marshall McLuhan

Unfortunately, he doesn’t go on to say what the content medium of nonverbal thought is!

But this is an interesting way to think of media… as nested shells containing one another as “content” rather than parallel portrayers of content.

This is like the voice of the literate man, floundering in a milieu of ads, who boasts, ‘Personally, I pay no attention to ads.' The spiritual and cultural reservations that peoples may have toward our technology will avail them not at all. The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.


Marshall McLuhan, in 1964.

Do we agree with McLuhan here?  Can an individual rise above a pervasive, culture-wide influence?  I’d like to think so, but I also can think of times when it would be naive to think so.  But perhaps it’s clear that acknowledging the influence of technology/culture on our thinking is a wise first step in any case.


i’ve just been dwelling on how “social media” sites systemize social interaction and increasingly i’m thinking that tumblr’s incoherent slapdash approach of “we have no clue what we’re doing or what people use this site for”, while much nicer than facebook & soforth’s approach of strictly codifying all interactions so permit monetizing the social graph, still basically trains people to get mad & yell at a perceptual void actually made up of a lot of other people who don’t want to get yelled at / get sad and be unable to talk directly to anyone in any meaningful way

Any social system would be bound to reinforce *some* sort of behavior, be it yelling into the void or whatever.  The advantage of the “physical” social system is that it trains people to survive!

Top-down social systems have the potential to nudge us toward lots of different behaviors, including some probably not so good for us.  Use with caution… as individuals, we are able to resist these sorts of nudges!

The production of consciousness by molecular action is to me quite as inconceivable on mechanical principles as the production of molecular motion by consciousness… I, however, reject neither, and thus stand in the presence of two incomprehensibles, instead of one incomprehensible. While accepting fearlessly the facts of materialism dwelt upon in these pages, I bow my head in the dust before the mystery of mind.


J. Tyndall, Apology for the Belfast Address (via goebel)

This is the realization that started my journey into philosophy!

If you just refuse to put the mind into a “smaller” black box, somewhere “deeper” inside the brain, and realize that the brain is composed completely of not unfamiliar physical processes, then…. then yeah, this realization can hit pretty hard.


[Text: “Disease usually results from inconclusive negotiations for symbiosis, an overstepping of the line by one side or the other, a biological misinterpretation of the borders.”—Lewis Thomas]

Lewis Thomas was the first winner of the eponymous Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science. For more about his life and work, check out Ann Woodlief’s overview here: Lewis Thomas (25 November 1913 - 3 December 1993). Photo & handwriting above are mine.


[Text: “Disease usually results from inconclusive negotiations for symbiosis, an overstepping of the line by one side or the other, a biological misinterpretation of the borders.”—Lewis Thomas]

Lewis Thomas was the first winner of the eponymous Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science. For more about his life and work, check out Ann Woodlief’s overview here: Lewis Thomas (25 November 1913 - 3 December 1993). Photo & handwriting above are mine.

Can Neuroscience Disprove Free Will?

One major plank in a well-known neuroscientific argument for the nonexistence of free will is the claim that participants in various experiments make their decisions unconsciously… A second plank in the argument is the theoretical premise that in order for free will to be involved in decision making, the decision needs to be made consciously. Unconscious decisions aren’t up to us and therefore don’t display free will. So far, then, we have the following two propositions:

  • 1. In various experiments, participants decide unconsciously.
  • 2. Only consciously made decisions can be freely made.

How do we get from here to the conclusion that free will doesn’t exist? A common response is a third proposition:

  • 3. The way participants decide in these experiments is the way people always decide.

Not a bad article…

It poked some holes in the usual train of thought from these brain studies to their conclusions.  The most interesting studies are those in which the subjects are asked to do something at an arbitrary time, and report they are doing it.  By looking at the brain, one can sometimes predict the decision *before* the subject reports the decision.  This is what leads to claims that free will is illusory.

I see where they got that, but it’s just a bit thin.  I wish anyone claiming these conclusions would take a first-year philosophy course first.  Someone with a slightly different view of free will / identity etc might point to the predictive brain activity, and say “Look!  There’s the Free Will!

I still have an idea for a follow-up experiment I really like…

Let the subject see some graphical representation of their own brain activity. Say it’s predicting when they will push a button, maybe fading a screen from white to red as the prediction says the button-push is coming.  Then tell the subject to push the button, but do it at a time when the screen is white.

I’d like to see what happens! (This from the same guy who tried to program Russel’s Paradox into his first computer).

Three Categories of Environmental Value

I heard this on the radio last week, and the idea is sinking in nicely.  The idea is that there are three ways (that we often now conflate or confuse) of measuring value from the natural environment:

  1. Stuff: This is the most obvious category.  It includes fossil fuels, food and water, wooden furniture, the minerals mined for use in our gadgets, etc etc etc.
  2. Global Processes: This includes all the “invisible services” performed for us by the natural world.  Conversion of breathable air, sun filtration by the atmosphere, moderating temperatures and weather via geography, natural balances on pests… etc!
  3. Aesthetic: The beauty and inspiration so many of us think of when we think of the environment.  This would include recreating outdoors, like fishing, camping, spelunking… for me it would include hiking, lightning storms, flowing water and the beauty of trees.

The presenter of this idea said that people arguing about how to use the environment were often arguing for different elements of this three-point list, and that the balance of change in the last century was gains in Stuff (like food produced per acre etc), with heavy losses in Global Processes.

Thinking explicitly in three categories might allow some efficiencies, like noticing that gains in the Stuff category has a larger loss in the other two, or that a small loss of Aesthetics might be acceptable for larger gains in Global Processes, etc.

My 2048 clone

Hey, for those that are interested, here’s my clone of 2048 for my online course.  It’s written on Codeskuptor, which means the link takes you to my code, and you have to push the play button in the upper left corner to play the game (oh, and codeskulptor doesn’t work on IE).

You may be interested because the grid is variable size.  If you go to the last line of code, you’ll find instructions for changing the size before hitting play.

You may also be interested because this is my code.  I didn’t write the user interface elements, but everything you see at the link is mine, and I’d be interested in comments from any coders out there, particularly re: comments and documentation.  As you may know from my recent announcement, I plan for this to be part of my new career one day soon, so I really am looking for instruction.

Thanks all…

(ps if you’re interested in using Codeskulptor yourself - it’s a cool tool - let me know and I’ll give you a two paragraph explanation.)

It can now be announced…

How many of you can say the following:

I will be leaving a job I have been at for 11 years.

Well, now I can say it.

In September, I’ll be returning to school full-time for a two year course in IT (that’s Information Technology) with a co-op inbetween.  No longer a postman I!

The plans for this have been under way for several months… applying, looking at student loans, etc… but I just gave my job their notice this past week, which is why I can make the announcement here.  I’ll miss a ton of things about being a mailman.  But I’m also really excited for this change!

I think I was afraid I was the sort of guy that always follows the path of least resistance, and now I know I am not!

antinegationism replied to your post:

Net memes are a subset (and I would argue the fastest growing subset) of Dawkin’s memes. I’ll accept the other two defenses. Though they’re weak by vice of being made on a site which is in effect an engine for memes — or a meme engine, if you will.

Hey, since we’re arguing, I’m not sure I’d want to say that Internet Memes are actually a subset of “Dawkins Memes”.  I mean, I’ll go ahead and call them memes, because that’s the dominant usage, but for the most part, I don’t know if they’d be included in what Dawkins intended when he coined the term.

The things we call Memes now - let’s call them “Net memes” if you want - just seem a little too specific.  Or maybe, too embodied, like they’d have trouble living in a human brain.

I’ll give you some examples of what I think of as genuine, (internet-spread) Dawkins memes:

  • "I can’t even"
  • Sharing pictures with funny, out-of-context captions

Yeah, that’s right.  I think the idea of a “Net-meme” is a “Dawkins meme”.

But, take any particular sharable item (like the 2048 game or a specific pic with a specific funny caption), and I’m just not sure if *that* counts as a meme, er, a Dawkins meme.  Maybe it’s a little too hard to spread, as it usually relies on a pretty specific framework.

I guess it depends on our definition… what do you think?

antinegationism replied to your link “2048 game”

I like how your name is memeengine, but it took an online course for you to come across this game :-P.

Pick your defense:

  • They’re Dawkins-memes, not Internet memes.
  • An online course is a perfectly respectable way to come across something.
  • I’m old, don’t pick on me.

2048 game

Wholly cow.  You may not thank me for this link, it really is easy to just play and play!

The online course I’m taking is getting us to reproduce the game logic in code.  I’m enjoying it - just hard enough.