Meme Engine


What I've been thinking about...

When you are always testing your ideas against the swarms of Twitter and Facebook, it means you’re always hungry for retweets, and hungry for Facebook likes, and it means that we begin to change our ideas and the way we express ourselves to appease those crowds.

- Michael Harris, from an interesting interview on CBC Spark.

And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: ‘Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.


Kurt Vonnegut, “Breakfast of Champions”.

I’m drawn to this quote, either as a truth, or as a token of solidarity with Vonnegut.

Be individuals, solitary and selfish, is the message. Altruism, a jargon word for what used to be called love, is worse than weakness, it is sin, a violation of nature. Be separate. Do not be a social animal. But this is a hard argument to make convincingly when you have to depend on language to make it. You have to print out leaflets or publish books and get them bought and sent around, you have to turn up on television and catch the attention of millions of other human beings all at once, and then you have to say to all of them, all at once, all collected and paying attention: be solitary; do not depend on each other. You can’t do this and keep a straight face.


Lewis Thomas, “The Tucson Zoo”

The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher

(via syntagms)

Searle’s Basic Actions

I’m listening to a lecture series on Searle’s Philosophy of Mind (given by John Searle himself I should add) that I’m really enjoying.  This past week I came to a pleasing concept - that of a Basic Action.  To get the idea, consider this:

  • What are you doing?
  • I’m going to work.
  • How?
  • I’m taking Main Street.
  • How?
  • I’m riding my bike.
  • How?
  • I’m pedaling and steering.
  • How?
  • I’m flexing my leg and arm muscles in a certain way.
  • How?
  • Um…

At some point in a series of “How are you doing what you are doing?” questions, you’ll come to a point where you can’t go further (or at least, the further actions are nothing you are doing consciously).  At this point, where you can’t really say how you’re doing it, *that* is a basic action.

The cool thing is that basic actions differ for different people.  The above exchange was written to convey an idea, but it would only really make sense if the person being questioned had only just learned how to ride a bike.  You only *consciously* move your leg and arm muscles when you’re learning.  After a while, you just “ride”.


  • for a newbie the basic action are muscle movements.
  • for most of us, the basic action would be “riding the bike”.
  • for an experienced rider, the basic action might be just “taking main st” (ie all the movements of biking are not really conscious)
  • for a weathered commuter who had done this many times, maybe just “going to work” is the basic action.

If you doubt that “lower level” actions can be unconscious, notice that there’s actually an answer to “How are you flexing your leg and arm muscles?"  We could answer "By secreting certain neurochemicals" or something.  But that level isn’t conscious for any of us.

I haven’t gotten to the end of Searle’s lecture series, but I suspect he’s going to assert that the level at which actions become basic might be somehow constitutive of our identity (in some part anyway), which I think is a really interesting idea!

I also think it’s interesting to wonder whether basic actions can be moved down the ladder as well as up?  The usual progression would be to start with dead simple basic actions as a baby (“What are you doing?" "Vocalizing”, “trying to move my arm”, etc), and moving them up to more complex things later.

But I actually think it’s a sign of real intelligence to be able to move back down the scale on purpose.

Like, maybe a mindful tennis player could stop just “swinging a backhand”, and refocus on the muscles to unlearn an ingrained mistake.  In any of our social lives, we could stop sizing people up as possible friends, and start to wonder how are we making that judgement, and should we rethink it.

Good food for thought.

Ideas that have sex change the world.

- Moses Znaimer at the intro to the 2014 Ideacity conference.

It’s often been thought that ‘the mind’ is murky, but behavior is right there - you can see it! But on the contrary, I don’t think you can make any sense whatsoever of behavior without some idea of what is going on in the mind.


John Searle (paraphrased)

An interesting turn-around from the midst of John Searle’s theory of intentionality.

A prime example of how this “bare behavior” is insufficient is when the exact same behavior is performed, but with different intentions.  For example, saying “je suis fatigué” to express one is tired, vs saying it to practice French pronunciation.

I think an opponent might reply that if you expand the context of the behavior, these differences can be seen outwardly.  But I don’t know, if we have to zoom out *too* far, are we just bending over backwards to keep “the mind” out?

Why Robots Should Steal All Our Jobs


There’s a general consensus of freaking out about the idea of robots slowly being able to “take our jobs” as technology progresses. But I think there’s a bright side to a world in which human labour is not necessary to produce the majority of goods and services. 

By taking away so much of the workplace from citizens, we would have to admit at some point in time that you can’t predicate a human’s right to the basic necessities of a good life on their labour output. It would be harder and harder for the rich to sustain the poorly cognized belief that a) there are enough jobs for everyone and everyone has equal opportunity to seize them, and b) non-wealthy people have an obligation to fill those jobs simply because those jobs need to be filled by someone.

For this to work, though, we’d need to make sure that it’s not just the lower-economic work force being supplanted by automated systems. If fast food workers get replaced with automated systems, so too should secretaries to CEOs and the assistants of top fashion designers. 

The struggle then is not to make sure “robots don’t steal our jobs” but to make sure they “steal” them evenly across all economic levels. If we could do that, I think we would be building the fastest track to a society free of capitalist restraints.

This topic seems to be going around these days.  The general consensus seems to be “of course, this is going to happen”.

I’m sort of playing devil’s advocate saying this, but I do think that a certain (unintuitive) thought should be considered: What if the path of least work for humanity is not the path of maximum happiness?

Sometimes, when listening to music, this idea enters my head:

The way this music makes me feel right now is *objectively* worthwhile.  I can’t puzzle out the meaning of reality or human life, but at least I can point to this and say “None can doubt, it’s good that these feelings were felt”.

It’s a profound thought for me… the profound part is in realizing that the meaning and goodness is there, whether or not it’s ever reported or visible to anyone else, ever.

How would you describe colours to a blind man?



I’d say:

Ask a blind person what he thinks of this question.

So to answer your question:

I wouldn’t, because people who have been blind from birth have no concept of color. Color is a basic visual “qualia” of the mind or brain. Colors are not things, even if they seem like they are. They’re properties of things. They are linguistic tools used to describe things; they are not things in themselves which can be described. The primary role of colors are as adjectives, not as nouns. Our experience of them is subjective (my red could be your blue, etc). They’re subjectively phenomenal, not objectively noumenal. So color can’t even be described to sighted people, let alone blind people.

Go ahead, try to describe red without using synonyms, objects known to be red, or vague synesthetic associations such as “red is warm”. You can’t do it, because there is no informational content to the concept of red. It’s a fundamental building block of subjective experience intended to help you distinguish different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation (which is what color really is).

I feel like you’re being pretty decisive on some debatable philosophical issues here.  Not everyone divides the world into “things in themselves” and “the rest”, etc.

But in terms of describing colors to the blind, I think you give up too easily!  I think the range and scope of sight (and color) can be described pretty easily. (Can’t go around corners like sound does, but range in a straight line is incredibly far, etc).  You can also compare different colors to different textures, while pointing out some intangible things are visible (fog) and some tangible things are transparent (glass).

I also put a lot of faith in humans’ ability to use metaphor to “understand beyond our own limits”.  In mathematics, I “understand” higher-dimensional thinking by analogy with lower dimensional examples.  I think the emotional connotations of color might be understood by appealing to the emotional connotations in other senses that the blind *do* have.  Compare to middle C’s from different instruments maybe?  Those are just as emotional, and just as emotionally subjective (and their aesthetics are context dependent, just like colors).


I have a vision.

image | twitter | facebook

"Perceptual Adaption is responsible for making you see ‘right side up’ when the images are actually flipped in your eyeball before reaching the retina."

The really crazy thing to realize is that this only makes sense if you are imagining a little homunculus or “inner self” inside your brain viewing an image that is corrected to be right-side up.

By comparison, think: "Do we expect something resembling the actual soundscape around us to be passed into our inner ear?"

(I say no, the stuff in our ear is just three tiny vibrating bones, right?  And yet we can hear a symphony - along with audience coughs - in it’s full 3D surround complexity.)

The Server Needs To Die To Save The Internet | TechCrunch

This is a long article, but it was worth the read for me, and it sounds like a kind of exciting experiment is already underway.

Here’s my naive outsider’s conception of the monetary setup of the Internet: People have their home PC’s, connected to one another via a paid provider (usually company’s evolved out of older phone companies).  But if lots of people want to connect to the same information (or the information is quite vast), then more memory and computing power is required.  Servers provide this.

So, companies wanting to provide a high-traffic website pay a server to store their data, and manage their traffic volume.  Presumably this is worth it to the companies… they either get add revenue from their website, or use it to sell real-world products, etc.  So the money starts with 1. Advertisers and 2. Consumers and ends at the Servers.

Here’s the alternative suggested by this article: Do away with servers.  On a network consisting entirely of individual PC’s, individuals can choose to make space on their hard-drives available for network memory and computation.  Doing so is rewarded with an inbuilt currency - SafeCoin - that can be used on the network to access paid content or apps.

I haven’t fully thought through the downsides, but it just sounds elegant.  A network consisting *entirely* of it’s users.  Distributed information… sounds more resilient, and maybe safer?  And the currency loop is fully closed.  It might take some of the pressure off the mounting advertising we see on the real internet today.

The Anthropic Principle for Subjective Experiences

Let me spit out the awkward assertion right at the start: I think it’s likely that conscious experience is found NOT ONLY in animals with complicated brains.

Grant me these two points:

  1. Conscious experiences exist (ie are not an “illusion”, whatever that would mean).
  2. These experiences are Subjective - despite being real, they are not directly observable by a third party (though maybe they could be inferred).

With these points in mind, I think there’s a good argument that we’re mistaken to conclude that Consciousness only happens in creatures sufficiently similar to us.

So, let’s begin with a consciousness - some haver of experiences.  I’ll call it “Fred” for reference.  Fred enjoys conscious experiences - pain, pleasure, color, texture, mood, emotion… Fred has some sort of movie playing in his head.  It is like something to be Fred.

Fred has access to experiences, but only *his own* experiences.  He might be sitting, enjoying the color red, while some other consciousness right beside him is experiencing the emotion “impatience”.  Fred can’t feel that impatience directly.  He might infer that he has a conscious and impatient companion indirectly, but since Experiences are Subjective, it is never a direct observation.  He has to guess.

How would Fred guess at whether or not he was around other consciousnesses?  Fred would have to use the only example he knows of consciousness - himself!  Thus if he saw a being similar to himself behaving the way he does when he feels impatient, he might guess that the  other being is conscious and impatient.

Fred is bound to assume that exactly those things which are sufficiently similar to himself (in makeup or behavior) are the things that are conscious.

With this in mind, what is the intuitive belief humans hold about what is conscious? 

That’s right… other humans.  We’re also willing to consider things that are very similar in either behavior or structure.  So, higher mammals with brains almost always make the list.  Comatose humans might.  Any creature with a nervous system may be considered by the adventurous.

Those willing to let go of structure, but hold tight to behavior are willing to think about robots or artificial intelligence having consciousness.

But these are all still cases of drawing a “similarity circle” with my one example of consciousness in the dead center.  Any conscious thing must be tempted by this move.  Perhaps conscious fluid-flows imagine that we humans are too unlike them to have consciousness like they do.

I still think that once one realizes that the physical properties of the brain are only contingently attached to conscious experiences, the most even handed guesses of where to find consciousness given my one, directly confirmed example are:

  • There is only one Consciousness (Solipsism)
  • All things are Conscious (Panpsychism)

Though I think it’s *possible* I am the only conscious thing around, my intuition rejects any ontology that makes me so special.  I am left with Panpsychism.  Thoughts?

I am one week away from the switch from working mailman to full-time student.  This means that my utter wealth of headphones-time will soon be cut down to near nothing :(
(actually, it will be decimated, which technically means cut down to one tenth… I learned that on a podcast)
There are some radio shows / podcasts / lectures that I’m going to make an effort to continue listening to:
Spark from CBC
Very Bad Wizards
Welcome to Nightvale
Theory of Everything
Searle: Phil of Mind at Berkeley series
That adds up to, like, 3.5 hours a week?  I think I can do it.  You can take inclusion in the above list as high praise, and a strong recommendation for other listeners with attention to spare.
But so, so many shows will be left behind:
Ideas from CBC
This American Life
The Bugle
99% Invisible
The Partially Examined Life
Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe
Philosophy Bites
The Truth
…plus innumerable bits and videos on current events, one-off lectures etc.  I’m so excited for the learning of school to begin again!  But for the moment, “I salute you!" audio-learning.  Thanks for bringing so much to the last few years of my life.

I am one week away from the switch from working mailman to full-time student.  This means that my utter wealth of headphones-time will soon be cut down to near nothing :(

(actually, it will be decimated, which technically means cut down to one tenth… I learned that on a podcast)

There are some radio shows / podcasts / lectures that I’m going to make an effort to continue listening to:

That adds up to, like, 3.5 hours a week?  I think I can do it.  You can take inclusion in the above list as high praise, and a strong recommendation for other listeners with attention to spare.

But so, so many shows will be left behind:

…plus innumerable bits and videos on current events, one-off lectures etc.  I’m so excited for the learning of school to begin again!  But for the moment, “I salute you!" audio-learning.  Thanks for bringing so much to the last few years of my life.

do you have any advice for an aspiring journalist?


Be yourself, be curious, don’t do things that go against your personal ethics, write, read, ask questions, see the world, experience things, talk to people. 

do you have any advice for an aspiring journalist? life?

If Determinism were to proved as a scientific fact, would you accept it?


If you think about it, it’s really hard to answer this question consistently!  Supposedly somebody posed this question to John Searle after one of his lectures, and he responded:

"You mean, if rational free choices were proved impossible, would I rationally, freely accept that?"

It seems that whatever the “Truth” about determinism, our conceptions of ourselves have to be Free.  We can only conceive of accepting determinism if we *choose* to accept it.

(via memeengine)

Whether you accepted it or didn’t, that “choice” would have been determined.

(via salmonidae-of-doubt)

Yeah, but we have to act like it isn’t!  Here’s another great Searle anecdote paraphrased:

If the waiter comes up to you in a restaurant and asks if you want the fish or the chicken, nobody would answer “Hey buddy, I’m a determinist, so I’ll just wait and see what I’m going to get”.

Even if determined, we have to play out the act of choosing.