What I've been thinking about...
"Chalmers on the Singularity"
“…machines having certain scientific capacities, certain technological capacities, building weapons, curing diseases, dealing with human poverty… if we get machines that can deal with all these things in a more sophisticated way than humans can then that would count as being smarter…”
" Rational begets Irational"
The Partially Examined Life
Wes Alwan from The Partially Examined Life podcast talks a little about the trouble caused by infinite descent, like searching for the smallest particle, or (even better) the ultimate explanatory principle. He points out that if you think ahead to the logical conclusion of any such descent, you will necessarily end up with something fundamentally different than what you started with.
For example, if you are searching for the smallest particle, you begin to cut things in half. You cut molecules to atoms, and atoms to particles, and on and on, and eventually (presumably), you will arrive at something that cannot even in theory be cut in half. It will be indivisible. This makes your smallest unit something much different, and maybe stranger than the matter you began investigating. If it turns out you can cut it in half, then you simply haven’t yet finished your descent.
My favorite example of this is how real reductionist explanations of things must be quite different from the thing they are explaining. If I want to explain the solidity of my desk (as opposed to fog, say), I can’t just say “Easy, it’s made of tiny solid particles!”, because that just pushes back the question. What makes the particles solid? Eventually you’ll have to venture into talking about electrical repulsion and the Pauli exclusion principle, which feels pretty divorced from “Solidity”, but is really the only way to explain it without circularity.
Dr Chris Frith
Dr Chris Frith points out that whenever we report on our own states of Consciousness we are, in fact, being Meta-Conscious. That is, conscious about being conscious. Since it’s controversial how well (or even whether at all) brain imaging can tell us about consciousness, scientific experiments rely entirely on the reports of subjects.
As a result, we never get to analyze “base-level” consciousness scientifically, only the once-removed meta-consciousness. To paraphrase Dr Frith:
“Since we have to open the Fridge door to see if the light is on, we have trouble checking what the light might do when the door is closed.”
This clip taken from this excellent discussion on the Hard Problem.
"Paradox of Choice"
“…there followed an increasingly nightmarish period in which I had kidneys for breakfast, kidneys for lunch, stewed kidneys, sweet kidneys…”
My current book is a collection of case studies written by this man, Oliver Sacks. His writing is insightful, cerebral and yet unpretentious, and it turns out he is also quite a charming, unassuming speaker.
He is a regular on the Science podcast Radiolab, and in this clip host Robert Krulwich is asking him for his thoughts about the Paradox of Choice. Sacks has some interesting personal insights about how limiting choice has affected his life. And yes, they involve Kidney Beans.
You can find the full episode of Radiolab here.
Dr Barry Smith
"The "Mineness" of Self"
Discussion on The Hard Problem
The Science of the Brain is able to provide insight in so many areas where it almost seems that science should not be able to reach.
In this clip Dr Barry Smith talks about some of the philosophical insights we can take from studying lesions in the brain. He invokes names no less than Wittgenstein, and Descartes in the context of how their ideas about the “ownership of ideas” and the self have to be revised in light of recent research! And I think he is right.
This excerpt is just a sample from this excellent discussion on the Hard Problem of Consciousness.
"Law as Metaphor"
Personally, the word “crackpot” always runs through my head at least once when I listen to a lecture from Rupert Sheldrake. That said, so many of the best ideas come from crackpots.
In this excerpt from his banned Ted Talk, Sheldrake claims that Law is a human concept, and the idea of a Natural Law is a metaphor that can (and has been) taken too far.
Anil Seth and Barry C. Smith
"Unknowable = Indescribable?"
Challenge: Give an exhaustive verbal description of the English Coastline. You can’t? Hmmm, does that mean there is something mysterious and unknowable about this coastline?
Challenge: Explain how subjective experiences emerge from brain activity. You can’t? Hmmm…
In this clip Dr Anil Seth raises this (implied) criticism of the Hard Problem of Consciousness. Perhaps the difficulty of explaining how brain begets subjectivity is just a difficulty of scale, like that of describing the English Coastline out loud.
We hear a rebuttal from Barry C Smith (who’s quickly becoming my new hero). He argues that trouble communicating “What it is like” is of a different sort than the trouble with too much detail.
This exchange is another sample from this excellent discussion of Consciousness and the Hard Problem.
Chris Frith and Barry Smith
"Describe the Pain"
An excerpt from an excellent conversation on The Hard Problem of Consciousness, this bit gets to the heart of the matter.
Dr Chris Frith speaks first, asking if it’s reasonable for us to expect a scientific model of consciousness to encompass subjectivity (after all, we don’t expect a model train to carry passengers, or a mathematical model of a hurricane to be windy…).
Dr Smith makes what I would call the appropriate response: leaving out subjectivity leaves out information that we want!
"A Divide in Science"
Here’s a 20-second soundbite from Rupert Sheldrake’s banned Tedx talk. As I’ve said before, I find Sheldrake’s ideas (and this talk as a whole) a little bit “crackpotish”, but his originality makes it worth listening to what he has to say. Questioning your own beliefs is good every now and then (“…uh, why do I believe that again?… [half-hour of difficult thought]… yes… yes, that is right!”)
As for this particular excerpt from the talk, I’m mostly in agreement!
"Fame in the Brain"
Daniel Dennett talks about his metaphor: Consciousness is “Fame in the Brain”.
I have some problems with Dennett’s take on Consciousness, but I’ll grind that axe some other time… certainly I always find his ideas thought-provoking.
This idea has some extra notoriety lately due to it’s association with the Tedx talk: Google Consciousness. Turns out his “Fame in the Brain” translates pretty well to “Fame in the Search Engine”. My objections to Dennett notwithstanding, I actually have no problem entertaining the idea of a complicated and conscious search engine.
When I listened to visionary Don Tapscott at the Innovator’s Forum, I was expecting insights about communication, social models, and hints about the future. I got all these, but was surprised to get some equally wise insights about parenting.
Tapscott has always been wonderful at tackling the bogeymen we fear will loom up out of the internet to destroy us, and here he shares some thoughts about easy access to Pornography, or “Porn” by internet citizens of all ages. These thoughts come in the context of how he dealt with the issue in his own family, with his own Children.
Have a listen - he incisively cuts through what all we parents think we fear, to the things that are really most important. I will do my best to be as insightful and trusting during my own parenting milestones..
"Tumblr vs Twitter and Facebook"
Bandwidth from CBC Radio
Here’s a little blurb from the radio review of Tumblr I heard around a year ago that first prompted me to come check out the site. Just feeling nostalgic since I recently passed 1000 posts.
With some time under my belt, I’m not sure I totally agree with his assessment of Tumblr’s capabilities (in particular, the words “nuanced conversation”… maybe I’d buy “nuanced presentation”). On the other hand, this is basically a lovenote to a site I’ve certainly gotten a lot of value from (and no love lost between me and Facebook or Twitter, really).
You can hear the full 12 minutes of this interview on Soundcloud.
The Partially Examined Life
"Why Do Philosophy?"
Why do they do it? Seth, Wes and Mark from the Partially Examined Life podcast offer some thoughts on why they do philosophy. (Incidentally, each episode of the podcast is 90 to 120 minutes, and this is episode 73… so these three really do philosophy!)
These are only excerpts from a much larger discussion, and the talk went to some satisfying places.
One idea (not quoted in these excerpts) that I must share is that Philosophy differs from all other disciplines (including Science and Religion for ex) by being flexible in its base assumptions. Mark claimed in the podcast that if you have basic assumptions (for ex “God Exists”, or “There is Spacetime”, or “Inductive Reasoning is Valid”) that are off limits to questioning, then you are no longer doing philosophy.
Philosophy, he says, certainly makes use of base assumptions in nearly every branch, but it also recognizes the need to defend those base assumptions, and the validity of their being challenged in another theory.
I think I may like this definition, though it is just a touch self-aggrandizing.
The speakers you hear, in order, are Seth Paskin, Wes Alwan, and Mark Linsenmayer. You can check out the full episode here.
"The End of Growth"
Ideas from CBC Radio (Highlights)
“…it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth, forever, on a finite planet.”
From Ideas on CBC, here’s Paul Kennedy introducing a show about the end of Economic growth. The 3 minute intro is provocative, but it’s thesis seems hard to argue with!
The remainder of the one hour program features Economist (former Chief Economist and Strategist at CIBC) Jeff Rubins, and Ecologist (who needs no further introduction) David Suzuki. They speak on the thesis set up in the intro, from their two very different perspectives.
"The Newest Apparat"
Spark from CBC Radio
From an episode of CBC’s Spark, author Gary Steyngart talks about a fictional device from his new book “Super Sad True Love Story”. In this near future, the newest “äppärät” (read: device) is one that allows it’s wearer to be instantly ranked on several scales in any new location entered. So, on entering a library for instance:
There’s a certain horror in thinking society might subject itself to this not-so-unplausible idea. Still, something egotistical inside me likes the idea of shocking people with rankings higher than they would have expected. “That’s right boss, I am smarter than you.”