Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Ontology of Fiction (Oh, and Han Solo's Here Too)

In case you haven't heard, Dumbledore is apparently gay. This has, predictably enough, caused kind of an enormous uproar among fans and critics of the Harry Potter series alike--witchcraft and homosexuality: that's one recipe sure to piss off the religious right. Nice job, JKR. Now, I'm sure you're asking yourself "How can this possibly get any more ridiculous? I mean, we've spent days now discussing the sexuality of a fictional character, right? Nothing can be more inane then that."

Well, lucky for you, I'm here to save the day and take things to a whole new level. I think (and I'm not alone here) that this revelation raises very interesting questions about the ontology of fiction. Yes, that's right: we're going to go from discussing whether or not Dumbledore is gay to discussing what philosophical issues it raises to ask whether or not Dumbledore is gay. Awesome.

This discussion started over at Show-me the Argument, the blog of the University of Missouri philosophy department (which is, I just realized, titled with a pun). Here's the quote that got this whole thing rolling:

The big revelation of the night came when she was asked if Dumbledore had ever found love. With a sigh, she seemed on the verge of saying no, but then revealed, “my truthful answer to you… I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” After a collective gasp, the audience roared with applause. Rowling was clearly astonished by the positive reaction and exclaimed, “if I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!”
Scott goes on to note that this implies a very interesting question with two possibilities. The first:

...the question came up as to whether Rowling’s revelation changed the truth of the matter or the text stood alone as a sole authority. For those who accept textual authority, something like the following conditional is affirmed:

(TA) A proposition p about a story S (revealed by a text T) is true only if (1) p is explicitly stated in T or (2) p is entailed by other propositions explicitly stated facts in T.

In other words, Rowling is not the authority on her own work--she has no more say as to whether or not Dumbledore is gay than I do. While it's true that she did have the freedom to say one way or the other during the course of the series, the fact that she didn't now means that she's lost her opportunity--once her work left her own mind and entered the "collective consciousness," she lost any privileged access to it, and became just another reader. The other possibility, as outlined by Scott:

[Y]ou could hold the Lockean view that the truths about the Harry Potter world are all “in the mind of Rowling” and what she has chosen to reveal in the seven books are only a portion of the story. I think this view is supported by the quote above: “if I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago.” This seems to suggest that Dumbledore’s sexuality was a fact about the story that she already knew – but chose not to explicitly reveal.
More support is gained for this Lockean picture:

Rowling told the audience that while working on the planned sixth Potter film, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” she spotted a reference in the script to a girl who once was of interest to Dumbledore. A note was duly passed to director David Yates, revealing the truth about her character.

I think this second position is more compelling, but there are many other issues raised here. To explore them, I have to bring in Han Solo and Star Wars. Yes, wizards and Jedi in the same post. Am I going down hill? Here's a revised and expanded copy of my comments from Show-Me:

I see the question as a matter very much related to the question of non-existent intentional objects, which most people seem to accept as a legitimate field of philosophical investigation. This question, briefly, goes something like this: when I have a belief about (say) Albus Dumbledore, what exactly is the content of my belief? If I believe, for instance, the proposition 'That cat is white," it seems fairly easy to parse my intentional state--I have a belief about this creature here (a cat) involving certain color properties (its whiteness). The same, however, cannot necessarily be said of fictional characters. If I believe the proposition 'Dumbledore has a three foot beard," what do I really believe? I can't literally believe 'Dumbledore has a three foot beard,' because there is no Dumbledore really, and thus he doesn't have a three foot beard (or anything at all)--it seems akin to saying 'The present King of France is bald.' Still, it seems that I really do have a belief about something.

While this is an interesting question, it's not the one I want to address here. I only bring it up in response to critics who might try to argue, as commenter David did on Show-Me's post, that:

I was quite surprised when I first realised that there is a serious philosophical discourse concerning fictional objects, apart from the usual problems with any non-existent intentional objects. It struck me as a complete non-issue. There is no truth, no fact of the matter, concerning what happens in fiction - that’s what makes it fiction. Fiction happens when we use the forms of language that we usually reserve for reporting truth to say something that everyone knows isn’t true (but has some value for us anyway) [...] This is not to suggest that there is no problem of intentional objects. Just that there is no extra problem of fictional objects.

It seems to me that the question being posed here is a question concerning "fictional ontology"--which is to say, a question concerning the nature of fictional characters. This question, I think, is a natural extension of the question of non-existent intentional objects.

The "Han Shot First" debate, I think, really gets to the heart of this, because it's a situation where both the first instance (H1, where Han shot first) and the second instance (H2, where Han shot second) are "canon"--that is, they both originated with the creator of the franchise. If we want to buy the Lockean-ish view and reject TA, how can we reconcile the fact that the "author" of the series (i.e. Lucas) created BOTH H1 and H2, since H1 implies not H2 and vice versa? In other words, if we're right that the author of a series has some kind of privileged epistemic and ontological access to the world he creates (i.e. he knows the way the world is, and by knowing simultaneously makes it the case that the world is that way), how can we deal with an author changing his mind?

As far as I can see, there are three ways we could go with this. First, we could say that H1 is true because it was the original decree by the author. This approach has the advantage of parsimony--it is quite clear in any given dispute which account is the correct account (just check which one the author advocated first). It does, however, break down in more borderline cases: what if the author just hints at something, but later decides that the opposite of what he hinted at is true? Does this "law" only apply to explicit assertions? How explicit? This also seems to be in conflict with the "author as the final authority" stance on fictional ontology, which is something we've already accepted (at least for the sake of discussion)--if the author really is the ultimate authority on his work, then it seems like he must always have the option to revise his account.

Second, we could say that H2 is true, because it is the most recent account offered by the author. I'm more inclined to lean toward this one, but it carries problems of its own. If we accept the proposition that an author is always (and infallibly) correct about the universe he creates, then if he changes his mind when does the old account cease to be right and the new one begin to be right? Rowling touched on this when she said "If I'd know it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago." To get back to our original case, suppose for a moment that instead of no clues to Dumbledore's sexuality, we'd been given subtle hints that he was heterosexual (think of the hint mentioned above as part of the movie script). If, despite these hints, Rowling were to come back later and say "Dumbledore's gay, and those hints were just red herrings," would it be correct to say Dumbledore was gay or straight? If Rowling has known for some time that Dumbledore was gay, when did he "become" gay? Was it when Rowling decided he was gay, or when she announced it publicly? If the latter, what is so special about giving the idea over to the public (again, to the "collective consciousness") that makes the proposition become true?

This might incline us toward the third possibility, which is that he's neither gay nor straight until it's explicitly stated one way or another. While this might seem tempting at first, I'm not sure if this position will ultimately turn out to be viable, as it simply pushes the dispute back a step. If Dumbledore's sexuality is indeterminate (Schroedinger', let's not go there) until it's made explicit in the fictional world, how might it be made explicit? Again, it seems like we're forced to take one of two horns: either he's gay if and only if Rowling says so, or he's gay if and only if Rowling says so in the original text. Back to square one, and forced to grapple with the dilemma again. Additionally, we still don't know how to handle cases like H1 vs. H2, when the author explicitly states one thing, then explicitly states another.

How might we resolve this dilemma? It seems to me that we can break this problem up into two parts: the epistemic problem of fiction and the ontological problem of fiction--separating it into these to constituents might get us closer to a resolution.

As I said, I'm inclined more toward an H2 style explanation--that the author is infallibly correct in any statement he makes about his fictional universe, up to and including when he revises earlier accounts. On this account, there are two things that must obtain before I can truly utter the proposition 'I know that Dumbledore is gay' (leave aside for the moment questions concerning the content of that belief): it must be true that Dumbledore is gay (a question of fictional ontology), and I must have access to that information (a question of fictional epistemology). To put it simply, it seems that we've got some conceptual confusion here between the question of whether or not Dumbledore is gay (which depends on what Rowling thinks), and whether or not you and I know that Dumbledore is gay (which depends on what information Rowling has revealed).

This sort of view is supported, I think, by the Lockean account that Scott touched on: that which has made it into the Harry Potter series is only part of the story (only the relevant part for the events Rowling wanted to convey, perhaps). There are untold details (ranging from minutia like the color of Harry's shirt on any given day to larger issues like Dumbledore's sexuality, or the date on which Harry was married). Now, I think it is fair to say that if these details haven't been specified at all (one way or another), they are indeterminate--that is, when I say 'Harry Potter got married on June 27th,' I'm not saying anything true or false, because it hasn't been determined what day Harry Potter got married. However, once Rowling has decided on a date (supposing that she hasn't already), then it becomes true that Harry got married on that date, simply because Rowling just is the ultimate authority on her universe.

However, this is a far cry from saying that we know the date Harry got married. Until Rowling decides to reveal that date, I still can't really say anything meaningful about it, though there is now a fact of the matter. In contrast to the above case, my statement 'Harry Potter got married on June 27th' is now devoid of meaning not because it isn't truth-functional (once Rowling decides on a date it becomes either true or false that Harry married on a certain day), but because my statement, one way or another, just isn't verifiable. If this sounds a little too much like logical positivism for your taste, you might be right. I don't claim to have thought this through extensively, but rather am thinking it out as I write this; I'd welcome comments saying why this account doesn't work. It seems that once Rowling has decided on a date (but before she's revealed it), any statement I make about Harry's marriage is essentially akin to saying 'There is one and only one sphere made entirely of gold with a diameter greater than one foot in the Universe:' it's certainly truth-functional (that statement is either true or false), but there's no real way to tell, and thus the statement is rather empty.

This account also seems to let us address the "Han Shot First" debate. It was originally true that Han shot first, as that's what Lucas decided upon and that's what he told us (via the medium of film). However, at some point after the movie was made, Lucas changed his mind, and began to endorse the proposition 'Han shot second.' At this point, the ontology of the matter changed, and it became true that Han did shoot second. It wasn't until the movie was released, though, that you and I were in an epistemic position to know of the switch--just as if my house is robbed while I'm on vacation, and I (incorrectly) believe 'My computer is on my desk' until I return home, we incorrectly believed 'Han shot first' until Lucas told us otherwise.

So, to answer the original question: yes, Dumbledore is gay. He's either been gay all along (if Rowling decided he was gay when she first began), or his sexuality was indeterminate for a time, then he "became" gay when Rowling endorsed the proposition 'Dumbledore is gay.' As I said, I'm far from confident that this account is perfect, and would love to hear some comments. What do you all think?

Friday, October 19, 2007

2012: Just Another Year, Or The Year Some As-Yet Undetermined Thing That Has To Do With Consciousness Happens?!

The first half of this post is a little bit rantish. Sorry about that--I try to keep this blog as academic as possible, but sometimes something bothers me to the point that I just have to vent about it on the Internet. Just skip to the [/rant] tag if you don't want to read the rant.


One of the things that really irritates me to no end is the popular confusion of actual philosophy and New Age garbage. This confusion is fairly evident anywhere either of these two are mentioned--you'll hear New Age "teachers" with credentials like:

[name removed] has studied with Alberto Villoldo and The Four Winds Society and is a graduate of the Healing the Light Body School. Ross is a mesa carrier in the lineage of the Andean Shamans and practices Energy Medicine through Soulpaths, LC, in Kansas City, Missouri.

being billed as "philosophers." Go into virtually any bookstore and you'll likely find the philosophy section (complete with Plato, Descartes, Bertrand Russell, and John Searle) right next to the "metaphysical" or "new age" section (complete with crystal healing, transcendental meditation, and volumes upon volumes on "the power of pyramids"). Whom that description above refers to doesn't really matter (it's the author of an article I read on today's topic): it's supposed to stand for a general trend.

I'm not saying that things like "crystal healing" or "energy medicine" don't work. Wait, yes, I am saying that, but that's not my point. Whether or not getting in touch with your power animal and putting a chunk of silicon dioxide molecules arranged into a tetrahedra lattice structure on your face will cure your brain tumor more reliably than, you know, surgery and science, people who push these kinds of ideas (and I use the term very loosely) are most emphatically not philosophers, and the fact that they bill themselves as such gives those of us actually doing serious philosophical work a bad name.

Philosophy, perhaps more than any other non-scientific discipline, values clarity of thought, precision of expression, and rationality of ideas--these are the cornerstones of philosophy. Philosophers strive to eliminate confusion and reduce mental clutter--we do with concepts and ideas what physicists do with hard data experiments. Practically, this means that a good work of philosophy is clear, easily understandable by those with the right background (the less background necessary to understand it the better), and follows a coherent and logical train of thought. Most New Agers, in my experience, have few of these qualities. Case and point with tonight's discussion.


BoingBoing ran a short piece today on Daniel Pinchbeck, the "psychedelic author" behind the recent book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. If you've missed this little bit of cultural wisdom, the world is apparently going to end in 2012--December 21st, 2012, to be precise. Why, you ask? Well, because that's the day that the Mayan Calendar ends its current cycle, of course, you silly rationalist! As insane as this sounds/is, this theory (a species of Terrance McKenna's Novelty Theory) has gained quite a large following among New Agers, spawning a host of websites devoted to the event that's going to happen in 2012. What exactly is this event? I'm so glad you asked. Here's Mr. Pinchbeck's response, as related to a Rolling Stone correspondent, and published here

Whether there will be a complete collapse of the world before 2012 is not for him to say, he says. All he knows is that the upsurge of militarism and terrorism -- as well as an increase in coincidences in his own life -- presage a time when spirit and matter will converge into one. We will then be released from the occult power of the Gregorian calendar, which is keeping us out of synchronicity with our psychic powers. We will receive the powers of telepathy and get to speak to our alien neighbors, not necessarily by mounting spaceships but through psychic evolution.

Is that clear enough for you? Spirit and matter will converge into one, and we'll be released from the occult power of the Gregorian calendar, of course! This is really helpful, because there's nothing more oppressive in the modern world than those damn Gregorians and their arbitrary way of marking time. Good thing the Mayans were on top of the whole thing.

The blurb on BoingBoing caught my eye because it included the word "consciousness." Come to find out, it links to a short video interview with Mr. Pinchbeck, in which he, er, explains (?) his beliefs, saying:

The modern way of thinking about indigenous and tribal cultures is that they were myth-based and superstitious. But it may be that indigenous cultures like the Mayans did have their own knowledge system that was as meaningful as ours, but they were interested in very different aspects of reality, being, and experience [...] Someone who just has a rational scientific mind is going to find all this very hard to accept, but there is a change happening in the Psyche. In my own life and in the lives of people I'm connected to, there seems to be an increasing level of synchronicity, so that if you have an intention about something, you get a quicker level of manifestation.
Excuse me, Mr. Pinchbeck, this might just be because I'm limited by my "rational and scientific mind," but just what the hell do you mean by that? For instance, just what is a "level of manifestation," and how can it be quicker? This writing, speech, and thought is so confused and murky that I can barely understand your point, let alone argue against it; I suppose I should have known what I was in for when the website I was directed to in order to watch the video was titled "Post Modern Times."

Allow me to make a prediction of my own: 12/21/2012 (oooo, numbers!) will come and go. The world will stay fucked up in places, and magnificent in places. People will keep scraping by to survive, and keep trying to make the world a better (or worse) place. Pinchbeck and those who follow him will come up with some lame excuse for why nothing of import happened, and will start looking for the next new, confusing, and vaguely mystical idea to latch onto. Life goes on.

The point I'd like to make with this post is that people like Daniel Pinchbeck are NOT philosophers, and it does a great disservice to those who have spent their lives in pursuit of clarity, wisdom, and truth to call people who trumpet this tripe by that title. Writing about ideas, using big words, and saying things like "increasing level of synchronicity" does not make you a philosopher. Well, maybe it does, but it makes you an extraordinarily bad one. Or a post modernist...but I repeat myself.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Transhumanism and the End of Aging

Lifehacker covered a recent article in this issue of New Scientist (this is their death special!) about the transhumanist movement, specifically the use of various techniques to prolong human life--perhaps even indefinitely. Transhumanism, for the uninitiated, is basically a movement of cognitive scientists, biologists, computer scientists, philosophers, futurists, and regular old nutjobs which advocates the use of technology to transcend the inherent limitations of humanity. Depending on the focus of the transhumanist, these technologies can take the form of cognitive enhancements (e.g. implanting computer hardware into the brain to improve memory or cognition), physical improvements (think The Six Million Dollar Man), life extension (we'll get to that), or various other mechanical/biological fusions.

The focus of the New Scientist article is, as I said, on transhumanist solutions to "the aging problem," or (in short) death. If you think you detect a note of condescension in my tone, you're quite right (and quite perceptive)--I don't put much stock in this. My reasons, however, might not be quite what you're expecting. First, though, a bit about the actual solutions discussed.

Transhumanist ideas about combating aging seem to come in two basic flavors, which I'll call the "repair flavor" and the "upload flavor." The repair flavor, in a nutshell, advocates the use of genetic engineering and nano-level technology (such as self-replicating nanobots) to "repair" the damage done to the human body over time and keep it running indefinitely. Aubrey de Grey, University of Cambridge biotechnologist and beard enthusiast, compares such maintenance to the sort of preventative work an owner of a classic car does to keep it in working order, saying
"In the same way that we have 100 year old cars now that are working just as well as they did when they rolled off the production line ... similarly, once we become able to implement sufficiently comprehensive technologies, we'll be able to do the same for the human body [...] The people keeping these vintage cars on the road aren't doing anything more sophisticated now than they were 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, when they were only two or three times as old as they were designed to be. Once you learn how to do sufficiently comprehensive maintenance, that is it. You keep the machine at a manageable level of damage, so to speak--a level that is not prejudicial to the functioning of the machine."
This is an apt analogy, I think. The human body is, after all, nothing more (or less) than an organic machine produced by naturalistic (rather than intentional) processes. There's even some evidence to support the idea that this approach might be viable--Cynthia Kenyon, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, seems to have developed a technique that can prolong the life of tiny worms called Caenorhabditis elegans by up to six times, the equivalent of giving a human a 400 year lifespan. While Dr. Kenyon's technique is rather simple (it seems to work by just inhibiting a single gene), and therefore unlikely to be as successful in humans (whose genomes are significantly more complex), it is a first step in the right direction. Thus, the idea that we might one day visit the hospital for gene therapy, inject tiny robots into our bloodstream to repair damaged cells, and live to see the turn of several centuries might actually be viable. Or it might not.

I have a deep and abiding mistrust for futurism--the path that future technology will take is notoriously hard to predict, and this is particularly true for bleeding edge technologies (like nanotechnology and bioengineering). If someone predicted the internet in its current form 20 years ago, we'd be impressed, but the groundwork was already well in place by 1987--certainly it would have been easier to foresee the internet as it is today from 1987 than to foresee the course of (say) quantum mechanics from 1800; the shift toward quantum mechanics (and away from Newtonian physics) represented such a new scientific paradigm, that foreseeing it would be nothing short of oracular. It seems to me that we're at a similar stage in our development of nanotechnology--while maybe the groundwork is already there, we're nowhere near as close to putting it into production as we were to putting together the modern internet in 1987.

The second path proposed by the transhumanists to overcome mortality is (of course) the upload flavor--that is, uploading our minds into computers. Oxford philosopher (!) Anders Sandberg explains:

"My personal view is that we are the information, the processing, going on in our minds, so an uploaded copy of me would be me [...] a rough sketch would look something like this. You freeze the brain, you slice it very thinly. These very thin slices you scan using an electron microscope ... you get these images, you process them in a computer to create a three-dimensional model of where are the different synapses and neurons, what are the strengths, what are the connections, use that to create a simulation of the brain, then you start the simulation."
If you've talked to me about philosophy for more than thirty seconds, I bet you can guess how I'm going to respond to this. No. Just, no. Might this technique work? Sure, given sufficient complexity and precision of measurement, we could probably set up a perfect model of the brain. With enough computing power, we could probably even run a functional simulation of the brain's activity, but is that enough for immortality? Definitely not. Think about what Dr. Sandberg is saying: create a simulation of my mind, and that's just as good as my mind--even more, it is my mind. Why is this? What's the error here?

The problem lies in Dr. Sandberg's acceptance of the computational theory of the mind, which (unfortunately for him) is probably wrong. CTM basically states that, as Dr. Sandberg says, what makes a mind is the information processing going on inside it. CTM is, at its heart, a functionalist view, asserting that it doesn't matter how the information processing is done, only that the same information is being processed somehow. That is, it doesn't matter if the data from my senses is being processed by my biological brain or by a simulation of my brain--the result should be the same.

This is, as I said, almost certainly wrong. I'm not going to belabor this point too much here, because showing why it is wrong is one of my paramount philosophical projects, and I've already covered it several times here. Suffice it to say that an informational processing model of mind doesn't account at all for the subjective nature of mental states--while a computer simulation of my mind might be able to (with perfect accuracy) predict what I would do, say, or even think in any given situation, it would emphatically not be thinking anything. Thought (i.e. the subjective experience, the "what it is like" factor to be conscious) is something that is forever unattainable to digital computers, at least given our current model of computing. Thoughts, experiences, sensations, and other qualia require semantic content rather than just symbolic content--see Searle's Chinese Room for evidence of this.

Eripsa has engaged me about this argument before, arguing that we shouldn't tie our definition of mind to qualia and the subjective nature of mental states--he says that this is dangerously anthropocentric, and that computer "mind" might take other forms. He might be right, and I've been willing to concede this point, but that kind of argument won't work here: we're not trying to create artificial minds with this technique, but rather to prolong the existence of already functioning minds--our own. For this to be successful, the technique needs to replicate all aspects of our minds, including (and especially) consciousness. We need more than information processing, because we're more than information processing.

Summary: transhumanism would be awesome, but it's unlikely that it will take the form these people think. Genetic engineering and nanotech might give something like this someday, but trying to predict how and when at this juncture is virtually impossible. Uploading our minds to computers is virtually impossible given our current model of computing (unless you're content with a simulation of yourself), and though this gap might be (and probably will be) bridged someday, it is undoubtedly much further off than the repair flavor of anti-aging technology.

Psychosis and Culture

I was reading the Wikipedia page on delusions today (because that's how I roll), and came across this line, which made me chuckle:

[A delusion is characterized by:]
  • certainty (held with absolute conviction)
  • incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary)
  • impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)

A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.
Upon reading this, I said to myself "Hmmm, what does that sound like?" Not surprisingly, myself answered "Organized religion!" Wikipedia, alas, is more clever than I, though, and the very next sentence is:

The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).
Why is this, exactly? Why does a false belief's acceptance by more than one person make it not delusional, but a false belief held by just one person is indicative of madness? This is more of a rhetorical question, I suppose--I just thought it was amusing.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Exploring Emergence

My last post described Dr. Saskida's view as sounding like "a species of emergentism," and I also noted that the mind/body view that I hold is of a similar species. Today, I was wandering drunkenly around the internet (with the assistance of Firefox plugin StumbleUpon) and came across this gem from the MIT Epistemology and Learning Center--it's an interactive essay on emergence!

First a few introductory words. When I was teaching philosophy of mind this summer at CTY (first session, not the class Eripsa and I taught), we played a game with the kids to help them understand emergence. We divided the class into two groups: scientists and particles. The particles were taken out to a large grassy field, and given instructions about how to behave. Half the particles were "negatively charged," and the other half were "positively charged;" normally, the two kinds of particles repelled each other--that is, when a + approached a -, the two flew apart at high speed. However, certain configurations of particles were stable (a ring consisting of two of each, for instance), and other arrangements would produce...unexpected behavior.

The kids playing the roles of scientists were not told any of this--they were just charged with figuring out all the rules governing the behavior of their classmates. To this end, they were allowed to pause the "simulation" (i.e. tell the particle kids to freeze), then reposition, remove, or add any classmates from the field. By judiciously using these techniques, the kids were able to figure out that, while the basic rules of the system were pretty simple, things got significantly more complicated when the "particles" were arranged in certain ways: this is the basic principle behind emergence.

This activity was awesome, but it requires a few resources that not everyone has access to (not the least of which is the energy level of a 14 year old). Enter the Exploring Emergence Active Essay from MIT. This really clever series of web pages uses Java applets to explore emergent properties--you are presented with a black field, on which you can click anywhere to produce a small white square. Once you're satisfied with the placement of squares, you can start the simulation, which causes the squares to interact and move in certain ways described by rather simple rules (e.g. if a neighboring square is on, turn it off, then turn on two randomly selected neighbors). Starting with less complicated builds, the active essay shows how quickly mind-boggling complexity can arise from seemingly simplistic systems.

What's the point of all this? Well, many people (myself included) think that the relationship between mental states (e.g. beliefs) and brain states (e.g. neuronal activity) is an emergent one--that is, that while (relatively) simple physical laws govern the low-level action of the brain, the particular arrangement of molecules in that organ generate higher level complexities that seem quite apart from the rather deterministically simple behavior of the individual "particles" making up the brain. This kind of view has the advantage of avoiding ontological dualism (that is, it has the advantage of not postulating any non-physical substance as making up the mind), as well as the advantage of not requiring us to jettison the seemingly inescapable fact that we really do have minds.

I urge everyone to run through that active essay. It doesn't take too long to finish (maybe 15 or 20 minutes if you take it slowly), and is really fun and interesting to explore.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Yoga and Neurophilosophy

E-zine Spiked recently ran a piece in its science section in which it asked various scientists of various stripes to produce videos briefly explaining what they would teach the world about science if they had only one thing to teach. The answers are great, ranging from Euclid's Proof about an infinite number of prime numbers to our topic today, which is Dr. Lisa Saksida's discussion of mind/body dualism (more specifically, why it's impossible). The video features Dr. Saksida doing yoga in front of a fire place (for some reason), while her voice over briefly outlines why she thinks dualism is false.

Interestingly, she makes the point that eliminative materialism is equally false, saying:

I think it frightens people to think that those higher level processes (like consciousness and love) are just coming out of chemical reactions in the brain, but those things are still happening. I mean, that's how we experience those physical changes that are happening in our brain. So it's not that they're any less real (or any less important), it's just that the basis of them is something different.

This is an excellent choice for something to tell the world, it seems to me--Descartes' advent of dualism has cast a lot of confusion over philosophy of mind over the last, oh, few centuries or so. However, eliminative materialism seems equally false, as it forces us to say that things like consciousness, love, desire, fear, and a whole host of other mental states don't really exist at all, but are just illusions caused by brain state changes. Dr. Saksida's more nuanced position--which seems, from its brief exposition, to be a species of emergentism--is a nice departure from the radical materialism that's prevalent today. As someone who often argues against eliminative materialism and often is accused of overly metaphysical or mystical thinking, it's nice to see this kind of a view articulated by a scientist--I feel a bit vindicated for holding an emergent view.

Update: I apparently forgot to post a link to the actual movie, so here it is!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Extinction Momentum and the Critical Band

Every now and then, I come across a post that I enjoy so much I feel obligated to direct people to it with a minimum of comment. This is such a post. It comes from the blog End of the World News, with which I'm not terribly familiar, but is very entertaining. While it might come across as a touch alarmist and melodramatic, the writing is excellent and the material is though provoking.

What a strange sort of specie we are. As all others got bigger teeth, sharper claws, and quicker strides, we managed to tool our way out of the natural reject pile, in turn usurping the top spot of the predatory chain through a cognitive back door. How fitting, then, for our string-tied stones and sticks to themselves evolve to such beasts of devices, able to crater mountains at the push of a button. Like an animal enlarging its own teeth, sharpening its own claws, we have actively re-endowed our own ferocity, so much as to exceed the scope of possible targets. I dare say an animal that could claw the world in two so fairly might.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Magnetic Birds

BoingBoing covered a story today about a recent study done by researchers at the University of Oldenburg which reveals that birds--long suspected to be in tune with the Earth's magnetic field (that's how they navigate on long distance migrations)--may actually see the Earth's magnetic field. Aside from the obvious question, which is "how much would a bird trip out if you put it in an MRI machine," this discovery raises some interesting questions about the nature of visual perception and sensory modalities generally. First, a little background.

The scientists injected the birds with a tracer dye, which can be tracked as it travels throughout the body. They put one dose in the eyes of the birds (where the magnetically sensitive cells are found) and another in the part of the brain they call "Cluster N," which apparently is most active when the birds are navigating. They found that both doses of the dye traveled to the thalamus which is (in part and among many other things) responsible for processing visual information. The finding "strongly supports the hypothesis" that birds navigate using magnetic information conveyed through the visual system.

Many philosophers want to say that senses are defined by the modality in which they express themselves--in other words, what makes vision vision
(as opposed to, say, hearing) is nothing more than the way it feels to see something. Everyone knows the difference between what it is like to hear a car and see a car--that's all that separates vision and audition. This study, I think, shows this position for the nonsense that it is. Most people would freely admit that this "magneto-vision" of birds is not a veridical case of vision--instead, it seems that it's a new sense that is very closely related (and expressed in the same modality).

Similarly, other philosophers (*cough*Eripsa*cough*) want to argue that all that defines a sense is the neuronal mechanisms it uses to instantiate it; that is, what we mean by "vision" is "originates in the eye and is processed in structure x in the brain." I'm probably over simplifying, and I'm sure I'll get a comment about it, but it seems to me that this study also proves this second view false. Unless you want to say that vision is only vision when it works just the way it does for you and I (which leaves out all sorts of liminal cases like color blindness or blindsight), linking a sense and its neuronal correlate seems to lock you into the view that a bird's "magneto-vision" is just a special case of vision.

Instead, I want to give a (surprise) naturalistic account of a senses, in which each sense is defined by the peculiar way the biological features interact with a certain aspect of the environment. I've talked at length about this before, so I'm not going to repeat myself here--suffice it to say that we need to consider both the subjective aspect (i.e. modality) and the objective aspect (i.e. the environmental cause of the sense and the biological way that sense is processed) in order to fully account for any sense (or perception in general).

What do you think? Is this a new sense, or a different kind of vision?

Monday, October 1, 2007

Superman and Language

Brian Montgomery, over at Show-Me The Argument (the blog of the University of Missouri's philosophy department) raised this issue in his post today. One of the other contributors made a comment that I thought was on the right track, and I expanded on it a little bit. Here's the whole exchange, starting with Brian's post:

Please let me know what you think, as it may effect my phil. language paper. (sic)

Consider the following sentences:

1) Lex Luthor believes that Lois Lane, who is the coworker of Clark Kent, is a troublemaker.

2) Lex Luthor believes that Lois Lane, who is the coworker of Superman, is a troublemaker.

Can 1) be true and 2) be false? Do 1) and 2) have the same content?

And Christopher's comment:

I am not exactly sure what Lex is thinking here. With regard to the pair, is it the following?

(1*) Lex Luthor believes “Lois Lane, who is the coworker of Clark Kent, is a trouble maker.”
(2*) Lex Luthor believes “Lois Lane, who is the coworker of Superman, is a trouble maker.”

If this interpretation, then (2) is false for Lex Luthor does not believe that Lois Lane is a coworker of Superman (i.e. Lex doesn’t believe that she monitors the world from the Fortress of Soliture—boy am I a geek).

Perhaps it is not (1*) and (2*); perhaps it is the following:

(1^) Lex Luthor believes “Lois Lane is a trouble maker” and she is a coworker of Clark Kent.
(2^) Lex Luthor believes “Lois Lane is a trouble maker” and she is a coworker of Superman.

Both (1^) and (2^) can be true in this case for they are each a conjunction of a belief Lex has, and a statement about who Lois works with; in other words, both (1^) and (2^) can be true for who Lois works with is not part of Lex’s belief.

My thoughts:

Christopher's interpretation seems on the right track to me--I agree that the beliefs expressed in both (1) and (2) are "complex," in the sense that they have multiple parts to them; obviously all parts need to be equivalent if the two are to be considered equivalent. Each statement really expresses three beliefs relating a relationship between Lex Luthor, some entity who may or may not be a troublemaker, and that entity's co-worker. Formally, we might express them like this (pardon the lack of symbols...I'm not going to try to find the fonts):

1. There exists some x such that Lex Luthor believes x to be a trouble maker, x to be named 'Lois Lane,' and x to be a co-worker of Clark Kent.

2. There exists some x such that Lex Luthor believes x to be a trouble maker, x to be named 'Lois Lane," and x to be a co-worker of Superman.

(1) can be (and, presumably, is) true, while (2) is false--Lex Luthor does NOT believe that Lois Lane is a co-worker of Superman, and since the complex belief in (2) is a conjunction of three simple beliefs, the falsity of one simple beliefs entails the falsity of the entire complex belief. But how can this be? We know that 'Superman' has the same referent as 'Clark Kent,' that the two men are, in fact, identical. By Leibniz' Law, then, it seems that any statement true of Clark Kent just must be true of Superman--that is, we should be able to swap 'Superman' for 'Clark Kent' in any true statement, and the statement should remain true.

The explanation for this, it seems to me, lies in the interesting relationship between intensionality and intentionality--between language and mental states. When I make a statement of the form "I believe that x is y," the truth functionality of that statement has to do with more than x and whether or not it actually is y. In short, it depends on certain facts about my mental states. When Lex Luthor thinks about Superman, he has a certain cluster of intentional states (beliefs, desires, etc.) that have to do with him: "Superman is my enemy," "Superman can fly," "Superman wears lots of spandex," "I want Superman dead," "Superman is allergic to Kryptonite," and so forth. This belief network does not, presumably, include any beliefs about the relationship between Superman and Clark Kent (particularly any beliefs about the identity of the referent of 'Superman' with the referent of 'Clark Kent'). Thus, when Lex Luthor has a belief that includes anything about Superman or Clark Kent as part of its content, there is the potential for odd intensionality of expression.

Again, this is due to the relationship between language qua representation and the mental states represented; the inherent subjectivity of mental content creates oddity when it is transferred into the more public sphere of shared language.