Friday, September 28, 2007

Dice Stacking

As everyone knows, I have a passion for uselessly amazing feats of manual dexterity. I stumbled upon this video today showing a young man performing a variety of such a feat that I've never encountered before--dice stacking. It's utterly incredible to watch. Behold!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

If You Can Read This, You Have Intentionality (But Your DNA Doesn't), Part II: The Principle of Charity

Sorry it took so long to get this post up. I think you'll understand when you read it; it wasn't easy to argue for Marshall's position, and distilling the very scattered talk he gives into a (more or less) succinct summary took some thought and planning. Also, they've been making me work at my job. What's up with that?

Sufficiently recovered from that last one? Good--let's move on.

In philosophy, one of the first things they teach you when you take a basic methodology course is "the principle of charity." This principle states, basically, that one ought to read other philosophers one engages with with as much charity as possible--in other words, try not to deliberately misread those you're arguing against in such a way that their argument becomes weaker than it actually is. Instead, focus on what it seems the author was trying to say, and read his argument in such a way that his point is best made. This, in my opinion, is an important principle, and is one of the cornerstones of good philosophical work; however, the fact that it is important (and a basic tenet of the discipline) doesn't mean that it is always easy to practice. This post is a prime example: I'm going to do my best to outline and motivate Marshall's point. This, I think, will be useful in two primary ways: first, it will let me clarify his points for myself, which is important if I plan on dismantling them later (which I do). Second, it will let all of you see the point he's trying to make without having to sift through all his rhetoric and dogmatism. Remember that here I'm doing my best to motivate his argument, so I'm going to pass over problems in his reasoning that may or may not be obvious to you. Let's begin.

Marshall starts off by making a distinction between patterns and designs. It is upon this distinction that he will ultimately base his proof, so we would do well to spend a moment considering the distinction. A pattern, says Marshall, is something that can occur naturally (i.e. without a mind creating it), and he gives a few examples from nature: the spinning of a hurricane, snowflakes, and stalagmites are just a few of the natural patterns he points out. Marshall also makes the (somewhat dubious) connection between patterns and chaos theory, claiming that many patterns are chaos driven--that is, that we cannot predict the form a given pattern will take based on knowledge about the system it is emerging from; the weather, says Marshall, is a perfect example of this: we know that there are "weather patterns," but predicting what those patterns will be with more than fair accuracy is nearly impossible.

On the other hand, says Marshall, there are designs. These might look like patterns (indeed, he notes that all designs have patterns, though not all patterns are designed), but there is one crucial difference: designs are created purposefully by creatures with minds. In Marshall's account, the notion of a design is linked inextricably with the notion of representation--a design, he claims, has one defining characteristic: it always includes both some object in itself and some representation of that object. Music, Marshall claims, is a perfect example of a design: there are notes on the page that a musician looks at (the symbolic representation), and the actual sound of the music itself (the object represented). Again, the defining characteristic of designs is that they include representation (and representation, as we all know, requires a mind).

Patterns, then, are simply expressions of matter and energy as it has been influenced by a complex (and/or chaotic) system; there is nothing "meta-physical" (in the Aristotelian sense) about patterns--they simply are what they are. Designs, on the other hand, are inherently meta-physical, and are (by definition) more than the sum of their physical parts. This is demonstrated, Marshall claims, by the fact that designs are medium-independent; I can take this block of text that I'm typing and read it aloud, print it out, post it to the internet, convert it into Chinese, or put it through a thousand other transformations and, though the physical (i.e. representation) nature of the text will change, the meaning of the text will not. This, Marshall deduces, implies that designs are more than physical, and that anything with representational capacity must be the result of mental (i.e. non-physical) action. In short, designs come from minds.

The question becomes, then, 'can patterns turn into designs?' Marshall, of course, answers this question with a resounding negative; because patterns are definitively physical and designs are definitively meta-physical, patterns can never "spontaneously" become designs. Here, then, we arrive at the crux of Marshall's argument, and the question he is really seeking to address: is DNA a pattern, or is it a design? I'm sure you can see the implications of this question right away in light of the discussion we've been having thus far: if we admit that DNA is a design, then we are also forced to admit that it has a designer--that is, that DNA represents something, and thus was created by a being with a mind. That, to most people, means God. QED, or something like it. So how does Marshall get there?

For such a bold claim, the last leap is astonishingly simple: Marshall asserts that we know DNA is a design simply because it is a code for us! That is, he argues that because every single cell in your body has a complete genome, and because that complete genome "carries all the necessary information" to "build" your body, DNA must be a design. It meets all the criteria, Marshall argues: it is medium independent (I can change the DNA molecule into a string of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs and it will still retain its information-carrying capacity), and it stands for something more than itself (i.e. your body). DNA, put simply, is a language--a code for you--and that means that it is a design. DNA has semantic content in the same way that the English language does: all those chemicals have a meaning, and that meaning is you. Any design implies a designer, and thus DNA had a designer. Humans didn't design themselves, so something else must have done the job. God, Marshall thinks, is the most likely culprit.

That, in a nutshell, is Marshall's linguistic argument for the existence of God. He sums it up with what he calls the "Atheist's Riddle" (tagline 'So simple any child can understand it, so complex no atheist can solve it'): show me a language that does not come from a mind. In part three of this series, I hope to show that this riddle is in fact not a riddle at all, but a non-issue that arises from a confusion about the nature of DNA, the nature of language, and the nature of representation. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Net Neutrality

Eripsa made an excellent post about net neutrality and freedom of speech; I couldn't have said it better myself. This is a very important issue right now; I urge you to go read what he has to say.

Tantalizing snippet:

When telecommunications companies argue against net neutrality, they are in effect arguing that they have the right to control the content that flows over ‘their pipes’; that they have the right to have a say the production of content. This is exactly why the net neutrality issue requires government intervention: not to tell the companies what they must do with their pipes, but to tell them what they can’t do with my speech.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

TVSS Proof of Concept!

Those of you who have read my paper Neurobiological Dispositionalism: A Naturalistic Account of Color Perception will recall a lengthy discussion about Bach-y-Rita's hypothetical Tactile-Visual Substitution System (TVSS) device. In short, a TVSS is a device that uses a camera (or something like that) to take in information about the environment, then transmits that information to a human user by way of coded tactile information (timed vibrations, small electrical stimulations, etc.). When Bach-y-Rita wrote about it, the TVSS was (as far as I know) still very much hypothetical--well no longer! Thanks to researchers at the University of Tokyo, we now have a working TVSS, called "haptic radar" by its inventors. Watch the video of it in action, then some discussion:

In the video, the presenters tout the TVSS as a "6th sense;" it is this intuition that I argue against in the section of Nerubiological Dispositionalism, and it is this intuition that I think leads to some very wrong conclusions. Snip from the paper:

What this story [about sensory modalities] perhaps shows most strongly, then, is that the nature of the subjective experience of a color (or indeed any perception at all) enjoys no necessary connection to that quality or object in the environment that causes or produces the experience[1]. Some[2] have postulated that there must be some necessary link between the object represented by the color experience and the representational content itself—that is, that when I perceive an apple as being red, I perceive something that is literally true of the apple: namely, its redness. This example, I think, shows that this notion is fundamentally mistaken; there is nothing in the phenomenal experience that we call our “perception of redness” that has some special metaphysical link to the nature of the red object; to suppose otherwise seems to make one guilty of anthropocentrism in the extreme.

Alva Noë has pointed out in conversation with me that this example might be taken as question-begging—we cannot, he claims, understand color (or any perception) just in terms of what the experience of it is like. To make this point, he invokes Bach-y-Rita’s example of the tactile-visual-substitution-system (TVSS)[3]. The TVSS is, in short, a device that changes data from the “ambient optical array” into tactilely experienced data; the subject wears a video camera on his head, which is connected to electrodes on (say) his tongue. The camera and the electrodes are connected in such a way as to produce an orderly and predictable pattern of tactile stimulation on the tongue when the camera is presented with visual data. Noë notes in his book that “For subjects who are active […] it becomes possible, in a matter of hours, to make quasi-visual perceptual judgments. For example, subjects can report the number, size, spatial arrangement, and so forth of objects at a distance from themselves across the room.”[4] This, Noë claims, should prompt us in the direction of objectivism about visual perception in general (and thus color perception in specific); the TVSS shows (he claims) that what defines visual perception cannot be the phenomenological experience—it is the source of the information being perceived (e.g. light waves), or the mode of interaction between the subject and the environment that makes this definition coherent. My Ups, he objects, come naturally equipped with a kind of TVSS—information about what Gibson might call the “ambient optic array”[5] is translated into certain bodily sensations. I think, however, that there is a certain element of disanalogy here—namely that the Ups are, to reiterate, equipped with such a device naturally, while users of the TVSS rely on technology that is anything but natural.

We might draw an analogy between the TVSS as it has been described and the cane that has been used by the blind for centuries, for what is the TVSS but a more sophisticated way of obtaining information about the environment tactilely? Let us take a moment to consider the similarities. In both cases, information about the environment—information that would be obtained visually by a person with normal visual capabilities—is being obtained tactilely; in the case of the TVSS, this is happening by way of minute electrical signals on the tongue, whereas in the case of the cane it is happening by way of the user sensing contact between the cane and some object. Again, in both of these cases, it seems that the actual mode of perception is tactile; we certainly would not confuse the blind person’s stick as operating as a kind of “new sense” simply because information is being obtained without the stick’s user directly touching any object (aside from the stick itself). Why, then, do we seem to intuit that the TVSS is actually a case of visual perception, rather than an analogous case of (enhanced) tactile perception?

To discern the origin of this intuition, let us now examine the differences between the TVSS as described and the blind person’s stick. Perhaps foremost among these distinctions is the fact that the TVSS seems to employ light as a vital part of the perceptual causal structure, whereas the stick does not. In other words, perhaps the true modality of a given perception depends—at least partially—on the portion of the environment from which the information is obtained; since the TVSS depends on light to function (just as vision does) perhaps we can say that it counts as a case of visual perception. After all, Noë notes that users of the TVSS seem to be able to perceive facts about their environments that otherwise could only be known through a veridical case of visual perception—namely, the size, arrangement, and number of objects at range. However, this definition of “visual perception” as “any mode of perception which depends on light to function” seems to open new difficulties. Consider a scenario in which a person’s vision is rendered unusable (say, as by a blindfold), but instead of being equipped with a TVSS, his environment is simply changed such that there is a very bright light mounted on top of each object, with a brightness corresponding to the object’s size. If these lights were of the proper kind (e.g. incandescent bulbs), it seems that our individual would be equipped to navigate through his environment just as well as an individual equipped with the TVSS simply by sensing the heat emanating from the bulbs, and using that information to form judgments about the size, number, and location of objects. It might be objected at this point that our test subject in the situation just described would not be navigating by any sort of visual sense at all, but only by his tactile sense of heat; I would tend to agree. However, this intuition seems to present a problem for the defenders of the TVSS qua visual perception, as it is not clear why exactly this new case is not analogous; light is playing a causal role here, just as it is in the use of the TVSS, and our new subject can navigate his environment nearly as well (if not just as well) as his TVSS-equipped counter-part.

[1] This statement is somewhat misleading. I do want to say that there is a necessary link between a certain kind of stimulus and the subjective experience produced in an organism with a specific set of biological features. I do not, however, want to admit the point that whatever quality it is in red objects that causes our subjective experience of red has any logically necessary connection to our (i.e. the normal human perceiver’s) experience of red.

[2] John Campbell, 1994; P.M.S. Hacker, 1987

[3] Bach-y-Rita, 1996

[4] Noë, 2004, page 111

[5] Gibson, 1973

Let me reiterate my point a little bit here (ignore the discussion of the Ups and Downs; it refers to another part of my paper, and isn't really relevant for this point), as I realize that the method of presentation in the paper might not be the most appealing for less philosophically inclined readers.

I think it's a mistake to call the TVSS a kind of visual perception (as Alva Noe seems to want to) or a new sense that is neither visual nor tactile (as the Tokyo researchers seem to want to). Instead, it is a device that interacts with the environment in such a way as to provide the wearer with tactile information, which he can then use to infer certain facts about his environment (e.g. that someone's hand is about to touch the back of his head). I compare the TVSS to a blind man's stick--in both cases, information is being obtained tactilely, but without the traditional tactile interaction (i.e. touching the object you're trying to learn about). Just as we wouldn't call the stick a "new sense," we shouldn't call the TVSS--as amazing as it is--anything but a clever melding of IR technology and tactile information transmitters.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

If You Can Read This, You Have Intentionality (But Your DNA Doesn't), Part I: Some Definitions

The promised follow-up to A New (Bad) Argument: I'm discovering that I have quite a lot to say about this, and since I want to approach what Perry Marshall has said in the most philosophically rigorous way possible (at least given the medium), this post is going to be broken into multiple parts. Marshall calls his talk "If You Can Read This, I Can Prove God Exists," and the title is (obviously) a take off on that. Once again, I urge you to go read and/or listen to the talk before continuing on here--while I will explain Marshall's argument as much as necessary, he should be able to represent his own ideas himself. Before I begin my critique, I'd like to commend Marshall on a very clever and (as far as I know) original argument; it isn't often that I see a purely philosophical (i.e. non-Biblical) case for Intelligent Design, and creativity in argumentation (even when the arguer is wrong) ought to be commended. Unfortunately for Marshall, it seems to me that he has only a shallow understanding of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language (not to mention computational linguistics, evolutionary biology, and molecular biology), and many of his problems arise from this shallow understanding. I'm going to do my best to point out precisely where I think he goes wrong, and to offer at least a sketch of my own theory of meaning/representation in the process.

Marshall is arguing primarily (by his own admission) against a naturalistic worldview, so let's start by defining just what that means. A naturalistic account (contrast with a supernaturalistic account) is one that seeks to explain phenomena in natural (if not materialistic) terms. It is worth emphasizing that materialism and naturalism are not necessarily synonymous--I hold exclusively naturalistic views, but I would be somewhat hesitant to call myself a materialist, simply because of some of the dogma that tends to surround the term (e.g. that the mind "just is" the brain). For the sake of discussion, let's just define "naturalism" as "any worldview that explicitly affirms that any factor F that plays a causal role in any system S is ultimately causally reducible to a natural (i.e. describable by physics) phenomenon. Thus, a naturalistic account of (say) color perception (heh) would describe color perception purely in terms of natural (again, for lack of a better synonym let's say by natural we mean "physical") processes. This isn't exactly right (in my opinion), but it is close enough for our current discussion. For a slightly more lengthy account, see metaphysical naturalism. I'm sure Eripsa will howl about any oversights I've made.

It's important to contrast this (naturalism) to the worldview that Marshall is trying to advance; while he never explicitly (as far as I can remember) describes his account as "supernaturalism," that is in fact what he is advancing; he wants to articulate a worldview in which the physical universe is not causally closed; in other words, physical reality can be influenced by ghosts, spirits, souls, and non-physical deities. Strike one, Mr. Marshall.

At its heart, Marshall's argument for the claim that life must have been designed is a psycho-linguistic one; he's arguing for his claim on the basis of the way symbols (e.g. the little marks on the screen in front of you) acquire meaning. It should be obvious to most people that the series of pixels "the cat is on the mat" has absolutely no intrinsic meaning--that is, there's nothing physical about that particular arrangement of pixels that makes it have anything to do with cats, mats, or the relationship between the two. It is only by virtue of the fact that we (i.e. humans) have minds with intentionality (in other words, minds with the ability to have states like beliefs and desires which are "about" something) that purely physical symbols come to represent something. Marshall gets this right.

It occurs to me that I should probably say a few words about intentionality, since it's a concept that is inevitably going to come up over and over again in this discussion (not to mention a pretty confusing idea). First, forget everything you know about the English word "intention;" the word "intentionality" comes from a Latin root that is (for the most part) unrelated to the modern-day colloquial meaning of "intention" or "intentional." In short, the philosophical meaning of "intentionality" is "the property of having aboutness or directedness." The paradigmatic examples of so-called "intentional states" are beliefs and desires; these examples were not chosen randomly, and it is pretty easy to see what is meant by "aboutness" or "directedness" when you consider these two terms. Both beliefs and desires must have objects--it doesn't make sense to say "I believe" or "I desire." I must, in other words, always desire something or believe something (similarly with considering, wondering, hoping, fearing, etc.). It is worth mentioning that not all mental states are necessarily intentional: anxiety, for example, does not necessarily require an object--I can be anxious without being anxious about something.

Of course this is a very rough sketch of a complex concept, and is greatly simplified; again, however, it should be sufficient for our discussion of Marshall's work. If you're interested in more about this very deep concept, I'd recommend this book by John Searle.

This concept is significantly more powerful than it may first appear, as it is essential in our capacity to represent--to create symbols, in other words. Symbols (e.g. 'the cat is on the mat') are only symbols if they represent (i.e. are about) something other than themselves. Thus, the concept of intentionality is central in Marshall's thesis.

Whew, I think that's enough for starters; more to come tomorrow.

Mother Theresa the Atheist?

This is amazing! As an ardent atheist, I've often heard the argument that without God, moral action is not possible--an absolutely incredible counter example has arisen. According to newly discovered letters, Mother Theresa--famous and tireless activist for the poor, Catholic saint, and all around incredibly good person--was "plagued by doubts" about the existence of God, and may have spent more than half her life as an unbeliever. The letters are full of gems like: "Where is my faith? Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness... If there be God — please forgive me." and "What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true."

Again, incredible. Though she came to doubt the existence of God, she continued to labor for the good of others to great detriment to herself. Take that, Christian apologists!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Eripsa Speaks

Here's Eripsa's response to my request that he say something philosophical about Google. I haven't read all of it yet, and will make a response sometime (I'm in the middle of responding to Marshall's thing right now...) when I get to it. Thanks, Eripsa, for contributing!

I should start by saying that I like the Google example, not because I think it is the pinnacle of what search should be, but simply because it is an intelligent machine that we interact with every day and don't give it a second thought. Philosophers like these kinds of 'its right in front of your nose!' examples.

But the problem of search is much bigger than just Google. One of my profs really wants me to use Searchlight as my core example, but I will always be a PC guy (even if Vista sucks). In any case, it might be instructive in this context to compare Google to other search engines.

Take Powerset, for example. The on how Powerset is attempting to use some fancy natural language processing techniques that came out of Xerox PARC to beat Google at its own game.

I've often argued that Google is a language user, but Powerlabs is exactly right to assert that Google doesn't use natural language; it isn't a user like us. But how much does that matter?

My initial reaction is that Powerlabs shouldn't pretend it is in competition with Google (even if it wants a share of Google's market); it is really serving a different kind of function. There are certain kinds of questions that Google is bad at answering because of its inability to understand natural language, but there are other kinds of questions that I really just want a machine to answer. When I know exactly what I am looking for, a couple of keywords and boolean operators will often work in a way that flummoxes natural language. To put the point as simply as possible: When I am doing a difficult math problem, sometimes it is easier to consult a calculator than to ask my math professor.

This is why I think the Google example is instructive: it shows how malleable our own minds are in conforming to the technological situation around us. There are certainly cases where Google's inability to use natural language hampers productivity, sure, but that hasn't stopped people from exploiting its existing utility. The problems arise when people take the differences between us and our machines as signs of a deficiency in our machines.

In any case, it will be very interesting to watch how search continues to evolve as our technology develops, and as we learn how humans interact with machines. I think a solution like Powerset is bound to be part of search in the near future, but our expectations of technology often wildly diverge from our expectations of other humans, so I think it is a fundamental mistake to think that a technological solution requires building machines more like us.

... How's that?

Wrong, but we'll get to that ;)

A New (Bad) Argument

I've been doing work in the area of philosophy of religion for some time now, so it isn't often that I come across an argument I've never heard. Perry Marshall has put out an MP3 of a talk he gave in 2005 in which he argues that life must be intelligently designed because DNA has intrinsic intentionality, much like the English language (so he claims). More on this tomorrow (including a detailed rebuttal, I hope, because he seems to misunderstand almost every subject he brings up), but for now I urge you to check it out, and read/listen to the talk.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Happy Birthday, Google!

Ten years ago tomorrow (September 15, 1997), two young men by the names of Larry Page and Sergey Brin registered the domain name Today, Google is a giant of the online community, and is reputedly getting ready to break into the mobile phone market. Google itself is one of the most sophisticated software systems in existence (particularly of those accessible to millions of people worldwide), and has undoubtedly changed the way we use the internet--not to mention the rest of the way we live. My friend Eripsa does a lot of philosophical work with Google, so I'm going to invite him to post something here for discussion. Let's see if he complies.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Kathy Griffin, Awesome as Ever

Comedian Kathy Griffin recently won an Emmy for her reality-ish show "My Life on the D-List." It's pretty witty and often very humorous, so good for her. The interesting thing, though, is how she closed her acceptance speech:

A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. Suck it, Jesus, this award is my god now!
Alas, although as an ardent (albeit alliterative) atheist I really want to praise her for this, I'm not sure I can. Of course I fully support what she said--Jesus can suck it, and people who attribute their own successes to some supernatural being are fools--but I don't know if the awards ceremony was really the proper venue. In the interest of parity, I feel like I'm not justified in saying that (on one hand) it is not appropriate to proselytize from an award ceremony podium while on the other hand broadcasting one's distaste for Christianity is just fine--in other words, no god during speeches, and no anti-god during speeches.

However, I can see the other side too: why shouldn't award recipients be allowed to say whatever they want? If it is acceptable for other recipients to say "Thank you Jesus for this award," why isn't it acceptable for Griffin to say "Jesus had nothing to do with this award." I suppose the answer to that is the particular vitriol with which she made her point, and perhaps that I can understand. Still, she is a comedian, remember, and people shouldn't be taking her words as seriously as some are.

In the end, I suppose Griffin should be commended for her act of consciousness-raising, even if it was done in a rather ham-handed fashion. It takes courage to be an atheist (even in Hollywood, I imagine), and broadcasting your lack of faith to the world is not an easy thing to do. We need more people with the courage to "come out."

What do you think? Should Griffin praised for her words? Blamed?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Osama bin Language

This is probably in really bad taste, but that doesn't usually stop me. The following is reproduced from Mind Hacks, and was far too excellent for me not to post here:

Silent for three years, Osama Bin Laden just released a video tape in which he name drops academic Noam Chomsky, suggesting that while in hiding, he's become familiar with the American researcher's extensive work.

Exclusively, Mind Hacks publishes a deleted section from an earlier draft of Bin Laden's latest speech that lays out his demands for the science of linguistics:

People of America: while the cognitive revolution started within your own shores and changed the face of the world, it seems the lessons of the destruction of behaviourism have not been learnt.

Through the careful analysis of Chomsky, it was clear that language could not be entirely accounted for by the influence of environment and culture on a general learning mechanism. While some heeded the messages, some of your brethren remained unconvinced.

Now that the spector of connectionism has raised its ugly head and has been inappropriately glorified by the power of technological corporations, our understanding of the role of transformational grammars in language development is threatened.

And I tell you, artificial intelligence is a false god that provides correlative and not causal models of language acquisition. The infallible methodologies are the comparative study of world languages and lesion analyses of those who must be treated with mercy owing to their acquired dysphasias.

Those who stray from the path will be doomed to repeated the errors of the empty vessels of strict behaviourism and the Standard Social Science Model. Every just and intelligent one of you who reflect on this will be guided to the truth.

Rumours that Steven Pinker has been taken in for questioning have not been verified.

If you think this is as funny as I do, we should probably talk.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Nothing Much Happening

Things have been boring in the blogosphere for the last few days. Ho hum...

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Retracting the Extended Mind Thesis (Part II)

Eripsa gave such lengthy and salient comments on my last post that I felt obligated to post them here for all to see (and for me to respond to). Spake he:

Not even Andy Clark believes the internet counts as an extension of the mind. Implanting a chip into your head doesn't change the epistemological relations one has to the information in one's environment.

Clark and Chalmers give explicit criteria that specify when an external resource counts as an extension of the mind. They call it the parity principle:

"If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head, we would have no hesitation in accepting as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (for that time) part of the cognitive process."

In other words, not everything that is functionally identical to mindware counts as a mind extension. It has to be primed for use in just the right way. Otto's notebook counts as memory not just because it store information functionally similar to his biological memory. In fact, the notebook isn't really functionally identical to his biological memory at all. But it counts as a mind extension because Otto automatically consults in in normal circumstances, and immediately accepts the information stored there, and these epistemological and phenomenological relationships are identical to Inga's use of her biological memory.

So yeah, if someone gets Alzheimer's disease, it is little consolation to hand them a notebook and say "you'll be fine". That's because the person isn't used to using a notebook as an extension of their mind.

But consider the opposite case, for instance when you lose your cell phone, or your computer breaks, and how helpless you feel without it. That feeling is roughly analogous to situations when people lose their memory, or a limb, because they understand their world in terms of having those resources constantly available for use.

In other words, I think your objections (and the objections on the other blog) completely miss the point of the extended mind.

Seriously. Read some Clark. Being There and Mindware are extremely compelling.

First of all, that definition seems way too loose for my taste; it smacks of the SCOTUS definition of pornography ("I can't define it but I'll know it when I see it"). A definition along the lines of the one Eripsa attributes (correctly, I assume) to Clark seems to weaken the thesis as it is intended to be--it seems to admit an important tie between cognitive processes and the fact that those processes are going on "in the head."

My point here is that if we're going to argue about this, I feel like we need a more rigorous definition as to what precisely we mean by a "cognitive process;" if extended mind proponents are going to win the day, it also seems like that definition can't have anything to do with such processes being in the head.

Now on to the other points. So if I'm understanding you correctly, what counts as part of my mind depends on what I think counts as part of my mind? Once again, the point seems either flat out wrong or trivially true, depending on how you look at it--sure, I understand the world in terms of having my cell phone available for my use, but is that really all it takes to make it part of my mind? I understand my world in terms of the fact that I'm wearing pants, too, and I'd probably feel just as naked (ha ha) if my pants disappeared as if my phone did, but are pants part of my mind? You'll probably object that my pants play no role in "cognitive processes," but again I'd ask for a tight definition as to just what that means--I could probably make a case for my "cognitive processes" being impeded by the knowledge that everyone is staring at my naked ass, and thus for pants playing a vital role in those processes.

As to Otto's notebook, I'm not sure what you mean when you say that it is "phenomenologically identical" to Inga's memory; it seems to me that no two things could be more phenomenologically disparate than consulting external documentation and internal memory.

I'll admit that I don't know as much about this topic as Eripsa does, so his charge that I'm missing the point with my objections might be accurate (but I doubt it). I'll pick up those books he recommended, and would urge readers to do the same.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Retracting the Extended Mind Thesis

Jack Josephy, over at the supremely excellent Issues in Philosophy of Mind blog did a piece today about the extended mind thesis. It was quite good, and did a nice job (in my opinion) of remaining skeptical about a very much in vogue (but probably wrong) idea while still giving it a convincing exposition.

The extended mind thesis basically states that we're in error if we think that our mind "ends" at the boundary of our skull. The original formulation (by Andy Clark and David Chalmers) offers a thought experiment as intuitive evidence for this claim. Suppose, they say, that there is a man named Otto who is afflicted with mild Alzheimer's disease. Otto knows that he has significant memory problems, and so carries with him a notebook and pencil at all times. When he learns some new piece of significant information (e.g. the address of a restaurant he wants to visit), he writes that information in his notebook. He keeps the notebook very well organized so that when he wants to find some piece of stored information, he can flip right to it. Now, argue Clark and Chalmers, is it not fair to say that Otto's notebook plays the same role to him that a "normal" person's biologically based memory does? Just as I can be said to believe "Blondie's Pizza is at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Channing Street" even when I'm not actively thinking about the location of Blondie's Pizza, Otto can be said to really believe the same thing when it is written down in his notebook.

Put this way, the extended mind thesis seems obviously false to me. The only reason Otto needs his notebook in the first place is because there is something wrong with his memory. To reiterate: the notebook, while perhaps fulfilling a functional role similar to that of normal biological memory is only necessary precisely because his memory has failed him. The notebook is nothing more (or less) than an external tool to help him live with a disability, but it is no more memory than a cane is a third leg.

However, Mr. Josephy raises an example that seems a little less cut and dry. Snip from his post:

The idea is that as technology evolves so does our cognition and our ability to process information efficiently. It probably isn’t going to that long till we all have decent internet on our phones, thus when you’re in the middle of town and you want to know someone you can just get your mobile out, open Google, search and there you go. The interesting question follows: Does the internet (which you now always have near immediate access to) count as part of your mind or at least your knowledge base. Most of course would answer no, just as they wouldn’t count a bit of paper with a number on it as part of your mind.

However yet further into the future there’s a good chance that people will be able to get chips in their brain that wires them up to the internet so they have immediate access at any time. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but I don’t think it can be ruled out. It’s certainly possible in principle and as technology evolves so will society’s values. Even if it never happens, the thought experiment is still there. Does the knowledge on the internet count as yours; does your mind extend into it? It’s hard to argue no unless you say the mind is only linked to the biological brain or you believe in a soul. Such a situation would mean you had the same instant access to information on the internet as you did with your biological brain. Such an invention, to coin a Jungian term, might well lead to an “unconscious collective”, or in fact better phrased; a “Conscious Collective”. Of course it may turn out that this never happens or that its impossible, but it does raise a very interesting point on the boundaries of the mind.

This does indeed raise a very interesting point, and it's one that I'm more hesitant about dismissing outright. Still, though, my intuition is that even with such a chip, the contents of the internet would not count as contents of my mind. Let's extend the Otto analogy a bit. Suppose that in addition to having Alzheimer's, Otto also has the misfortune of having lost his eyesight in an industrial accident. Now, suppose that with the advent of future technology there is a way for us to overcome Otto's blindness by way of surgically implanting artificial eyes in his skull. Suppose Otto has this operation and, upon its completion, the doctors hand Otto a notebook, telling him "With these eyes, your memory problems are over! We've given you the means to directly access a vast source of information and have it transmitted directly into your mind. All you have to do is point your fancy new ocular implants at this notebook, and anything you've recorded in it will be immediately apprehensible to you."

I've already made a case for why it would be unsatisfactory to make such a claim as this, but given this formulation the analogy with the wifi chip seems strong--by implanting such a chip, science will have given me the ability to (roughly) perceive in a new modality, and to access new information with that modality. However, just as giving someone a notebook and the physical capability to make use of it does not count as extending his mind, giving someone a wifi chip and access to Google doesn't seem to count either.

Faster than DRM

Cory Doctorow (of BoingBoing fame) wrote an excellent article for the SF Guardian today about the impossibility of true DRM. For the uninitiated, DRM stands for "Digital Rights Management," and is the five-dollar term the corporations use for copy protection on movies, games, and music. It's been failing miserably since around the advent of Napster way back in the day, but its failure is picking up steam. Cory's article is an excellent introduction (written for the lay person) about why true DRM is as much a pipe dream as faster than light travel--maybe even more so. I suggest everyone read it; it's quite short, and will let you know what the hell all the geeks are so upset about.


My High School Science Project (Revisited)

I find the phenomenon of synaesthesia utterly fascinating. For those not familiar with it, synaesthesia is a class of related neurological...hmm..."disorders" isn't quite the right word...let's go with "phenomena" that have to do with the interplay between different sensory modalities. The most common manifestation of synaesthesia is grapheme-color synaesthesia, in which numbers or letters (and sometimes equations) are tied to particular visual experiences (e.g. color and/or shape). Many people with grapheme-color synaesthesia are able to make use of their condition, and find it very helpful when working with numbers and letters; and their ability to "translate" strings of characters into color-based experiences lets them memorize and work with those characters very easily.

Via the excellent (and aptly named) blog Neurophilosophy, I found out today about new research by Jamie Ward indicating that everyone has synaesthesia to some degree or another, but only some people are conscious of the connection between their modalities.

This is a visual rendition of the Wagner Opera Lohengrin, as depicted by synaesthete Wassily Kandinsky.

When I was in high school, we had to do science fair projects. One year, I did a project called "What Color Do You Hear?" In that project, I recorded a variety of common (and less common) sounds, played them for a variety of subjects, and asked them what color they would most closely associate with each sound. I got a few funny looks while doing it, but virtually no one said that they had no idea what I was talking about. This seems to lend credence to Ward's idea that everyone has a degree of synaesthesia.

Additionally, I've since learned that almost all synaesthetes with grapheme-color type synaesthesia "see" the letter 'A' as red. One of the sounds I played was the note 'A' (440 Hz) on a violin; it was overwhelmingly perceived as red. I wonder what the significance (if any) is of that?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Yet Another Reason Why I Rock

Here is a fascinatingly in-depth explanation of why the violin is so much harder to play than most (read: virtually all non-stringed) instruments. If you're thinking "frets," you're wrong. Warning, fairly heady math content...

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Tattoos and Pain Threshold

Some of you might know that I've wanted to get a tattoo for quite some time. Until recently, though, certain intervening circumstances prevented me from acting on this desire. With the recent departure of said circumstances, I've now got a tattoo. Well, I've now got MOST of a tattoo; it still needs about 45 minutes of touch up. My first session was a few weeks ago and took about two hours; the artist did the outlines, as well as the text. I don't want to go into too much detail till I post a picture, which will happen as soon as I leave my apartment today and get someone to photograph it for me (it's on my back and I can't seem to get the angle right). Last night, I had a second three hour (or so) session, which consisted of coloring it in and shading it.

The first session was reasonably painful--more painful than I'd expected, in fact--and I knew the second would be worse. In preparation for the coloring session, I took 100 mg of morphine. Research today revealed that the tablets I took were in fact time release and designed for long term pain management, which might help explain my observations.

My father told me that I was a pussy for taking pain killers before a tattoo session, a charge to which I readily admitted. I have a low pain threshold, and I mean REALLY low. Those who know me particularly well can attest to this. The question that occurred to me while I was having needles jammed into my back for three hours was this: what does it mean to have a low pain tolerance? Suppose you and I both go in for the same tattoo, and get it in the same place. We both report pain, but I report the intensity as (say) a 7, and you report it as (say) a 4. What's going on here? It's clear that pain, as a quale, is an inherently subjective phenomenon, and trying to make it objective by way of such a scale is difficult at best; still, it does seem reasonable to assert, given out behavior (shut up, Dan) that we're experiencing different levels of discomfort.

Part of this is undoubtedly attributable to facts about the differences between my central nervous system and yours--maybe you have fewer nerves on your back than I do, but is that all there is to it? Let's think of another example: suppose we try to equalize our intensity reports. We fire up our trusty Pain Machine, and take turns at it. Suppose that, just by correlating our reports (which is really the best we can do at this point) we find out that I report an intensity of 7 at setting 4, and you report the same intensity at setting 6. Now, is it really fair to say that I have a lower tolerance for pain? It seems at least possible that both of us are experiencing precisely the same sensations (or close enough to call them the same), so what is it exactly that I have a lower tolerance for? It's true that a different stimulation will produce a different level of sensation in me than in you, but if that is true then we're both experiencing the same level of pain, albeit as a result of different causal factors.

Is it really fair, then, to say that I have a low pain tolerance?

Here's the tattoo in all its glory: