Monday, January 31, 2011


I think each person has in them an impulse toward the light and an impulse toward the dark. I don't mean good and evil necessarily, but I suppose that's part of it. By "light" I mean "clear" and by "dark" I mean "confused".

If you're clear about who you really are—what you value, what truly has meaning to you, and what your life is about—then that very act of self-consciousness will propel you toward those things. That part of yourself will become stronger, and you'll begin to reject the things that send you into darkness and confusion or whatever else is against your intrinsic nature.

And when bad things do happen, they'll hurt and inconvenience you, but you won't be capsized by them, because your life has purpose and direction. You know you're on the road toward something much larger and more profound, so a temporary setback doesn't have as much meaning.

It's all kind of Spinozist, I guess. I've often thought Spinoza was right about a great many things.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Some Principles of Action

  1. Understand intelligence and its role in the world from a cosmological perspective. Because only when you understand it from a cosmological perspective will you be motivated to act, even when there are setbacks and things seem bleak. I would say this is the most important part. If you have trouble with philosophy, then embrace an appropriate religion, one that emphasizes compassion toward all sentient beings and in which there is a higher power who sides with the oppressed against the oppressors.
  2. Support or build anything that furthers these values. This isn't "activism" in the ordinary sense of going to protests or getting pieces of paper signed. You can build the right kind of civilization in a lot of different ways. You should always support transparency and fairness in political processes, no matter what. For instance, support giving broad powers to IAEA inspectors in Iran, but more importantly, support giving those same powers to inspectors in the United States—not to punish the United States, but because if we do it, then that means everyone else will have to do it too.
  3. Create and share knowledge in all its forms: literary, musical, scientific, philosophical, technological, visual, etc. Don't hoard knowledge; share it. Our ability to share knowledge is growing exponentially. It's a tremendous opportunity. Don't just share information. Think about it and relate it back to the broader picture: the story of our civilization and the essential conflicts in it. Oppose totalitarianism in all its forms. Always support individual rights.
  4. Don't just go to protests. Protests are for old liberals stuck in the 60s and for anarchists hate technology and who juggle and do puppet shows. It's occasionally useful as a tactic, but mostly it's mouthwash for leftists, something to make them feel fresh.
  5. Don't spend the majority of your time "critiquing" things. Of course one should be critical, i.e., use critical reasoning, in all things which are really worthwhile. But do it in the service of something constructive. Create knowledge and avenues of action with it. Don't use it to create despair or to make yourself feel powerless. Powerlessness is an illusion. Never in all of human history have individuals had more power to change the world.
  6. Never martyr yourself or sacrifice yourself to a degree which is unreasonable. There is nothing noble in being oppressed or deprived. Remain aware of unfairness and privilege. Side with those who are treated unfairly against those who treat them that way. Always look for creative ways to use knowledge to subvert unfairness. But just because you're part of a privileged strata of society does not mean that all there is for you to do is to renounce your privilege and take up the cause of someone less privileged. People who come from a reasonably comfortable background and go to liberal arts colleges come away thinking (a) the world and everyone in it is screwed, (b) they're bad unless they're screwed too, and (c) the only thing you can do to redeem yourself is renounce privilege. This is the liberal arts school view of the world. It's pure preachy moralizing with no connection to reality. Ignore it.

    There's actually a lot you can do as a "privileged" person, and it doesn't require you taking the equivalent of friar's vows. (I really don't like the word "privileged"—try using that word with a lower-middle-class or working class family just because they happen to be white and see what kind of reaction you get. It's a bad strategy. It's a bad tactic.) Going to college gives you the ability to do knowledge-work. You can study part of the system as a whole—or even the system itself—and look for more avenues for action and intervention. There are a lot of things you can do once you move beyond self-flagellation.
  7. There are so many avenues for positive action that there is no excuse for doing nothing. But I think the key to everything else is starting with the right perspective, the perspective of intelligence. If you believe we're living in a meaningless universe or that, as an individual with a modicum of awareness, you're like the last living survivor of a zombie apocalypse, you're going to have a really hard time doing anything besides laying in bed, drinking, or whining.
  8. Sometimes less information is better than more. For example, if you read the news thoroughly every day, you're liable to form a skewed picture of what the world is like. The news of the day is always negative. You need to step back from that and take in, not necessarily more information, but a broader perspective. Creating knowledge sometimes requires us to destroy information or at least ignore it. That's how your mind recognizes things like faces or furniture—it destroys the background data and focuses on the pattern. That's what you need to allow your mind to do with our civilization and with some of human history.
  9. The universe is intelligent, not dumb, i.e., it is part of its nature to give rise to more intelligent processes. Conscious moral awareness is therefore at home in the world. Making the world reflect our values is not a hopeless cause. It's the being of history itself. We're here for a reason—not one preordained by a higher power, whatever that means, but one given to us by ourselves for our own care and use.
  10. That any of us exists at all is a mystery. That we exist now is very strange. We live in a time of unprecedented promise and peril. There probably has never existed a more important or interesting time to be alive. That's knowledge worth using.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dialectics for beginners (or not)

While I was running today (yes, I'm insane enough to run in this weather), I was thinking about how I might explain dialectics to someone who knows nothing about it. It's actually not that difficult. Most of what follows is from Scott Meikle's Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx, though a lot of it comes from things I've read here and there.

Dialectics is a theory about (a) what exists and (b) how it exists. According to dialectics, entities are the sorts of things which exist. They have essences, and those essences are concepts which necessitate the life cycles of those entities.

A lot of words. Let's dig into it a little.

From a dialectical point of view, the basic units of being are entities. This contrasts with atomism, according to which the basic units of being are "atoms" (or quarks or whatever subatomic particles or forces you like). Briefly, atomism is the idea that an entity's being is defined by whatever it is composed of. Let's assume for a moment that there is one, unified theory of all of physics which we have yet to discover. From the point of view of that theory, there is no difference between interstellar dust and a human being. It's all described ultimately by the same laws. Those laws constitute "beingness". There is nothing else to say about being other than what is contained in those mathematical laws.

This contrasts with dialectics. Dialectics starts from an everyday point of view in which things like tables, chairs, supernovae, and days of the week are distinct, real things. To say that a chair can prevent me from falling into the middle of the earth because of quantum chromodynamics is a real, deep insight from the dialectical point of view. It's more than a mere social convention to say that; it's a profound insight into being. However, the macro-reality itself—the medium-sized dry goods like tables, chairs, and stars—exerts its own kind of cause.

To get what dialectics is about, it helps to start with living things. Dialectics isn't a new theory. It's not some weird off-shoot of 19th century thought. It's actually the oldest philosophical theory, going back to Plato, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Buddha, and the Upanishads. The first scientific thoughts about the world all arise in Eurasia along roughly the same line of latitude at roughly the same time. All these thinkers are trying to understand beingness itself, or, what is the same thing for them, living nature. The starting and ending points for them are the same: life.

In keeping with this orientation—and as a means of making dialectics concrete—we could ask: What is a human being?

From an atomistic point of view, there might ultimately be no answer to this question. A human being is a species of living thing, though all biological laws ultimately reduce to physical laws. And the same physical laws govern biological systems as govern non-biological ones. It's all atoms in the void interacting in accordance with very complex mathematical laws. Those laws are abstract, and they're indifferent to their content. It matters little whether we're talking about stellar fusion or getting a suntan. It's all pretty much the same thing.

But dialectics takes a different approach, one more oriented toward common sense. From a dialectical point of view, a human being is not just a species; it is a member of a family, hominidae, which is in turn part of an order, primate, which is in turn part of a kingdom, animalia, which is one of the main branches of life itself.

So whatever it means to be a "human being", to that concept also belongs what it means to (a) be alive, (b) be an animal, (c) be a primate, and (d) be a hominid. The essence of the human is defined, in part, the conceptual hierarchy into which "human" is placed.

Of course, to be a human is more than to be a great ape. According to Aristotle, man is a "reasoning animal", meaning (on one interpretation) he is an animal, but in addition to that he reasons. In a more modern spirit we might add that humans are animals that can know their own thoughts.

What makes up the essence of something is open-ended. One cannot rightfully claim from a dialectical point of view that we have to know, without doubt, the essence of everything. (Quite the opposite.) The point is that macro-entities—the sorts of things we see and deal with every day—are real things, and there is something it really means to be those things. They don't just reduce to their component parts and blend into one another. What something is is its essence, and we can articulate that essence using concepts which are organized into things like genus and species or wholes and parts. Dialectics, therefore, is an essentialist holism.

Now wait a second, you might say. All this sounds very modern—except that we know that living things do not have immutable essences. Human beings did not always exist. They evolved from other life-forms. In fact, they're still evolving—just like every other living thing—in accordance with mechanical laws. So one thing really does bleed into another. Inorganic matter evolved into living matter. Living matter evolved into multicellular organisms. Those evolved into vertebrates and eventually primates. We are primates, and we're evolving into something else. There are no "essences" here, just different states of "matter", whatever that is, transforming into other states of matter.

This is absolutely true, and this is the other insight of dialectics. To be is to be becoming something else.

Think for a moment about what it means to be a human being or really any living thing. Every living thing—or most of them we know about—has a life cycle. It's born, it lives, and it dies. The ancients saw this clearly, and they dealt with it in a number of ways. The essence of any living thing—say, a human being—is just the characteristic way in which it is born, lives, and dies. The Greek word for this was ergon, which we translate as "work". It makes up part of Aristotle's word for being, which was energeia. In other words, to be is to be born, to live, and to die. To be any particular thing is to be born, to live, and to die in the way characteristic of that particular thing. Obviously people are born, live, and die in ways different from how cats or amoeba do it. That's why we say they're different sorts of things.

The ancients did not know about evolution. Neither did Hegel. I'm not going to claim that dialectics somehow entails evolution. It doesn't. But it's not incompatible with it, so far as I can see. In fact, I think that as an ontology, dialectics is more compatible with evolution than atomism. From the dialectical point of view it makes sense to speak about species are real, existing things; and from the dialectical point of view, it makes sense to conceptually specify those beings in terms from their origins (what they evolved from) and their destinations (what they're evolving into).

So there are two directions I could go from here. One would be to talk about society from a dialectical point of view (that is, to talk about society as an organism or something organism-like with an essence); the other is to talk more about humanity itself and its destiny regarding technology. The first path is the typical Aristotlean-Marxist one. The second one hasn't been traversed too much. There are hints of it in Kurzweil's writings. He doesn't deal with things from an explicitly dialectical point of view, but his emphasis on patterns suggests it. I don't think patterns are anything other than essences, that is, concept which are real and which really determine the course some entity follows in its typical life-path. Kurzweil implicitly regards concepts as real. He doesn't seem to be an atomist, in other words, which is part of what drew me into his writings in the first place.

But unfortunately it's late, and this is already very long. Hopefully this gives some idea of what dialectics about. In short, it is essentialist holism. Organic wholes are the things which truly exist. These entities are ultimately their essences. An essence is what a thing truly is. But when we speak of an essence, we really mean the ergon, or the typical life and death of a thing. To be is to have a characteristic way of being born, of living, and of dying. All is in flux, as Heraclitus said; but everything is in flux in its own particular way, as defined by its essence.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Surrogates (2009)

Unfortunately one of the problems with knowing about the law of accelerating returns is that you can see how unimaginative most science fiction plots are. Case in point: I watched Surrogates tonight starring Bruce Willis. It's about a future in which people can interact with the world via remote controlled robots while they stay at home.

Now, a typical inner (or outer, irate) monologue of mine while watching some movies might be: "What's that thing on his head? Is that a football? Why is it blinking and sparking like that? Is it running Windows? Wait a second ... that's the INTERNET?! What's he doing with the internet on his head like that?"

Surrogates didn't present this problem, because the internet doesn't appear in it. This is an advanced, futuristic version of our society—and there's no internet. It's just left out of the story! In the future, people make use of really expensive robots to interact with the physical world, but they have no apparent relationship with, you know, the entirety of human knowledge. There are no search engines. No neural implants. People use their computers to ... work in hair salons and drive cars.

I mean, if I had all that technological power, that's what I'd do. I'd just go to work. Duh.

You can do cool stuff with the robots like jump over buildings, climb walls, and kick the shit out of other robots. All the robots are also really hot, because really, why would you have an ugly surrogate? But that just ensured that it remained glued to shallow action movie clichés. I mean, after The Matrix, you're really going to have a futuristic movie in which people aren't hot and don't bounce off walls? Who would watch it?

The other thing that astounded me was the complete absence of artificial intelligence. It's a society so technologically advanced that we can create perfectly realistic humanoid robots—which have to be controlled by actual human beings.

There's a scene in this movie where the FBI puts out a search warrant for a murderer. The murderer is spotted just moments later by a robot watching footage from a surveillance camera. Another character remarks, "Oh yeah, that's so-and-so. He really lives in Maine and is paid to watch that TV all day to spot people we're looking for."

Okay, reality check. The computer in my pocket—the one which is the size of half a ham sandwich—can identify people by their faces without any input from me at all. In fact, Facebook decided not to include that feature on the app, because it presented a privacy issue. (I know, irony.) And you're telling me that 20 years from now we need to pay a person to sit there and look through footage to find someone on video? "But he lives in Maine!"

The movie degenerated into every action-movie, anti-technology cliché at the end. "What button do I press?!" "If I don't press this button, mankind will die!" "Should I push the button?!" "Oh, the moral dilemma!"

Did none of the writers stop and ask, "Wait—do we really need buttons in the future?" Or how about: "Do we really use buttons all that much now?" A button!

So we have a movie about the future in which there's no internet, there's no artificial intelligence, keyboards can end the human race, and there are these robots that people use to do pretty much exactly what they do now. Oh, and people still use Dell desktops in the future. With shitty 15" flatscreen monitors that I could probably pick out of the trash. I forgot that part.

I had originally planned at this point to write something positive about the movie's portrayal of human alienation in a technological society, but I just can't bring myself to do it. At least when Caprica did that, they had it take place in virtual reality, which is arguably more relevant to the future than what this movie did. (Yeah, I watched Caprica. Shut up.)

In short, while visually compelling, this movie was one lousy cliché from top to bottom. I give it a C-.


A year ago I predicted we'd find 116 exoplanets by NYE 2010. We ended up finding 106.

My prediction for this year is 160.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


On the ride into work today I was thinking about some of the Great MysteriesTM. Things like, "Why does anything exist?" or "What the hell is up with quantum mechanics?"

I've always been partial to the mysteries surrounding consciousness and personal identity. Yes, things like quantum entanglement are weird and interesting, but for me they don't pack the same punch I feel when I think about how there could be something like consciousness. All the mysteries about the physical universe seem to concern the same basic sort of "stuff". But the idea that there should be a non-extended, subjective, first-person-only viewpoint on things is really strange.

Even stranger than that—at least in my opinion—is that there should be something like personal identity. I say "like" because we're not even sure what we're dealing with here. The paradoxes of subjectivity creep me out a lot more than the paradoxes of quantum mechanics.

For instance, each of us has the immediate impression of being a continuous person through time, each at the center of their own experience. I not only have memories of being a 6 year old. I also have the intuition that the self who perceived, thought, and lived as a 6 year old is the same person who perceives, thinks, and lives now. It's not as though my "soul" "died" at some point along the way and was replaced by a new one. It's still "me". Part of what it means to be conscious or to be a consciousness is that a whole set of things are mine and are always only mine—in principle.

And yet what is this "me"? Whatever goes on in the mind—be it perception, consciousness, the sense of self, etc.—is at least caused by (if not identical with) what happens in the brain. And yet the contents of those neurons are being turned over all the time, and the cells themselves are also replaced over the course of months or years. None of the atoms composing me as a child are in my body now. If there's nothing permanent in me that is physical, then how could there be anything permanent in me that is subjective, either?

Sartre argued for the same outcome, though he did so from a phenomenological rather than a physical perspective. In his essay "The Transcendence of the Ego" he argues that intentionality is the sole structure of consciousness. It's the "aboutness" of consciousness that makes it what it is, not that it belongs to an ego. There could be an ego in consciousness, like when I reflect on the fact that I'm typing a blog entry. But there's no way to objectify the ego of that second-order consciousness without invoking a third-order consciousness. In other words, consciousness is a purely internal, subjective phenomenon, and as soon as you turn it into something objective—like when you locate the ego in consciousness—you have turned it into the object of a new consciousness, or a new intentionality. The idea that there is a transcendental ego that subsists outside of each conscious state and acts as the "hub" of the multitude of states is an illusion. Each consciousness is its own "thing", absolutely free from other consciousnesses, even within the same "person".

The early Buddhist position is similar to Sartre's. This is a useful book on the subject. Buddha disagreed with the idea that consciousness is pure intentionality, but he arrived at a similar conclusion with regard to the impermanence and illusory nature of self.

Perhaps we can salvage the idea of a self if we assume it is a form or pattern of matter rather than the matter itself. If my sense of self persists despite the constant turnover of matter in my brain, then perhaps it is the arrangement or form of that matter that makes up who I am rather than the stuff itself. But there are problems with this solution, too.

Imagine we have the ability to destructively scan your brain at a resolution good enough that we can recreate its exact patterns (arrangement of matter) in a new brain. Presumably something like this happens in Star Trek. Your old body is wiped out, and a new one replaces it. According to a patternist view of self, you should experience no break in continuity between your old self and new self. It's the same pattern, after all.

But is this true? How do we know the new you is really you? It will act exactly like you. It might even really be conscious. But from the interior, subjective perspective of the old you, maybe you went to sleep and never woke up, and this new person came into existence, having all your memories, thinking it's really you (but it's not). It would be like a replicant from Blade Runner, thinking it had a past when it really didn't.

But, you might say, don't we turn over our matter all the time? Each person goes to sleep every night and wakes up the next morning. Maybe the person who goes to sleep is not the same person who wakes up. But we have good (internal) evidence that this is not the case. Therefore, there's nothing to be concerned about in this scenario. It's nothing that doesn't happen all the time. It just happens all at once rather than taking days, weeks, months, or years.

Even if this is true, we can upset this self-assurance further by adding a detail to the thought experiment. Assume the scan is non-destructive, so that the original you is preserved when the new you is created. Imagine this happens when you are asleep, so you don't even know it's happened. You wake up and find you standing over you! The new you says, "I have excellent news. The consciousness transfer worked. I'm over here now. We won't be needing you anymore!" (I suppose all this depends on your personality. Some people might be more excited to have an army of clones of themselves.)

In that case we have two identical patterns (at least at the point of creation—they'll diverge after that) but also two identical consciousnesses. Clearly you (your consciousness) aren't in two places at once. There's only one "you", laying helplessly in bed as the new you decides the "transfer" was successful. There must be something more to personal identity than a mere pattern.

This goes back to the ontological gap between objective and subjective things. Subjective experiences are essentially internal and personal. They belong to a person, but a person is something that endures over time, throughout change. This concept doesn't show up anywhere in a purely physical understanding of the world. Of course there are scientific ways to study people. My body is also an object of scientific (and generally empirical) inquiry. But the personhood of my person is not. Insofar as patterns are empirical things, they're not capable of capturing personhood.

So this doesn't leave us with a whole lot to work with. In that regard it's not much different from other puzzles, like those mentioned above. But the fact that this puzzle reaches down to who we are on the deepest, most essential level is what's most disturbing.

Why are you you? That's strange.

Monday, January 3, 2011

patterns and readiness-to-hand

Basic human coping skills like driving a car or playing ball seem based on the ability to recognize and respond to patterns, not solving equations or doing calculations. The general know-how involved here is based upon directly perceiving possibilities and acting on them, not knowing (implicitly or explicitly) that some set of facts holds.

I have to expand on this later, but I wonder if there's a connection to be made between patterns and pattern-recognition and Heidegger's account of being-in-the-world in Division I of Being and Time.