Dennett in The New Yorker

I wanted to bring to your attention a lovely profile piece on Dan Dennett, “Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul“.  It’s nice to see a philosopher as respected and well-known as Dennett come alive as a human being.

I’d also like to remind those of you interested in this sort of thing that Dennett has a new book out, From Bacteria to Bach And Back: The Evolution of Minds. The central project is to do what creationists are always saying can’t be done: use the explanatory resources of evolutionary theory to understand why we have the kinds of minds that we do. There are decent reviews here and here, as well as one by Thomas Nagel in New York Review of Books that I regard as deliberately misleading (“Is Consciousness an Illusion?“).

[Note: The profile and/or the Nagel review may be behind paywalls.]


Were You a Quembryo?

…given its implicit Aristotelianism, the computationalist approach provides Thomists and other Aristotelians and Scholastics with conceptual and terminological resources by which contemporary naturalists might be made to understand and see the power of Thomistic, Scholastic, and Aristotelian arguments in natural theology. It might help them to explain both how the conception of nature on which traditional Scholastic natural theology was built is no pre-modern relic but is still defensible today, and how radically it differs from the conception of Paley and “Intelligent Design” theorists, whose arguments naturalists understandably regard as weak.

…what Searle and the Aristotelian can agree on is that the computationalist conception of nature is far more metaphysically loaded than most of its defenders realize.

From Aristotle to John Searle and Back Again: Formal Causes, Teleology, and Computation in Nature

See also:

Information is the new Aristotelianism (and Dawkins is a hylomorphist)

Poker as a Proxy Turing Test

I found the recent contest in which an algorithm was able to successfully defeat four professional poker players in a particular version of poker to be very interesting.

What strikes me is not the fact that the algorithm was successful but the way in which it accomplished the task.

check this out it’s all interesting but pay close attention from about the 8 minute mark

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Mouse Utopia, Mutational Meltdown, Extinction by Natural Selection

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsored the work of John Calhoun on social behaviors. Here were the results of one of his experiments:

On July 9th, 1968, eight white mice were placed into a strange box at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Maybe “box” isn’t the right word for it; the space was more like a room, known as Universe 25, about the size of a small storage unit. The mice themselves were bright and healthy, hand-picked from the institute’s breeding stock. They were given the run of the place, which had everything they might need: food, water, climate control, hundreds of nesting boxes to choose from, and a lush floor of shredded paper and ground corn cob.

This is a far cry from a wild mouse’s life—no cats, no traps, no long winters. It’s even better than your average lab mouse’s, which is constantly interrupted by white-coated humans with scalpels or syringes. The residents of Universe 25 were mostly left alone, save for one man who would peer at them from above, and his team of similarly interested assistants. They must have thought they were the luckiest mice in the world. They couldn’t have known the truth: that within a few years, they and their descendants would all be dead.
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Solving Wallace’s Problem and Resolving Darwin’s Doubt

I want to consider, in light of fairly new philosophical and scientific research, two long-standing conceptual objections to evolutionary theory: Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt.

It is well-recognized that Wallace saw the need for some supernatural intelligence in explaining human evolution, in contrast to Darwin’s naturalistic speculations in Descent of Man. What is less recognized is that Wallace was, in an important sense, right. He squarely faced the problem, “can natural selection alone account for the unique cognitive abilities of human beings, such as abstract thought, self-consciousness, radical reshaping of the environment (e.g. clothing, building), collective self-governance by ethical norms, and the symbolic activities of art, religion, philosophy, mathematics, logic, and science?”  Whereas Darwin thought there was continuity between humans and non-human animals, his evidence is primarily amount emotional displays, rather than the genuinely cognitive discontinuity.

A closely related problem, however, was squarely faced by Darwin: the question, nicely phrased in his famous letter to Asa Gray, as to whether it is plausible to think that natural selection can have equipped a creature with a capacity for arriving at any objective truths about the world.  (It is not often noted that in that letter, Darwin says that he believes in an intelligent creator — what is in doubt is whether natural selection gives him reasons to trust in his cognitive abilities.)

These two questions, Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt, are two sides of the same coin: if natural selection (along with other biological processes) cannot account for the uniquely human ability to grasp objective truths about reality, then we must either reject naturalism (as Wallace did) or question our ability to grasp objective truths about reality (as Darwin did).

Call this the Cognitive Dilemma for Naturalism. Can it be solved? If so, how?

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Scientific Metaphysics & Its Consequences

In a recent comment, Fifthmonarchyman engaged with my accusation that his remarks on what brains can’t do is based on his ignorance of neuroscience. He responded by saying

it’s not about neuroscience it’s about ontology.

Brains don’t comprehend because they are not minds. I would think that someone so enamored with philosophy would have a handle on different categories of existence.

It is precisely as a philosopher that I want to express my complete rejection of the assumptions implicit in this remark.

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The psychology of (not) admitting mistakes

To err is human. Mistakes are as inevitable as death and taxes, so why do many people find it so hard to admit them? Why will they go to great lengths to avoid doing so? What predisposes them to what I’ll call “mistake denial”?

An obvious first guess is that it relates to social status. We humans are a social species, and our standing in the eyes of others depends largely on our perceived competence. Mistakes whittle away at that perceived competence, and so a person who successfully avoids admitting a mistake has avoided a real social cost. There is a flip side, however. While successful mistake denial benefits the denier, unsuccessful denial exacts an even heavier social cost than admitting the mistake in the first place. The denier is seen not only as having made the mistake, but also of dishonestly and childishly trying to cover it up. Under this social cost model, then, we would expect people to deny their mistakes only when there was a reasonable likelihood of “getting away with it” — of successfully deceiving the audience.

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Boltzmann Brains and evolution

In the “Elon Musk” discussion, in the midst of a whole lotta epistemology goin’ on, commenter BruceS referred to the concept of a “Boltzmann Brain” and suggested that Boltzmann didn’t know about evolution. (In fact Boltzmann did know about evolution and thought Darwin’s work was hugely important). The Boltzmann Brain is a thought experiment about a conscious brain arising in a thermodynamic system which is at equilibrium. Such a thing is interesting but vastly improbable.

BruceS explained that he was thinking of a reddit post where the commenter invoked evolution to explain why we don’t need extremely improbable events to explain the existence of our brains (the comment will be found here).

What needs to be added is that all that does not happen in an isolated system at thermodynamic equilibrium, or at least it has a fantastically low probability of happening there.  The earth-sun system is not at thermodynamic equilibrium.  Energy is flowing outwards from the sun, at high temperature, some is hitting the earth, and some is taken up by plants and then some by animals, at lower temperatures. Continue reading

Evolution of Consciousness

Seems like this new thing in the Atlantic’d be up y’all’s alley:

A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved

Michael Graziano

Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?

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Primary and Secondary Qualities

Every student of philosophy knows how to draw up the lists of primary and secondary qualities: on the left go extension, size, shape or figure, solidity, motion or rest, and number; on the right go color, sound, scent, taste, heat and cold. But what is the principle of the distinction? Does it have to do with objective versus subjective? Categorical versus dispositional? Intrinsic versus extrinsic? Or several or none of these?

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