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:

http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/06/how-consciousness-evolved/485558/

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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Galen Strawson’s Panpsychism

This Strawson piece just appeared in the NY Times.

It’s a position that I found attractive long ago.  FWIW, I preferred Strawson’s father as a philosopher but I give the son some credit for consistently pushing this position for years.  (IIRC, correctly, he also has no sympathy for compatibalism, and is an old-fashioned hard determinist.

What do y’all think?

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The Disunity of Reason

Last night I was talking with an old friend of mine, an atheist Jew, who is now in the best relationship of her life with a devout Roman Catholic. We talked about the fact that she was more surprised than he was about the fact that their connection transcends their difference in metaphysics. He sees himself as a devout Roman Catholic; she sees him as a good human being.

This conversation reminded me of an older thought that’s been swirling around in my head for a few weeks: the disunity of reason.

It is widely held by philosophers (that peculiar sub-species!) that reason is unified: that the ideally rational person is one for whom there are no fissures, breaks, ruptures, or discontinuities anywhere in the inferential relations between semantic contents that comprise his or her cognitive grasp of the world (including himself or herself as part of that world).

This is particularly true when it comes to the distinction between “theoretical reason” and “practical reason”. By “theoretical reason” I mean one’s ability to conceptualize the world-as-experienced as more-or-less systematic, and by “practical reason” I mean one’s ability to act in the world according to judgments that are justified by agent-relative and also agent-indifferent reasons (“prudence” and “morality”, respectively).

The whole philosophical tradition from Plato onward assumes that reason is unified, and especially, that theoretical and practical reason are unified — different exercises of the same basic faculty. Some philosophers think of them as closer together than others — for example, Aristotle distinguishes between episteme (knowledge of general principles in science, mathematics, and metaphysics) and phronesis (knowledge of particular situations in virtuous action). But even Aristotle does not doubt that episteme and phronesis are exercises of a single capacity, reason (nous).

However, as we learn more about how our cognitive system is actually structured, we should consider the possibility that reason is not unified at all. If Horst’s Cognitive Pluralism is right, then we should expect that our minds are more like patchworks of domain-specific modules that can reason quite well within those domains but not so well across them.

To Horst’s model I’d add the further conjecture: that we have pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “theoretical reason” (abstract thinking and long-term planning) with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and also pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “practical reason” (self-control and virtuous conduct) with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (and especially in its dense interconnections with the limbic system).

But if that conjecture is on the right track, then we would expect to find consistency between theoretical reason and practical reason only to the extent that there are reciprocal interconnections between these regions of prefrontal cortex. And of course there are reciprocal interconnections — but (and this is the important point!) to the extent that these regions are also functionally distinct, then to that same extent reason is disunified. 

And as a consequence, metaphysics and ethics may have somewhat less to do with each other than previous philosophers have supposed.

 

 

Intention, Intelligence and Teleology

On the left is a photograph of a real snowflake.  Most people would agree that it was not created intentionally, except possibly in the rather esoteric sense of being the foreseen result of the properties of water atoms in an intentionally designed universe in which water atoms were designed to have those properties.  But I think most people here, ID proponents and ID critics alike, would consider that the “design” (in the sense of “pattern”) of this snowflake is neither random nor teleological.  Nor, however, is it predictable in detail.  Famously “no two snowflakes are alike”, yet all snowflakes have six-fold rotational symmetry.  They are, to put it another way, the products of both “law” (the natural law that governs the crystalisation of water molecules) and “chance” (stochastic variation in humidity and temperature that affect the rate of growth of each arm of the crystal as it grows). We need not, to continue in Dembski’s “Explanatory Filter” framework, infer “Design”.

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Being

Three powerful commentaries on the nature of our existence:

The first is a BBC programme called The Secret Life of Waves.  My father, who died earlier this year, was very keen that we should all watch it, and it helped us hugely after his death, to know that this was what he thought, and wanted to share with his children and grandchildren.

The second is a lecture someone introduced me to recently by Alan Watts, It Starts Now.

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Are we in a war?

Barry Arrington, owner of the pro-ID blog, Uncommon Descent is alleged to have written the following in an email to a contributor:

We are in a war. That is not a metaphor. We are fighting a war for the soul of Western Civilization, and we are losing, badly. In the summer of 2015 we find ourselves in a positon very similar to Great Britain’s position 75 years ago in the summer of 1940 – alone, demoralized, and besieged on all sides by a great darkness that constitutes an existential threat to freedom, justice and even rationality itself.

 

In this thread I don’t want to discuss the rights and wrongs of the email itself, nor of whether or not TSZ constitutes a “great darkness”.  Barry is entitled to decide who posts at UD and who does not; it’s his blog.

What interests me is the perception itself, which I suspect is quite widely shared.

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Philosophy In An Age of Cognitive Science

Since the publication of The Embodied Mind (1991), the cognitive sciences have been turning away from the mind-as-program analogy that dominated early cognitivism towards a conception of cognitive functioning as embodied in a living organism and embedded in an environment. In the past few years, important contributions to embodied-embedded cognitive science can be found in Noe (Action in Perception), Chemero (Radical Embodied Cognitive Scie Rnce), Thompson (Mind in Life), Clark (Being There and Surfing Uncertainty), and Wheeler (Reconstructing the Cognitive World).

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Innate dualism and intimations of eternal life

Excerpts from a new article at Aeon by Natalie Emmons:

We see faces in the clouds and we might just see Jesus in our toast: the fact that we see anyone at all tells us that the human mind is actively searching for agents, even in the most ambiguous of situations.

…Bering and his colleagues set their sights on what psychologists call ‘intuitive mind-body dualism’ as an alternative…The study deliberately included a cluster of children too young to have been exposed to much religious testimony at all, to see whether even they had an inkling that a part of an individual survives death.

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Baby or Vat?

Zachriel asks, at UD:

Here’s a simple thought-experiment. There’s a fire at an fertility clinic, and there is precious little time before the entire building is engulfed in flames. Down one hallway, there’s the soft purring sound of an incubator with a thousand frozen embryos; down the other hallway, the cries of a newborn baby. Which do you choose to save?

Usually, people answer “the baby” and the interesting debate then concerns why.

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Is Religious Belief Natural?

Questions about the existence and attributes of God form the subject matter of natural theology, which seeks to gain knowledge of the divine by relying on reason and experience of the world. Arguments in natural theology rely largely on intuitions and inferences that seem natural to us, occurring spontaneously — at the sight of a beautiful landscape, perhaps, or in wonderment at the complexity of the cosmos — even to a non-philosopher.

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Alzheimer’s and Evolution

I have to say, while the UD “newsdesk” is terrible source for comment on scientific news, the links themselves are often interesting.  Today, the UD “newsdesk” reports on a pretty interesting study, reported in Nature, here, and a preprint of which seems to be open access here

It’s been apparent for a while from Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) that “risk” alleles for various mental disorders, despite being statistically significant, have extremely small effect sizes.  In other words, while the studies show that many mental disorders are indeed associated with specific alleles (and we already know that many are highly heritable, including schizophrenia, ADHD and Alzheimer’s), there aren’t just a few rogue alleles of large effect (well, there are, but they are far rarer than these disorders), but instead, a whole cocktail of alleles with very slightly raised Odds Ratios for certain disorders (and some are shared between multiple disorders).  This means that the vast majority of people carrying these “risk alleles” are perfectly fine. That would help explain why they have not been weeded out by selection.

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Michael Graziano: Are We Really Conscious?

He raises the question in the New York Times Sunday Review:

I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do…

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t. The brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct. When we introspect and seem to find that ghostly thing — awareness, consciousness, the way green looks or pain feels — our cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong…

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Some questions about music in the head

1.How many of you have a song or some other piece of music “playing” in your head, right now?

2. During roughly what percentage of your waking time do you have “mental music” playing (that is, when you’re not listening to an external source of music)?

3. How much voluntary control do you have over the music playing in your head?  If a song you don’t like starts to “play”, are you able to replace it with something you like better, or do you get stuck with “earworms” – songs that you can’t get rid of despite trying?

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Stuck between a rock and an immaterial place

Kairosfocus has a new OP at UD entitled Putting the mind back on the table for discussion. His argument begins thus:

Starting with the principle that rocks have no dreams:

Reciprocating Bill points out that since KF denies physicalism, he has no principled basis for denying the consciousness of rocks:

If the physical states exhibited by brains, but absent in rocks, don’t account for human dreams (contemplation, etc.) then you’ve no basis for claiming rocks are devoid of dreams – at least not on the basis of the physical states present in brains and absent in rocks. Given that, on what basis do you claim that rocks don’t dream?

Needless to say, KF is squirming to avoid the question.

I’ve got popcorn in the microwave.  Pull up a chair.

Language: evolution or design?

Humans are both very like and very different from other species we find on Earth. At the sub-cellular and biochemical level, the similarities, the almost universality of the DNA code and its property of self-duplication and storage of genetic information is breathtaking. On the other hand, no other species has succeeded in the scope and breadth of it’s colonization of this planet.  Much of the “success” in growing a population that now exceeds seven billion individuals can be attributed to our being a social species.  Sociability and its evolutionary roots have been well studied. However there does seem to be something missing. The rapid runaway expansion of human culture and the extraordinary flowering of human art, which might be attributed in turn to the literal expansion of the human brain seem to require further explanation. Continue reading

A Critique of Naturalism

The ‘traditional’ objections to a wholly naturalistic metaphysics, within the modern Western philosophical tradition, involve the vexed notions of freedom and consciousness.   But there is, I think, a much deeper and more interesting line of criticism to naturalism, and that involves the notion of intentionality and its closely correlated notion of normativity.

What is involved in my belief that I’m drinking a beer as I type this?  Well, my belief is about something — namely, the beer that I’m drinking.  But what does this “aboutness” consist of?   It requires, among other things, a commitment that I have undertaken — that I am prepared to respond to the appropriate sorts of challenges and criticisms of my belief.  I’m willing to play the game of giving and asking for reasons, and my willingness to be so treated is central to how others regard me as their epistemic peer.  But there doesn’t seem to be any way that the reason-giving game can be explained entirely in terms of the neurophysiological story of what’s going on inside my cranium.  That neurophysiological story is a story of is the case, and the reason-giving story is essentially a normative story — of what ought to be the case.

And if Hume is right — as he certainly seems to be! — in saying that one cannot derive an ought-statement from an is-statement,and if naturalism is an entirely descriptive/explanatory story that has no room for norms, then in light of the central role that norms play in human life (including their role in belief, desire, perception, and action), it is reasonable to conclude that naturalism cannot be right.

(Of course, it does not follow from this that any version of theism or ‘supernaturalism’ must be right, either.)