Welcome and Hello – August 2020

Hi all,

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Regardless, welcome.

Here’s the haps:

  1. I cross-post on both my WordPress Darwinian Interlude blog and on Medium. Even if Medium seems likely to stick around, I’ve seen platforms come and go. I’m unwilling to trust my work to a platform I can’t control.
  2. Posts on Darwinian Interlude then go out to the email list. That’s why you got this.
  3. If you read on Medium, please lean on the Clap button. It helps me surface what I write to a wider community.
  4. I, also, love dialog via comments there or emailing me directly!

Hope you are staying safe and sane.
Thanks for reading!

Al

PS, The easiest way to subscribe to the mailing list is via the subscribe widget either at https://darwinianinterlude.org/ or https://altabor.org/

good tribe / bad tribe – reverend al mix

You can read a prettier version of this on Medium.  Please ‘Clap’ if you do.

Image for post

Love and Hate

We are hard-wired for deep empathy with our ‘brothers and sisters’…even brothers and sisters well outside narrow family connections.

We are hard-wired to hate and even kill anyone we feel threatens us and our people. Empathy freezes. Antipathy switches on.

The same neurotransmitter, oxytocin, is likely central to both reactions.

Continue reading good tribe / bad tribe – reverend al mix

I Want to Testify: Science and Religion are Incompatible. I Believe Them Both

Science and Religion. You can apply one, the other, or both to guide action. But as views of the universe, they contradict.

Someone created the universe. Or Someone didn’t.

How to resolve the contradiction?

I don’t. Continue reading I Want to Testify: Science and Religion are Incompatible. I Believe Them Both

Free Will and Consciousness — Key Questions

Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

Over the past few months, I’ve added a fairly rigorous discussion of Free Will and a two-part rant on Consciousness to Medium. During the process, I made a point of reading what others had posted on the topics, adding Claps and trading comments with a variety of interesting folks.

I did notice a certain muddiness in some of the discussions…not surprising when words like Free and Consciousness are involved.

Asking questions of other writers and, even more so, being asked questions led me to isolate a series of ‘pivot point questions’ that seem to distinguish the different stances. I’m offering them here in hopes of making a contribution to clearer thinking about it all.

I’ll editorialize with my own conclusions but I think the questions are useful even if you break the other way on them.

Pivot Points

But first, what am I talking about here? Conscious Free Will?

I’m going to ground it like this:

My lab rat, or thought-experiment core, is the conscious consideration of at least two options and a conscious choice between them.

Pivot Point 1: Does what is experienced have agency?

There’s a view that choices happen ‘off-stage’ and what we experience as ‘free choice’ is epiphenomenal, or color commentary, or even some sort of post hoc tale we tell ourself so as not to appear inexplicable to ourself.

The commonality is a belief that agency lies somewhere outside the experience itself.

My view: in many cases agency is precisely where it presents itself to be.

Discussion: There can, of course, be unconscious contributing factors but… notwithstanding the braid of physical, cultural, conscious, and unconscious processes that set up a decision point…a conscious decision is made. Sometimes it’s proceeded by weeks of research filling out a checklist. Sometimes it’s making a list of 6 options and rolling a dice. Regardless, a decision is made — and the thing that causes the results of the decision is precisely consciously making the decision.

That seems like a pretty clear statement but I’ve found that it isn’t. A mental image may help. Folks would tell me, “oh yeah, I agree but the real decision has already been made, right?”

When I was in middle school and a Boy Scout, we specialized in construction: towers, bridges, that sort of thing. We made our own rope out of bailing twine. The twine was of varying thicknesses with fibers sticking out in all directions. We used it because the twine was cheap and, although the appearance of the end result was bristly and funky, it was a very sturdy rope.

Here’s how I imagine the intertwined and overlapping systems that make up our mental and behavioral processes.

Processes in the human nervous system considered as a tangle of conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious processes

Imagine 12 strands of the twine woven together into a bristly rope and dyed splotchily on a continuum from dark grey to bright white. The strands are intertwined paths of causality. The bright white is when that causality proceeds via a conscious process; the various greys are processes outside of consciousness to varying degrees. Consciousness is not an observer of a non-conscious process. It is a process.

Pivot Point 2: Is what is experienced a completely material and, hence, predictable process?

Some, of course, believe it is not.

My View: I’m with the materialists.

Discussion: Descartes split the human experience into two components: the body and higher abilities, the two connected through the pineal gland. Some phenomena attached to the material body and others…thought, belief and doubt, choice…are of the mind and immaterial. Our ‘higher’ nature here is the classic Ghost in the Machine

Note that this is fundamentally a religious perspective. There are things outside the world…God, angels, souls…and we participate in that transcendent plane.

That Ghost still hovers over this discussion and, even when unacknowledged, has left an unrehabilitated bit of religious sensibility…an unconscious assumption that if Free Will and Consciousness aren’t somehow immaterial and unpredictable then they aren’t really what they present themselves to be. (My workout on the topic is here.)

To sharpen this up, I’d like to propose a ‘Turning test’ for conscious experience:

If we materially recreate all the processes leading into a conscious moment then the output will be precisely what we experience.

To rephrase, if consciousness and choice are fully material processes, what could prevent their replication? To return to the rope metaphor, current fMRI research should let us tease out all the threads — all the systems activated — and model them in some material substrate that isn’t an actual human nervous system.

That should totally recreate our experience. If it can’t, then something else is going on and I’ll happily back up and take the other fork:-) And, either way, this will move us into serious sci-fi territory!

Of course, given the architecture and number of connections in a human nervous system, there will be some significant challenges getting to this point.

Pivot Point 3: What do we mean by consciousness?

This is the tricky one with roughly three continually evolving schools of thought.

My view: heck if I know precisely. However, I don’t find it useful to approach the question in the abstract, ie primarily by thinking more and harder. This is a topic to approach empirically.

Discussion: Evolutionary biology, broadly defined, provides a better path in.

We are not simply embodied consciousness. We are part of an evolutionary history and connected to a web of species. Each species is the current exemplar of a different branching at some point over the last three billion years.

On the paths from bacteria to complex animals, there are points where decisions are clearly all instinct — another somewhat muddy term but let’s use bugs as an example.

At some point, Sapiens, and most likely a few other species, developed ‘planning depth’ best conceptualized in game terms as the ability to think some number of moves ahead. (In the case of Homo Sapiens, we have developed sophisticated tools to add complexity and reach to our planning depth but our starting base depth is just a few moves ahead of what’s observed in our closest Chimp relatives.)

Our consciousness is so intertwined with rehearsing the next few steps or replaying the last few, that it’s hard to separate basic awareness from the ongoing planning chatter. Sorting out the threads in all this will be difficult but essential to eventually grasping what consciousness is. Perhaps transcranial magnetic stimulation or brain lesion research can give some clues. Perhaps cross-species comparisons of fMRI scans can as well.

I’d like to note that Carl Jung and members of his school believe that myth, e.g. Prometheus’ story, encodes and even channels the emergence of ego-centered consciousness.Myths, to them, aren’t merely a chronicle of changes in human culture and consciousness but are the vehicle for those changes. What is described in many of our myths is the wresting of deployable energy from the type of unconscious impulse that directs most behavior. ‘Conscious free will’ is an accomplishment, still tenuous. There’s a chance that some of the tools out there in Carl Jung / Joseph Campell land may prove helpful. I think so, but I’ll save more discussion on all that for another story.

The rope of darkened threads is a mythic tangle

Pivot Point 4: How can we tell if anyone else shares what we experience as consciousness?

My view: Technically we can’t but cmon!

Discussion: First, there’s the above: our evolutionary history. We are members of a species and an evolutionary lineage and share most of our genotype and most all of our morphology with the other Sapiens present and past and, in fact, a couple of our chimp cousins to boot.

Second, taking that as a given, the argument for any individual’s uniqueness is weak. What exactly would make you different from any other member of our species in this respect or, in fact, different than a number of other fellow inhabitants of our wonderful but imperiled biosphere?

In point of fact, I may not be able to tell if we’re seeing the same red but I can test to see if you’re color blind. I’m not privy to your decision-making process but we can experimentally determine the impact of a wide variety of cognitive biases. I don’t think it’s all that opaque. Frankly, I hear shards of the Ghost’s sheets flapping around this question and assume it will join Xeno’s Paradox in the annals of temporarily useful but ultimately irrelevant questions.

Pivot Point 5: Without truly ‘free’ conscious choice is there any basis for morality?

I’m going to leave this one alone. Not that it’s irrelevant, but it’s not something I’ve spent much time thinking about beyond a simple heuristic that specifies that one’s responsibility extends to the range of one’s awareness of the impact of one’s actions.

If this is your jam, there’s a good look at free will and normative behavior by Ray Hubbard here: Can Compatibilism Save Free-Will? Reconciling a scientific worldview with free-will.

Thanks for reading.

If you like this sort of thing check out The Philosopher’s Stone on Medium or, in it’s trippiest form, on Brendan’s Podcast

 

The Story of Story #1

[This article is, also, available on Medium. If you read there, I would appreciate some Claps. Thanks.]

There’s a lot of focus on stories now. Ads or pitches must tell a story…or so the story goes.

I’m uninterested in the story Pepsi tells you or in learning how to craft such stories.

I am interested in the stories that your grandmother told you.

I’m interested in the stories you choose to tell to friends and family because, without understanding exactly why, they feel important.

This is the first in a series of posts that aim to tell the Story of these Stories. I begin with the genesis of my love of storytelling. Continue reading The Story of Story #1

Free Will Considered As Three Lunches (V2)

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

[This article is, also, available on Medium. If you read there, I would appreciate some Claps. Thanks.]

I frequently come across statements on Free Will, dressed up as science or philosophy, that are religion in drag.

Based on this unfirm foundation, the analysis goes sideways.

A thought experiment can help tidy things up.

Continue reading Free Will Considered As Three Lunches (V2)

Welcome to DarwinianInterlude.org

“Three billion years ago, life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them.

Evolution was a communal affair.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell separated itself from the community and refused to share.

The Darwinian interlude had begun.

Now, after three billion years,

the Darwinian interlude is over.

— Freeman Dyson

Privacy is Doomed

[This article is, also, available on Medium. If you read there, I would appreciate some Claps. Thanks.]

Here’s a story about the future

– Technology is increasingly empowering the individual.
– 30 or so years out, some Columbine Killers wannabes will be able to use a virus or dirty bomb.
– The only real solution is the surveillance state. 
– There won’t be good individual counter-measures: trying to block surveillance will only make you stand out.
– One path to that solution is panic and partial collapse of our democratic standards similar to the dynamic of post-9/11 legislation.
– It would be nice to do better than that.

Continue reading Privacy is Doomed

good tribe / bad tribe — nerdcore mix

Theories of Human Evolution

Reading Dawkins

Dawkins’ Selfish Gene carries a lot of weight.

I discovered that back in 1975 when I first threw it across the room.

This happened right after the opening paragraph where he dismisses all philosophy written before Darwin. I hadn’t even gotten to the ‘lumbering robots’ part twenty pages in.

That was another toss.

Continue reading good tribe / bad tribe — nerdcore mix