John Searle’s Nature of Mind course

Searle, who has taught at Berkeley for over 50 years, allowed his Philosophy 132 course to be recorded in the spring of 2010. It is available as a free podcast through the Berkeley website and through iTunes. Mr. Searle is most famous for his Chinese Room thought experiment, which argues against the idea of true artificial intelligence.

Google Tech Talk: quantum existence

Ron Garret gave a fascinating Google Tech Talk: “The Quantum Conspiracy: What Popularizers of QM Don’t Want You to Know.”

From the abstract:

It turns out that there is a simple intuition that makes almost all quantum mysteries simply evaporate, and replaces them with an easily understood (albeit strange) insight: measurement and entanglement are the same physical phenomenon, and you don’t really exist.

From two of his slides:

Philisophical Implicaitons:

The classical universe is not “real”

  • There is no (one) classical universe.
  • There is only one quantum universe (which can be viewed as an infinite collection of classical universes).

This is not (quite) as strange as it seems.

  • Even classical reality is not as we perceive it.
  • We are not made of atoms, we are made of classical bits (Correlations without correlata – David Merman).

“We are our thoughts. … We are a simulation running on a quantum computer.” – Ron Garret

On mind and physical reality

Marcelo Gleiser writes about Searching for The Essence of Physical Reality in a post on NPR’s Cosmos and Culture blog. On the relationship between reality as described by quantum mechanics and everyday perception:

If the essence of reality is defined by our interactions with it, then we must come to grips with two points: first, that “mind” occupies a central place in the order of things. That is, without mind there is no reality. (Not sure how an amoeba would react to this statement, but then again, it wouldn’t.) Many thinkers claim that this centrality of mind is crucial to understanding the world. Even more, that this “mind” reflects some property of the universe as a whole, us being just a part of it. Second, since we acquire information of the world through measurement, and our sense of what is real depends crucially on this information, information is the very essence of reality. Physicist Seth Lloyd, in his book Programming the Universe, argues this last point, proposing that the universe as a whole is a quantum computer. This is in the same vein of the “It from Bit” notion suggested by the great physicist John Archibald Wheeler.

Pansychism: Mind suffuses the Universe.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a fascinating overview of pansychism, the doctrine that mind  is a fundamental feature of the universe.

Panpsychism’s assertion that mind suffuses the universe presents a fundamental and sharp contrast with its basic rival, emergentism, which asserts that mind appears only at certain times, in certain places under certain—probably very special and very rare—conditions. But trying to explicate a little more precisely the key terms of this vague characterization of panpsychism results in several different versions of it. A cardinal distinction within the realm of the mind, though one that still carries more than a whiff of controversy, is that between conscious and unconscious mental states, and thus we could wonder whether panpsychism claims that consciousness is everywhere or merely that some unconscious form of mentality (often labelled proto-mentality) lurks throughout the universe. With regard to the ubiquity of the mental, we might wonder whether every thing has a mind (or associated mental attributes) or whether there is, even from within a panpsychist view of the world, a viable distinction between things with minds and things lacking minds (as we have seen, the world-mind form of panpsychism may have the resources to fund such a distinction). We might go so far as to wonder whether mind is to be thought of as some kind of field-like entity or in analogy with something as fundamental as energy,[2] spread out over the universe and not connected directly with or dependent upon any particular things. Although seldom clearly distinguished, the history of panpsychism reveals that all of these variants have been tried out.

Brooks illustrates the science of human nature

This is a great article by David Brooks, who can usually be found in the opinion pages of the New York Times. This is a decidedly different type of piece from him.

Help comes from the strangest places. We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind. Far from being dryly materialistic, their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows. They are giving us a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has least to say. Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.

A core finding of this work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. The conscious mind gives us one way of making sense of our environment. But the unconscious mind gives us other, more supple ways. The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q. It allows us to tell a different sort of success story, an inner story to go along with the conventional surface one.

What follows is a fictional story of two people meeting, falling in love and getting married, where each step along the path is created to illustrate “how the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life,” in The New Yorker.

No such thing as free will

This quote below is from a great 2003 interview in The Believer with the British analytic philosopher, Galen Strawson. His viewpoint on the existence of free will rings true and there doesn’t seem to be a credible opposing argument. If you know of one, please let me know where to find it.

THE BELIEVER: You start out your book Freedom and Belief by saying that there is no such thing as free will. What exactly do you mean by free will?

GALEN STRAWSON: I mean what nearly everyone means. Almost all human beings believe that they are free to choose what to do in such a way that they can be truly, genuinely responsible for their actions in the strongest possible sense—responsible period, responsible without any qualification, responsible sans phrase, responsible tout court, absolutely, radically, buck-stoppingly responsible; ultimately responsible, in a word—and so ultimately morally responsible when moral matters are at issue. Free will is the thing you have to have if you’re going to be responsible in this all-or-nothing way. That’s what I mean by free will. That’s what I think we haven’t got and can’t have.

In addition to clearly explaining Mr. Strawson’s argument, there is also discussion of meditation and a reference to Krishnamurti. Interesting.

Considering a digital afterlife

The in-depth New York Times article by Rob Walker, Cyberspace When You’re Dead, discusses many issues related to digital legacy. The paragraphs below succinctly capture some of the concepts central to the developing focus of this website.

The idea of the self escaping bodily death by transforming into an age-proof, sickness-proof essence that can be uploaded into a computer or network dates back at least to Vernor Vinge’s 1981 novella “True Names.” A year after that, William Gibson gave us the word “cyberspace” to describe a new place where humans might exist, potentially forever, outside the physical world. By the 1990s, as the Internet became a familiar presence in many people’s lives, some began to suggest that this was no mere science-fiction scenario; it was the future. Vinge was among those (along with, notably, Ray Kurzweil) to discuss the transformation of humans by technology, coming in a matter of decades, referred to as “the singularity.” The Carnegie Mellon robotics expert Hans Moravec, the artificial-intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, the computer scientist Rudy Rucker and others articulated visions of a future in which technology might truly free us from “the bloody mess of organic matter,” to use a phrase of Minsky’s. In her 1999 book, “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace,” Margaret Wertheim contextualized such speculations as attempts to, in effect, “construct a technological substitute for the Christian space of heaven.”

Wertheim pointed out that cyberspace had become a new kind of place, where alternate (or at least carefully curated or burnished) identities could be forged, new forms of collectivity and connection explored, all outside the familiar boundaries of the physical world, like the body and geography. It’s not such a long journey to follow those assertions to the “view that man is defined not by the atoms of his body but by an information code,” as Wertheim wrote. “This is the belief that our essence lies not in our matter but in a pattern of data.” She called this idea the “cybersoul,” a “posited immortal self, this thing that can supposedly live on in the digital domain after our bodies die.”

And that, essentially, is what is implied by Gordon Bell’s assertion that his MyLifeBits project is a way to “leave a personal legacy — a record of your life.” Or to put it more prosaically, it’s the same thing Trendwatching.com meant by calling your digital traces on social networks the “nucleus of one’s personal brand.” It’s what the uncanny avatars of Lifenaut and Virtual Eternity hope one day to encapsulate. It’s at the heart of “singularity” theory.

Wertheim, it should be noted, saw the cybersoul notion as both flawed and troubling, and I would agree. Life’s essence reduced to captured data is an uninspiring, and unconvincing, resolution to the centuries-old question of where, in mind and in body, the self resides. At least other imagined versions of immortality (from the Christian heaven to the Hindu wheel of life) suggested a reconciliation, or at least a connection, with the manner in which a physical life is lived; the cybersoul’s theoretically eternal and perfect persistence ignores this concept. Most of all, though, fantasizing about living forever — in heaven or in a preserved pattern of data — strikes me as just another way of avoiding any honest confrontation with the fact of death.

The entire article is worth reading.

Two Selves, Two Happiness Levels

Daniel Kahneman created the discipline of emotional economics. In this talk, he explains that we have two selves, two distinct ways we gauge happiness: a remembering self and an experiencing self. A TED talk.

He also describes findings that happiness does increase in proportion to wealth, but only up to $60,000. After that, “we get an absolutely” flat line from a sample size of over 600,000.

Boundaries of the Mind

Considering the integrated role of technology in our lives, Andy Clarke asks this question:

Is it possible that, sometimes at least, some of the activity that enables us to be the thinking, knowing, agents that we are occurs outside the brain?

Out of Our Brains – The Stone, a Philosophy blog at the New York Times: