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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, May 27, 2016

Saying Your Mind Is Just a Computer Is Like Saying Your Smartphone Is Just a Camera

In Aeon magazine recently there is an essay by psychologist Robert Epstein with the provocative title The Empty Brain. Below the title is an equally provocative essay synopsis:

Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.

The idea that Epstein is attacking is the doctrine of computationalism, the doctrine that the mind or brain is like a computer, and that the outputs of the mind and brain are like computations. I think Epstein is right to attack this doctrine. But the type of attack Epstein makes on computationalism isn't a terribly skillful one. Some of the points Epstein makes are rather dubious, and he neglects to make some of the best points that can be made against computationalism.

Epstein argues as follows:

Computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms. Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?

A small part of this reasoning could be argued through a certain line of reasoning, but not one that Epstein attempts. It can be argued that our memories are not actually stored physically in our brains, that somehow memory involves some larger unknown, on the grounds that we have no understanding of how neurons can store memories. Some of the other claims, however, seem rather dubious. Humans operate using words, and words are “symbolic representations of the world.” When we memorize facts and then recall those facts (as a student will do when studying for a test), that is a process that can reasonably be described as storing and retrieving, even though we have no idea of exactly how or where those facts are stored, and can't even be sure that they are being stored in the brain itself.

Epstein then argues at some length that humans are not information processors. This line of reasoning seems strange. Imagine you get a phone call from your friend, who tells you he is is stuck downtown because he ran out of money and doesn't have bus fare to return home. You get in your car to meet him downtown to drive him home. The phone call can surely be considered information, and your act of driving downtown as a result of that call can be considered processing the information. So why should we not think that humans are information processors? Similarly, when we simply memorize a fact, that can be considered processing a piece of information.

The best way to attack computationalism is a way that Epstein seems to overlook: look for important aspects or outputs of the human mind that are completely unlike anything produced by computers. The way to refute the “your mind is just a computer” thinkers is not to argue “the mind never computes” but to argue “the mind does so much more than just compute.” So let us ask: what outputs does the human mind have that are not produced to any extent at all by computers?

The first output I can think of is understanding. Humans have this, but computers do not. The most expensive supercomputer ever produced has never had the slightest understanding of anything. Given certain prompts, a computer can retrieve relevant information. But it understands nothing.

Let us imagine American foreign-exchange students working at a big library in China, Americans who cannot understand spoken or written Chinese. Let us suppose that people come to an information desk of the library, with questions and information requests written in Chinese on slips of paper. Imagine that the American library workers cannot understand any of the questions, but have worked out a system by which certain information sheets or books (all in Chinese) will be given to those who have certain Chinese words (or series of words) on their information request slips. This is rather how a computer works. When you do a Google search for “United States,” some computer server at Google may be able to figure out that certain information items are to be sent back to you in response to this request. But that computer has not the slightest understanding of any of these information items, nor does it have the slightest understanding of what the United States is.

And so it basically is for all computer processing. Every single time you ask a computer for information, it is completely lacking in understanding of what you asked and what the outputs are that it gave back to you. When you ask your computer what was the birth date of President Abraham Lincoln, it may very quickly respond: February 12, 1809. But your computer has not the slightest understanding of what a president is, what a birth date is, what any date is, who Abraham Lincoln was, or what a person is. What you see in this case is a correlation between a fact and the computer response. But we should not confuse a correlation with cognition.

Computers have not an iota of understanding. This is one major reason why we should not be comparing the human mind to a computer. Another gigantic reason is that probably the essential output of the human mind is what we might variously call consciousness, experience, or life-flow: a stream of experiences of the type someone has when that person is consciously living a particular day. We can define life-flow as the stream of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that go on while you are awake, but which temporarily stop while you are sleeping. Such life-flow is the most essential output of the human mind. But computers have no such output. No computer has ever had the slightest bit of life-flow. It's futile to try to ask ourselves what it is like to be a computer, because computers have not the slightest bit of life-flow.

So because it provides understanding and life-flow (also called experience), the human mind is something vastly more than just a computer (which has no such things as its output). Calling the human mind or brain a computer is like calling your smartphone a camera. Your smartphone includes a not-very-good camera, but it has vastly more (also allowing you to call people, run apps, play games, and browse the internet). Similarly it's rather as if the human mind has a not-very-good computer inside it, but its main outputs are things (understanding and life-flow) that are totally different from computer outputs.

Although Epstein seems to err in trying to completely deny a computation aspect of the human mind, he is correct in suggesting the futility of all attempts to explain the human mind in a mechanical kind of way.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Psychologist's Unconvincing Explanation for Awe

One of the most sublime human emotions is the one we call awe. It's not very common for a modern person to feel it. But imagine you are a New York City dweller used to seeing maybe two or three stars in the sky. Imagine you take a vacation in Colorado. You book a campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park. After nightfall you lie near your tent and look up at the sky. You are astonished. You can now see not just two or three stars, but thousands of stars. Plus you can see some strange faint band stretching across the sky. It looks like some ghostly river. You realize you are looking at the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. You suddenly feel a strange emotion you have rarely felt before. It is as if you have got in touch with some magnificent reality vastly greater than your little self. You experience an awe you will long remember. 

But why do people even feel such a rare emotion? In last week's edition of the Huffington Post, psychology professor Dacher Keltner attempts an explanation, in a rather long article entitled Why Do We Feel Awe? But his explanation doesn't hold water. He starts off with this suggestion:

Why did awe became part of our species’ emotional repertoire during seven million years of hominid evolution? A preliminary answer is that awe binds us to social collectives and enables us to act in more collaborative ways that enable strong groups, thus improving our odds for survival.

This hypothesis is unbelievable. Awe has nothing us to do with binding to social collectives, nothing to do with enabling social groups, and nothing to do with collaboration. Awe does nothing to improve any organism's odds for survival.

We might be able to explain fear using a Darwinian explanation, on the grounds that an organism that is afraid of scary sights is more likely to flee predators. But awe is something different from fear. When you look up at a sky filled with stars, you feel awe, but you feel no fear at all. Nothing could be less scary than a distant star.

To try to justify his explanation for why humans feel awe, Keltner cites an experiment:

My colleague Michelle Shiota had participants fill in the blank of the following phrase: “ I AM ____.” They did so 20 times, either while standing before an awe-inspiring replica of a T. rex skeleton in UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology or in the exact same place but oriented to look down a hallway, away from the T. rex. Those looking at the dinosaur were more likely to define their individual selves in collectivist terms—as a member of a culture, a species, a university, a moral cause. Awe embeds the individual self in a social identity.

This is rather hilarious. The skeleton was not even a real T. rex skeleton, but only a replica (probably something made out of plaster or plastic). Why would someone feel awe looking at some fake dinosaur skeleton? 

Equally questionable is the experiment which Keltner describes below, involving some trees near a campus science building:

Participants first either looked up into the tall trees for one minute—long enough for them to report being filled with awe—or oriented 90 degrees away to look up at the facade of a large science building. They then encountered a person who stumbled, dropping a handful of pens into the dirt. Sure enough, the participants who had been gazing up at the awe-inspiring trees picked up more pens.

This is as dubious as the experiment with the fake dinosaur skeleton. Looking up at tall trees doesn't produce awe. Trees are too common to produce a feeling of awe. The fact that some participants may have reported that they felt awe (when presented with a questionnaire asking whether they did) is probably just a case of suggestibility or people reporting that they had a feeling that they thought they were supposed to have. Similarly, if you show a picture of a beggar to a man and ask if it makes him sad, someone who does not feel sad will often say he does feel sad, as a kind of act of social obligation or acting in the suggested or expected way. Since Keltner merely says that these tree gazers “picked up more pens” rather than saying they picked up “many more pens” (and since the paper linked to does not mention any specific numbers regarding this experiment or any level of statistical significance), we can assume the effect he is reporting is minimal or perhaps not even statistically significant. Such a result tells us nothing.

At this link the experiment is described in detail, and the paper claims that “Participants who gazed up at the trees offered more help to an experimenter than did participants who gazed up at a building,” but offers no specific numbers backing up such a claim. So we must conclude the effect was minimal or marginal – for all we know, it could have been merely a “1% greater” type of effect.

What we have here is rather silly psychology experimentation on a shoestring budget. To do a decent experiment on awe, you should do something like take people to the Grand Canyon or to a mountain place with crystal clear air where you can see 6000 stars at night. Then when you suddenly showed them the awesome scenery, they might experience awe. The experiment Keltner describes are “science on a shoestring” type of experiments that probably tell us nothing about awe, because they don't involve things that produce awe to a significant degree. It's as if the experimenters were too lazy to leave their local campus, and find something really awe-inspiring.

I may note that inexpensive short-duration experiments like this are generally of little worth whenever they report modest effects or borderline effects (as in this case). If some college does a 2-year long study costing 5 million dollars, that has some weight, because presumably there would not been have time and money to try such a study multiple times and then report only one version. But it's a totally different situation for inexpensive short-duration studies. Let's say I'm a professor trying to show that wearing some color of shirt affects your test score performance. I could do 20 one-day studies (asking my students to wear a particular color on each of 20 test days), and then cherry pick a particular day, which ever day seemed to best support a “shirt color influences test scores” hypothesis. I could then author a scientific paper reporting only on that particular day's test. Of course, that really wouldn't give any evidence for such a hypothesis. I would just be making an inappropriate use of random fluctuations in test data.

Also of little evidence value is a TV watching study described in this paper (Study 3), which reports only marginal results. On page 8 of the pdf, the authors report that they tried to experimentally induce awe by showing a “5-minute clip inducing awe, consisting of nature clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth series composed of grand, sweeping shots of scenic vistas, mountains, plains, forests, and canyons.” Such “eye candy” clips don't actually produce awe. If you see a real canyon, it may produce awe, but seeing one on television will not (unless you've never seen a canyon before on television, or unless you're watching a good science fiction showing some type of stunning scenery you've never seen before). Moreover, the procedure described in Study 3 is so convoluted that it is lacking in any evidence value. A supposed slight increase in generosity was measured by a willingness to donate points in some computer game, but the supposed difference in generosity involved giving away a few more points which each had a cash value of only pennies.

Similarly weak from an evidence standpoint is Study 1 in the paper. Based on a very dubious analysis of a person's tendency to feel awe, the study reports a weak .123 correlation between awe and a tendency to give away imaginary money in a game. I need not say much about the weakness of that, other than to point out that a compelling correlation is one that is, say, something like .700. Even when correlations are much greater than .700 they are often coincidental. This web site lists correlations of greater than .900 between totally unrelated things, such as a .9925 correlation between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine.

I find the experiments of Keltner and his colleagues on this matter to be quite unconvincing. It seems these are the type of results that anyone could get to support any random psychology hypothesis he wanted to support, just by doing 20 shoestring-budget short-duration experiments and then reporting the few in which random data variations best supported the hypothesis.

Keltner tries to suggest that awe is something very social, but it isn't. Quite to the contrary, awe is the least social of all emotions. When you look at a sky filled with stars, you are absorbed in that external glory, and are least likely to be thinking about another human.

Keltner's suggestion that awe is something that improved an early human's odds of survival is without any merit. Quite to the contrary, we should assume that awe is something that decreased an early human's odds of survival. Show me a caveman who spent quite a bit of time staring up at the stars with a feeling of awe, and I will show you a caveman more likely to have been killed by a predator while he is distracted by this activity that did nothing to help his chances of survival. Show me a caveman who spent quite a bit of time watching the sun set while he felt awe, and I will show you a caveman who would have been more likely to be killed by a predator while he is distracted by this activity that did nothing to help his chances of survival. Show me a caveman who tended to go out of his cave and watch a lightning storm with awe, and I'll show you a caveman more likely to have been struck dead by a lightning bolt. Show me a caveman who stood staring in awe at the big tusks of a mastadon, and I'll show you a caveman more likely to have been gored to death by those tusks. Show me a caveman fond of climbing mountains to experience awe-inspiring vistas, and I'll show you a caveman more likely to die in an accident while scaling such heights.

There is no plausible Darwinian explanation for the emotion of awe, just as there is no plausible Darwinian explanation for numerous other aspects of the human mind – things such as musical ability, grammar ability, philosophical reasoning, spirituality, insight, altruism, and mathematical ability. As I argue here, these are things that do not increase an organism's survival value in a natural setting, and which therefore cannot be explained through a simplistic explanation of natural selection. We must postulate that something much more was involved in the origin of humanity than just random mutations and natural selection.

If you have a spark of the divine in you, or a soul, you should probably expect that encountering some reality much grander than yourself might trigger some sublime emotion, something like awe. But if you were merely the soulless product of blind chance, you should expect no such thing. If blind Darwinian processes were all that were involved in our origins, you should expect that when you look up at a mountain sky of 6000 dim, distant stars, you should feel absolutely nothing.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

They Will Keep Secret the Human Monsters They Will Create

Genetic engineering was in the news this week. One news item was a National Academy of Sciences study claiming that GMO's (genetically modified food products) are safe. Given how financially entangled scientists are with GMO's, a study written by a committee of scientists may not mean very much. The 2015 scientific paper here is entitled "No Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety." I may note that declaring GMO's are safe (based on past results) may be like declaring that walking through a landmine field is safe, when you are halfway through the landmine field, on the basis that you haven't been blown up yet. Since GMO's are a continuous stream of new products, we can never be sure when the next gene-gamble product may blow up in our faces with devastating results.

Also in the news this week was a secret meeting recently of 150 scientists and entrepreneurs recently at Harvard Medical School. The meeting was to discuss the outrageous idea of making an artificial human genome. This is something exponentially more risky than just creating genetically modified foods. I guess the secrecy of the meeting is a clue as to how things will work in the future, in regard to human genetic engineering. It will probably be very secretive type of work.

It's not hard to figure out why scientists would want to be secretive when engaging in human genetic engineering. The reason is there's a very large chance that attempts at playing God with the human genome will result in hideous failures. Such failures may be given some euphemistic name such as “suboptimal engineering results,” but since the results may be grotesquely deformed humans, a simpler description will simply be “monsters.”

Such failures are almost guaranteed because of all the uncertainties. Contrary to the impression you may have been given, the human genome is not some clearly intelligible blueprint for a human body. The human genome is a collection of chemicals and on/off switches. How these chemicals and on/off switches add up to a human body plan is anything but clear. In fact, there are quite a few reasons for believing that the human genome does not even store the body plan of humans (as discussed here). Even if the genome does store the human body, then that body plan is stored in an exceptionally obscure, roundabout, recondite way. The human genome is like some tower-sized tangled ball of wire, harder to unravel then 50 million lines of what programmers call “spaghetti code.”

The human genome has been compared to machine language, the series of 0's and 1's that are read directly by a computer, but are all-but-unintelligible to humans. In trying to change the human genome, our genetic engineers are like hackers trying to modify a billion bytes of machine language, a body of code which is almost entirely unintelligible. So it is inevitable that many mistakes will be made in the first attempts at human genetic engineering.

We can imagine all kinds of shocking results: humans with a single eye above their noses, humans with mouths that are always wide open, humans with fin-like hands, humans with legs fused together, humans with heads that always droop down, humans without skin, humans with skin that sags down 4 inches, or humans with eyes that can only be opened with the fingers.

We can imagine how damaging it would be to a human genetic engineering effort if a single photo were to be released of a monstrous human body that was the result of faulty genetic engineering. So I imagine that those engaging in genetic engineering of humans will want to keep things secret. A single memorable photo can have a huge effect on public opinion, as was shown by that photo during the Vietnam War of the crying girl fleeing a napalm attack.

But how will the human genetic engineers enforce secrecy? They might do that by making use of the national security apparatus which enforces such draconian penalties for revealing state secrets. It might work like this: the human genetic engineers will appeal to the US government, asking that their efforts be declared a state secret, a secret important to US national security. You can imagine all kind of rationales that might be used. They might claim that the ultimate goal of genetically engineering humans was to create better soldiers, and that therefore genetic engineering of humans should be as secret as developing new types of fighter-jets or tanks.

Once their efforts were classified, the human genetic engineers would have a way to cover up the unfortunate accidents that would be not-uncommon products of their efforts. Perhaps ugly mutants resulting from genetic engineering will be killed off to get rid of evidence of their existence. Or perhaps they will be confined to special confinement cells, hidden from public view. Anyone who photographed such monsters might receive a 20-year prison sentence, on the grounds that he had released classified government information that must be kept secret on national security grounds.

Does it sound too far-fetched to imagine a future government throwing someone in jail for a long time merely for revealing ugly government secrets? I don't think this is too hard to believe, given that Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) is now serving a long prison sentence, mainly for releasing to WikiLeaks an embarrassing video showing a US army helicopter carelessly gunning down civilians.

The hideous truth of genetic engineering failures will be hidden from the public. In the future the public will see pleasant advertisements like the one below, which advertise cases of successful genetic engineering. 

But the public will never learn about the places where the hideous failures of genetic engineering will be kept – places like that shown below:

locked door

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Her Baloney About Hillary Clinton and UFOs

On a blog that is part of the National Geographic web site, a blogger named Nadia Drake posted a post this week with the title “What Hillary Clinton Says About Aliens Is Totally Misguided.” I was surprised by this insinuation that Hillary Clinton had stated a position about aliens. Each day I have been following the presidential campaign coverage on cable TV – how come I had not heard anyone mention it? 
To back up this claim, Drake has a link to an interview in which Hillary Clinton says, “There’s enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting, you know, in their kitchen making them up.” This is the only relevant Hillary Clinton quote which Drake cites.

When I took a look at the interview, I found the relevant part was at 24:11. Here is what Clinton said after being asked about disclosing government UFO files.

Clinton: I want to open the files as much as we can. If mean if there's some huge national security thing, and I can't get agreement to open them, I won't. But I do want to open them. Because I'm interested.

Interviewer: Do you believe?

Clinton: I don't know. I want to see what the information shows, right? But there are enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting, you know, in their kitchen making them up. I think people see things. What they see, I don't know.

Drake provides no evidence at all that Clinton has said anything about aliens. Her claim that Hillary Clinton has said something about aliens is therefore inaccurate. Contrary to her insinuation that Hillary Clinton said something about aliens in the interview, Clinton sounded entirely noncommittal, by twice using the phrase “I don't know” to indicate a lack of any position on whether aliens exist. Drake has misled us by both insinuating that Clinton stated some position on aliens (which she did not), and also insinuating that Clinton advanced some flaky position that is “totally misguided.” Her actual statements on the matter are noncommittal and perfectly reasonable to anyone thinking that the public should be well-informed.

The misleading title of Drake's blog post is not the only fib Drake commits. She starts out her blog post with a lie. She says, “In the spring of 1999, a UFO flew over downtown Ithaca, New York.” After referring to this thing as an "alien object," in the second paragraph she again refers to this object as a UFO. But much later in her post she tells us that this object was actually an upside-down frying pan with a saucepan lid over it – something that she and a classmate had deliberately made to make a fake UFO photo – something she rigged up to a wire (so therefore an object which could not actually have “flown over” the city of Ithaca).

UFO means “unidentified flying object.” It is quite okay to use that term for any object that is both unidentified and flying. So if you see something flying that you can't identify, you can truthfully call that a UFO, even if you later find out that is was natural or man-made. But it is untruthful to use the term UFO to refer to an object that you have constructed yourself for the sake of making a fake UFO photo, for such an object is never unidentified. It was also untruthful for Drake to have used a photo of her fake frying-pan UFO that had the caption, “After a few minutes, the spacecraft turned east and flew over the Cornell campus.”

The rest of Drake's blog post is an attempted debunking of UFO sightings, and it is one of the laziest attempts at UFO debunking I have ever read. Drake shows no evidence of having read up on any specific UFO incidents. She limits herself to lame armchair arguments and irrelevant reminiscing about her summer internships.

Drake suggests that eyewitness testimony cannot be trusted, and says “check out the decades of research that have been done on the reliability of witnesses testifying in court.” Hardly a compelling argument, since we very often do send people to years in prison based solely on eyewitness testimony, because such testimony is in the great majority of cases largely correct. Furthermore, a typical UFO sighting will be written down very quickly, after a time gap much shorter than the months that often elapse between a crime and a witness testimony describing that crime in court. The fact that someone may make a mistake about identifying a face is no reason at all for doubting the accuracy of someone who claims to have seen a huge extremely bright object speeding across the sky (or a mile-long UFO, as at least 30 witnesses reported during the sightings at Stephenville, Texas).

From an observational standpoint, a face is a set of fine details, but UFO reports are almost never reports of fine details – they are instead reports of extremely conspicuous deviations from normality in the sky. Since it is much, much easier to recognize extremely conspicuous deviations from normality in the sky than to recognize faces, any human imperfection in recognizing faces does nothing to impugn the reality of UFO reports.

Drake then trots out the old skeptic slogan that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is a silly slogan, and those who use it never specify what they mean by extraordinary evidence. In the case of UFOs there is, in fact, the most extraordinary evidence of close encounters. Some of the most extraordinary findings of science have been made by just piling up ordinary observations. There's no claim more extraordinary than the claim of the Big Bang, but the evidence that established it is just ordinary kind of evidence such as red shifts and a radiation reading from an unimpressive-looking device in New Jersey. If you were to claim that someone could levitate a rock, that would be an extraordinary claim, but you could establish it with ordinary types of evidence such as three simultaneous live broadcasts by local news stations, and sworn testimony by 20 witnesses.

In her discussion of UFO evidence, Drake implies that it is “little more than unverified anecdotes,” which is a quite misleading statement given the massive photographic evidence (both still photos and videos) that have been made of UFOs. Photographs and videos are not anecdotes. As for “unverified anecdotes,” imagine if 30 people all reported severe stomach pains after eating at a restaurant. Until chemical tests were done, such accounts would be “unverified anecdotes,” but they would be a highly reliable indicator that something important and worthy of attention had occurred.

My suggestions to Ms. Drake are as follows: (1) don't mislead your readers by claiming that a presidential candidate “says about aliens” something that is “totally misguided” when the candidate actually twice said “I don't know” when asked about whether she believed in UFOs; (2) don't publish photos of fake UFOs you have built; (3) if you do publish a photo of a fake UFO you have built, don't put a serious-looking caption underneath the photo making the phony claim that the object is a spacecraft; (4) if you try to debunk UFOs, try to show some slight indication that you have studied the evidence.

 Unidentified object over Bank of America tower in NYC