Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Death of My Father, The Omega Point and The Explanatory Gap part 3

     The 'Explanatory Gap' was a term coined by Levine in the '80s.  It refers to the seeming inability of physical concepts to account for subjectivity.  I have commented on a number of books by folks who seem not to understand this gap or at least seem not to fully appreciate it.  This expression situates the old mind/body and other minds problem in a more modern philosophical idiom( sorry this sounds so pretentious, but philosophy does that sometimes.  Interesting, the basic problems are in some sense always the same but re-expressed.).  Basically, the concepts and inference rules of the natural sciences are not sufficient currently to account for subjectivity.  The view that experience is somehow the result of purely physical processes is called 'physicalism'.  While I ultimately have a strong feeling that all mental phenomena are dependent upon physical phenomena, this has not been proven philosophically.  The evidences of the neurosciences provide, to me, anyway, overwhelming evidence of the mental on the physical, but the philosophical issue still remains.

     How can it be that science shows, I think definitively, the dependen of the mental life on brain structures and yet there is a remaining philosophical problem?  Well, is there a difference between a scientific success and a philosophical one in this context?  Well, if neurologists can identify all the parts of the brain and their activities and how they are correlated with mental states, then that is a complete scientific success.  One way to state the philosophical problem is, how can the conceptual schemes of the modern natural sciences be used to arrive at our subjectivity, say, for example, our experience of 'green' as we experience?  How does one get from the exchange of neurotransmitters etc.. to the color green as we experience it?  There seems to be a conceptual gap.  We seem to be in need of hybrid concepts to move from these physical concepts to subjective phenomena.

  There are a number of issues that also arise in epistemology and evolution:

1.  If the mental is completely the result of the physical, and, as mental, has no causal powers over the physical, why should mental states have come about in the first place? 

2.  Even more, if the mental has no causal powers, then it is cut-off from evolutionary feedback, since its contents are irrelevant.  Without this adaptive pressure, why should mental life be considered a reliable picture of the world we inhabit?  Why shouldn't we just be hallucinating crazy things while our bodies always behave in an adaptive way if the mental has no effect on the physical?  And finally, if our natural sciences are the result of 'observation'(subjective experience), and if there is no reason to trust subjective experience, then why should we trust the conceptual models of the natural sciences that give rise to evolution in the first place??  There's a terrible circularity here.

3.  If mental life is causally powerful, what kind of causality is this?  It must be 'mental causation', whatever that means, and that sounds spooky, and nonscientific.  I understand scientists' reluctance to consider such ideas.

We can hope that somehow in the future this problem can be solved, but it won't be solved I think by science continuing to operate with only current conceptual tools.  How to add new tools without becoming weirdly metaphysical?  I don't know.

The explanatory gap still allows those who are so inclined to involve ideas like Chardin's and others into their theories.  I will talk about this next time.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Death of my Father, the Omega Point, and the Explanatory Gap part 2

     The Omega Point is the ultimate supreme consciousness toward which the universe was being drawn.  There is a great wikipedia article on the Omega Point, by the way.  It is certainly a comforting thought that one is part of a larger, infinite whole, Dad used to tell he was a panentheist:  I hope that Dad was indeed taking great comfort in his philosophy/theology during the final days of his arduous illness.

     It's not fair that I get to have comments on this philosophy after his passing, but I think Dad would want me to continue thinking about it both privately and publicly, so here goes...  I completely reject this entire philosophy.  I see nothing in the Universe to suggets it tends toward anything grand.  It all seems to me to be, in the words of Bertrand Russell(please excuse any sexism and/or stereotyping of Victorian governesses), "Full of spots and jumps, without continuity, without coherence or any of the other properties that governesses love."  Note that this quote is from Russell's work 'The Scientific Outlook' written in 1930 -- he actually accused Huxley of plaigerizing some of his ideas in Brave New World.

     It's true that we see our own development from earlier forms as one of increasing complexification from simpler life forms.   It seems logical that a certain ramping up of complexity in brain functions would have been very advantageous. But it is does not follow that 'consciousness' will continue to 'increase', whatever that even means.  Once machines develop the ability to produce machines with capabilities that we can't, and even to decide which machines should be built, we really will be seeing the effect of a 'singularity', but I can't see from a philosophical point of view, why these machines would be conscious our would improve our consciousness.  Nor is it clear that any increase of consciousness will have the moral qualities my father would hope for. 

    As an aside, when I was a Mennonite, I believed that an absolute commitment to nonviolence was the way of the future.  I am still committed to nonviolence but violence seems to be an inescapable part of evolution; aggression, with its attendant evils, is just part of survival.  I think now, despite what might be my fondest hopes, that violence is here to stay, it may even get worse.  As an individual, though, I can still see the benefit of supporting nonviolent means for dealing with conflict.
I thought youth was supposed to be idealistic, but it appears my father was more idealistic in his thinking than I am.

In the next post I will examine the relationship between evolution, Chardin, and the famous 'Explanatory Gap' in the philosophy of mind.



Friday, September 21, 2012

My Father's Death, The Omega Point and the Explanatory Gap part 1

     During his final illness, Dad found solace in the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, a renegade Jesuit whose teachings were denounced by the Church(typical of the folks Dad admired).  When I went to see him in  2012, he asked me for my thoughts about the evolution of consciousness and life.  I gave him what I considered to be a textbook Darwinian answer to the effect that it's all random with no goal or point whatsoever, that development is determined locally by pressure of environment on the available genetic pools etc, etc....  Dad had clearly determined otherwise.  Evolution was, and is, in what I take to be his view, a developmental process that has more in common with the enlargement and expression of a universal Mind one finds in Hegel than the ad hoc adaptations I see in standard Darwinism.  He explicitly mentioned Teilhard de Chardin to me at the time.

     Related ideas such as rapidly accelerating rates of technological change, including the so-called singularity, , and various incarnations of de Chardin's notion of the Omega Point, abound, including in the rather strange writings of scientists like Frank Tipler(author of a textbook on modern physics).   Other related ideas include the Noosphere, , with origins both in Chardin and in the once uber-famous, but now virtually forgotten, Henri Bergson. 

     Dad seemed to believe at the end that somehow the next phase of evolution would include a reconstitution of extended family communities.  I never fully grasped the relation between the extended family he was speaking of and universal evolution, but it meant something to him.  Normally folks think of modernity as the enemy of the romantic notion of extended families, but perhaps Dad had hit upon some other notion, perhaps because distance is erased by instant communication, but this is speculation. 

     It not surprising therefore that Dad opted for a 'green' burial.  It would have been important in his eyes to reintegrate the remains of his last substance to the Earth and the universal process. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney doesn't seem to want to be President

     The only thing I can figure from the string of stupidity coming out of the Romney campaign, beginning with the flop of a convention, is that he doesn't actually want to be President of the United States.  Neither do I, but there have to be easier ways to go about not being President.

     I also agree that in his heart of hearts Romney is a people-pleasing moderate.  I agree with those who see him as ambitious but with no idea what he's about.  He and Ryan made an obvious, and failed, attempt to capitalize on the middle east riots -- but perhaps Romney's heart wasn't really in it.  The only way I can see Romney now failing in his bid to not be President is if Obama does something abysmally stupid in one of the debates. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

More outrageous behavior...

Another thing I did that may or may not be attributable to father was a play I wrote in 9th grade.  Evidently this was in response to an assignment of some kind.   I decided to write a play called 'Odysseus and the Malaka Monster'.

Three or four of us put this play on in front of the class ending in the refrain 'Malaka here, Malaka there, Malaka, Malaka, everywhere.'  As we did this we repeatedly made an obscene gesture to the class which fortunately the teacher had not seen before.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Some thoughts on what I owe my father part 1

I've had some time to think about the things I can trace back to my Dad as his illness has progressed.  Things about me, who I am, that I think are most clearly coming from him.  Those of you who know me well know a few things about me: I'm obsessed with philosophy, I have a sense of humor and a willingness to say things that step WAY over the line.  I also love Mozart -- love is probably too mild a word here. 

This is going to sound trite and stupid, but my intellectual life has been absolutely dominated by a drive to know the truth.  It drove me to study philosophy, physics, mathematics, literature etc...
There is no doubt that this drive ultimately comes from my Dad.  While Dad and I have been different in how we express this, it comes from the same bent of mind.  I'll never know whether it's simply genetic, part of my brain fires the same way as his, or whether it was something I acquired from my time with him, but it is definitely there. 

Along with this devotion comes a tendency to push everything aside but the truth, including being popular, polite, agreeable, etc...  There is an existential tendency to say/do things to prove one has the intellectual freedom to do so.  This can lead to behavior others see as outrageous.  I understand this.

I'll give you an example...  I had this class with these stuck-up, silver spoon in their mouths types, types I figured, condescendingly, would wind up leading boring bourgeois shit lives.  The class was led by someone I saw as a pretentious blowhard.   One day I was sitting next to this prof around the seminar table.  He started gesticulating in the most affected manner.  From deep inside me came a sense of freedom, and rebellion frankly, and I actually began mocking him.  Recall: I WAS SITTING RIGHT NEXT TO HIM!  Obviously he caught me.  He looked at me and said 'I'm the one with t he PhD here.'  I just shrugged my shoulders.

Monday, September 3, 2012

My recent reading of history

      Well, lately I've been reading a lot of history.  I guess it happened when I was learning about Chinese culture and religion.  I found that my understanding of China from the 19th century to today helped me understand everything else going on in the world a bit better.  So I decided to go back and look at WW2.  I've done a lot of reading about the causes of WW2, including much of a biography of Hitler.  At the same time I got a huge book on world history.  It's like I'm trying to get some picture of history in my mind I can carry around all at once.  It's like I'm trying to have a clearer sense of who and what I am by looking more thoroughly at where I am in history.  It's a kind of culmination of my education.

    On the other hand world history is disjointed enough that this desire of mine for this kind of integration is bound to be unfulfilled.  And furthermore, if I succeed what will I gain?  I'm hoping I won't feel so much like I'm floating in the middle of nowhere. But in order to not feel like that I have to have the context in front of my mind.  Whenever this context is out of mind I will have the feeling of my mind floating in space.  So, this sense of 'home' I'm looking for is bound to be intermittent no matter what.

     The lack of orientation I feel is probably an outcome of losing my ambition and my sense of purpose.  On the one hand, having the past before my mind might help me derive ambition or a sense of purpose, on the other hand, life has so constricted my choices regarding what I can do, where I can go, etc.. many purposes I might like to try are out of bounds.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mr. Rubio's Speech at the Republican Convention

     Yes, I caught Eastwood's appearance at the convention, about which much has been said, but it was less interesting to me than Mr. Rubio's speech that followed.  Marco Rubio is an impressive public speaker.  I see that he is bucking to be a leader in the republican party, and he certainly has the talent. I don't know what his ambitions are, perhaps the presidency, but he has the chops to do it.  That said, I also found Rubio's speech almost entirely devoid of content. Of course,  knowing how to spend time in front of a crowd and say nothing for 15 minutes or so is also an essential political skill.

    The one place he actually said something got on my nerves. He said that belief in God is the most important American value of them all.  Well, Mr. Rubio, no it isn't.  Remarks like this actually scare me a little bit.  He may believe this, or he may think it made a good soundbite.  In any case at least some of his audience holds this position -- and that bothers me.  I am now one of those people whose nerves are rankled by such remarks.  The United States has a history of religious intolerance.  Despite the First Amendment, let's face it, non-Christians have faced constant discrimination in the United States; this includes even peoples of the other 'Abrahamic' faiths.  Things have obviously gotten much better over the last couple of centuries, but we should continue to push America forward and not be silent when this parochialism rears its head.

    On the other hand, I've recently been made aware of some rather offensive billboards put up by the American Atheists in NC.   It is understandable that atheists who feel discriminated against by the rest of our society might express themselves in offensive ways, but it is still not helpful.  But let's not forget that the billboards had to be taken down because of threats.  Threats simply make the point that the U.S. still has a long way to go when it comes to religious tolerance and the acceptance of those with other beliefs as full-fledged Americans.

     In the end we should replace pronouncements about faith as the most important value and mockery of people's beliefs with reasoned debate about these issues.  It is the habit of questioning, and the respect for argument itself, that makes Socrates the most important figure in the history of philosophy.  I'm certainly no Platonist,  but the starting point for all good thought is open-minded exchange.  Mockery, such as that on the billboards, and dogmatic pronouncements, such as that by Mr. Rubio, are distractions from argument, and such distractions can have very negative consequences.