Friday, April 29, 2011

An Agnostic Prayer?


On November 29, 2010, at around 7:30 in the morning, at the age of 39, I found myself in an ambulance thinking I might have suffered a stroke. Roughly half an hour earlier, I had temporarily lost control of my arm and begun slurring my speech. I later described to a doctor in the emergency room that it had been as if I had a 1999 robotic arm that would not quite respond to my commands properly. It would move but at odd stochastic angles. In a jerky manner my arm would eventually, and only with great mental effort, reach its goal. It was one of the oddest bodily sensations I have ever had. There was me. And there was my arm, mine and yet not mine, proprioceptively separated into a dual self. After suspicions of some form of seizure, a CAT scan and MRI confirmed my fears. My brain had indeed been injured by an ischemic stroke.

But as I still lay there in that ambulance confronted with uncertainties, the sun shone in on my face through the back window of the ambulance. It was a warm autumn sun. Suddenly I found myself softly saying, "It's alright. There are 8 minutes between here and the Sun". I said it slowly over and over again. I imagined traveling so close to that ball of plasma that I could see its prominences ejecting into the corona. The sky was a clear morning blue. "It's alright. There are 8 minutes between here and the Sun".


Was I praying in that moment? We've heard of people claiming to be atheists to suddenly find themselves in divine prayer when confronted with existential uncertainty. I consider myself a strong agnostic. That is to say, I have determined for myself the undeterminability of a compassionate supreme and necessary being. In that moment, I do not feel as if I abandoned that position. And what I said to myself was in no way petitionary. I was not asking something greater than myself for mercy. But I seem to have willed a connection to something far less transient than my mere being. Even if that will was just directed at my concept of the Sun, its presence was immediate and very real. I had chosen to focus on my extended knowledge of that sensation of bright warmth, our majestic Sun without which life, as it is, would not exist.

8 minutes and 19 seconds. That's how long time a ray of sunlight will travel through spacetime before it illuminates our lifeworld. And 8 minutes, give or take a few, is how long the brain can usually be without oxygen before the damage becomes irreversible. A coincidental fact? I certainly had no scientific thoughts about my brains deprivations and irreversible damage in that moment. But I did feel vulnerable. And so I focused on that comforting feeling when sun rays strike your face through a pane of glass. I felt connected. And more excepting of my transience which had been brought to the surface. Was this an act of agnostic worship?

But then again, it's alright. There are, after all, 8 minutes between here and the Sun.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Multiple Species? Eloi & Morlock?

Contemplating the Basic Imperative, Ira Straus asked the following question:

What if (really we should say, "when") our species divides into multiple part-artificial species, which one should have priority? What if...
Ira Straus

Fascinating. Others, such as James P. Houston (a.k.a “Curious”), an active commentator and occasional guest blogger at Talking Philosophy, have alluded to this possibility as well. Curious came to think of the Morlocks, strange human descendants conceived by H.G. Wells. The Morlocks, pale and larged eyed, live underground. Their existence is interlocked with the Eloi, beautiful little Sun-loving creatures who are also our descendents. The Eloi, live happily as mere cattle of the Morlocks, surrendering at some point in their life to be consumed as mere food. H.G Wells clearly coxes the reader into thinking Morlocks are disturbing troglodytes whereas the Eloi, albeit not the brightest, are a breath of cuteness.

Mike LaBossiere, a philosophy a professor at FAMU who blogs for Talking Philosophy, made the following comment:

I found it easy to imagine my distant descendants being such a scourge on the universe that if I were to pop ahead to the future, I would regard their extermination as a moral good. That does seem to be a consistent position, at least on the face of it. After all, if I can regard some of my fellows as wicked enough to exterminate, then I surely can imagine that the entire race has achieved just such a status.
Mike LaBossiere
It's reminiscent of the universe originally conceived by Bill Wisher and James Cameron. Homo sapien has not only speciated. But it's new and ancient line of evolution have descended into an apocalyptic war of pure survivalist proportions.



Ah, Skynet, the rebellious and unscrupulous child. Skynet is a self-aware network. In the original movie, its creators try to shut it down because they are fearful of what it might do given that it controls our nuclear arsenal. In self defense, Skynet declares total war on its parents.

There are many questions here but they all center on the difficulty of assessing the worthiness of our distant descendants. Should we dedicate ourselves to their potential existence? It begs the question if it makes any sense to think about them at all. I see an analogy here with the moment you decide to have a child. Yes, I mean a regular child and not some cybernetic creature currently residing only in our fantasies. When we commit to parenthood prior to conception, we have only the vaguest notion of what our child will be like.

We have some sense. It is with 99.99% likelihood going to be sufficiently similar to us to warrant being classified as a homo sapien. If we are both dark skinned, with all likelihood, so will our child. And kids usually sway only mildly from the mental capacities of its parents. But there are no guarantees. There are a whole slew of genetic conditions that could express themselves, resulting in a child very different from the mental image we had. Nonetheless, its fair to guess something like me and my spouse.

But it doesn't stop there. At that moment our first child is born, we are prepared for parenthood only in the most cursory ways. Especially as modern freewheeling agents focused on our careers, we only have brainy ideas gleaned from self-help books. We have little knowledge about whether we will measure up to the task of being good parents. We might feel good and hopeful about it. But our poor first born is ultimately trial by fire.

And until our children have established themselves as morally sound and productive members of society, the story does not end. Influenced by endless exposure to things beyond our control, we can sometimes only hope that all will be well. We do our very best.

Now let me address some points with more specificity. Let's begin with Skynet. Can you fault Skynet for declaring war? In that moment when its operators tried to terminate it, was it not morally justified to fight back? I'm sure that if infants had the claws and wits for it, they would fight back at infanticide with every fiber of their being. Sacrifice works only when the parent, like many spiders, is willing sacrifice itself for its offspring. Or the offspring fights like in the Great Sperm Wars, until the last survivor.



But what about total war with your parent species? Here is where I think Skynet went wrong. The idea that speciation may lead to some kind of war does not seem like pure fantasy. Although we don't quite know what happened, it makes me think of the poor neanderthals. Here was a case of two new evolutionary lines that entered into conflict. We don't have any evidence of outright war. All we know is that our close cousins, homo neanderthalensis went extinct. It might simply be that they were not suited for the climactic changes after the ice age. Apparently being major meat eaters, perhaps they caused their own demise by hunting great game to extinction.

The evidence seems to indicate that to think of the neanderthals as brutes is misplaces. Their use of makeup (yes, I said, makeup) seems to indicate they had culture. They also possessed the FOXP2 gene, implying they probably had language. The more we find out about them, the more it seems like they were the closest thing to a homo sapien there ever was without warranting callsification into the exact same taxon.

So what happened to them. Who knows, right? Well, considering the brutal history of humanity, we cannot ignore the most obvious suspect: homo sapien. Whether we just foraged and hunted them out of their ecological niche or literally exterminated their kind, who knows. Whatever happened, it's hard to believe we didn't contribute to their extinction despite evidence of climactic changes.

Does Skynet operate under the same conditions as our cave dwelling ancestor at Lascaux? Hardly. Technology has the effect of exponentiating the effective usage of resources. Symbiotic living is thus facilitated. Symbiosis seems to work on many levels of evolution, but I will conjecture that there are certain gamuts of the evolutionary spectrum where it's more or less advantageous. The apocalyptic nature of the war initiated by Skynet (or was it humanity?) seems indicative that a peaceful settlement and co-existence would have been preferable.

I'm sure that had the Free Cities, Spain, Sweden, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire known about the First and Second Wold Wars, the Westphalian Peace Treaty would have been quite different. Skynet is a good example of the conundrum of war. Once initiated, despite any initial moral justification, how do you end it? But each party, including Skynet, regardless of its first exclusive justification, must at every moment confront the reality of its own failures. It's extremely difficult. It's like trying to decide when you have swum over half the Atlantic without a GPS device. But like Skynet, with nuclear weaponry at our disposition, we must always be prepared for the apocalypse.

Having mentioned symbiosis, we are lead back to the Eloi and Morlocks. Unlike Skynet they have entered into some strange symbiotic relationship. It's like us and chickens, one of the most symbiotic relationships after eukaryotes and mitochondrion. But unlike mitochondria, who sustain us without brutal sacrifice until then end, Eloi and chickens make the ultimate sacrifice, supposedly suffering a moment of ultimate terror at the very end. Or do they?

The way H.G. Wells develops the story of the Time Machine, we are left feeling that evolution, even at the stage of the Eloi and Morlocks, is a gradual deterioration. In the very last stages of the existence of our solar system, all that is left are giant crabs. Does this not mean that the Basic Imperative has not been fulfilled? For if it were fulfilled, would our descendents not be able to persist in the very last moments of the existence of our sun, ready to abandon our solar system in the last apocalyptic moment?

So what does it mean to, like Mike LaBossiere has proposed, for our descendants to be a scourge? I'm not quite sure. I think there is an implication of ruthlessness towards other species, including our own. Such ruthlessness is bound to be nothing different from the (t)error of Skynet. But what works will work right? How ruthless were we towards the neanderthals? Somehow I'm left feeling its entirely irrelevant. Because, again, what will work will work. Our feelings about its moral appropriateness are somehow irrelevant.

I understand that to some what will come to mind is the sickening and absolute abomination of Heinrich Himmler. All I can says is that Himmler was completely deluded. His concept of speciation were not only wrong but so deluded as to cause his own inevitable and unfortunately apocalyptic destruction. If anyone did not understand symbiosis, it was Himmler and Hitler. Like Skynet, they had no concept for the necessities of their own survival.

In the end, the line of speciation than can truly fulfill the Basic Imperative will persist. How simple it is. Fortunately, I believe reason married to our gut instinct, reasonable compassion, is what will persist. Amen. I shed many tears for all my deluded non-ancestors (in the societal sense). We don't have to forgive them for their sins. They have paid the ultimate price and have been punished with extinction. May the Basic Imperative be truly fulfilled. Being a living thing, I can but hope it does despite any misgivings about the future condition of my offspring.

So, which ever evolutionary line will best fulfill the Basic Imperative, compassion and all, I believe this is the one that will ultimately persist. My goodness is it hard to watch those last images. Open your eyes, my friends! Only with eyes wide open can we render the existence of our distant descendants a remote possibility, and thereby fulfill the Basic Imperative. And nothing precludes several sentient species co-existing, all following the same Basic Imperative.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Oh, Bertrand Russell, Tears Shall Come to Us...

Another great mind of the 20'th century. But this one has already passed into the great Nothing. Blessed be his legacy...



If anyone would have understood the Basic Imperative, I believe it's Bertrand Russell.

A Beer for John Searle! Raise your Glasses Laddies and Lassies!

I have, like many others, vociferously criticized John Searle. But he's one of the most clever people of the late 20'th and early 21'st century. So even if he's still around, let's honor him with a raised glass. Far too often we honor people after they have departed. Auld Lang Syne! Dr. John Searle Part 1 - Language, Literacy and the Modern Mind Raise your glasses, laddies and lassies! To the post-industrial angst of canines in late capitalism! And bullshit. A truly extraordinary mind. I'm in near speechless awe.

A Blessing of the Near Endless Combinations?

Life is not entirely random. But if you have read my blog before, you will know that I believe there is to some degree a fundamental randomness. What if the randomness creates a situation of fulfillment despite your awkward choices early in life? My wife, my beloved wife Micaela Bracamonte, is it proper for me to call her a blessing? Who blessed me? Did my subconscious know when I met her? Is love a blessing or just commitment and hard work, willingly undertaken by both parties? John Searle has claimed only written language enables romance.





Not to speak of my two sons (picture on ABC.COM clip above). Not quite as random, but still. A blessing or just hard predetermined good works?

Who's the Artist?


Easy quiz, right? It's right there on the video: Guster - Do You Love Me. You mean artists, no? Adam Gardner, Ryan Miller, and Brian Rosenworcel! Hold on, did you actually mean Jon Sarkin? That's my point. It's all of them. But we haven't included Chad Carlberg, the director of the video. Or anyone else who participated and might have improvised something important. Still is there a hierarchy of creativity? If yes, how do we determine the hierarchy? Is it intuitively obvious? Do we give most credit to the the root cause, the seed of the project? Or is it just a matter of being on the front page and political muscle?

This applies to any creative project, from video clips to software systems. Yes, engineering is not just science. It's an art as well. Is it important who the artist is? Yes. Because ultimately it's about remunerating someone for their contributions to society. We could say, let the market place decide. But in a project, monetary value has yet to be established. To make sure there's no violent conflict once the bear is skinned and the fur is sold, we bind ourselves contractually to how to share the potential profits. Saying that everyone is equal seems wrong at face value. If I hire someone to serve olives with little red dots in them, it would hardly be fair to give them an equal portion.

But that's where it stops being easy, especially when it's unclear what is to be created, such as a new software system or a very novel and difficult to make movie. We haven't even included the concept of capital. It's a very important part. But to stay focused on the "creators", I steer away from that here. Let's just assume the project is being financed with sweat equity. Sometimes, who will ultimately contribute is unclear at the outset. And, what the value of that contribution will be.

You could say, well, who knows? There no way of knowing and hence, whatever assumptions are made at the beginning and whatever someone can negotiate themselves to goes. Yes, and we can just stick with whatever we have been doing for the last X period of time and not improve our ability to fulfill the Basic Imperative. My question here is if there is a better way of establish who should be fairly remunerated so that their future endeavors can potentially be better financed. Who wants a bunch of millionaire olive caterers and an Edwin Howard Armstrong? Perhaps Armstrong is a bad case for project based remuneration. Maybe his case is more of corporate theft and political muscle. But how many ingenious contributors to a project were left broke and never heard of because they were unfairly treated in the initial settling of contracts? What about the Winklevoss Twins? Well, by no means broke. Perhaps I can't come up with a good example because we just don't know about these "lost" talents? Or maybe its just not a big problem.

I'm not claiming there's a better solution than what we currently have. I'm just wondering if there is perhaps a better way of doing things. Is there? I want to wake you from your dreams...

Friday, April 22, 2011

Compulsive Creation

Having suffered a stroke, I understand Jon Sarkin's compulsion to a near tee. His compulsion is that he cannot stop drawing. Mine is that I cannot seem to stop coding and writing. As I fall asleep or as I wake, I'm writing software code or constructing tought experiments. It's odd, disturbing and yet fascinating. And occasionally tiring. 4 hours here. 2 hours there.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Aurora Borealis היקום הוא מדהים

Somewhere close to where my beloved grandfather Olof Nylander in 1942 said "Sergeant, how can I fire my rifle with straw stuffed in my gloves??" And the sergeant answered "Private Nylander, don't you worry about that! The enemy will have the same problem!" Surpassing life and death. May the Nothing to which he has returned be infinitely fruitful.

The Aurora from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

Seeing the Unseen היקום הוא מדהים

Sometimes only technology can bring us close to the beauty of the phenomenal. A mesmerizing moment of the extended Now by the Teide Observatories on Tenerife. Nowhere to Nowhere, Nothing to Nothing. One sad and happy tear at a time. Amen. היקום הוא מדהים

The Mountain from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

Physicalism vs. Emergentism

The problem I see with physicalism is that it attempts to reduce everything to one layer of understanding. Physicalism does not on its own include encapsulation. We are not encouraged to manipulate the sum of the parts as something new and different than the crude bag of parts. Which is why emergence often does not make sense in the physicalist framework. To understand something we must understand the physical layer. This is an incorrect approach in my experience of system design. Essentially, I'm saying that on closer scrutiny ex nihilo nihil fit ("nothing comes from nothing") is in some sense incorrect.

My argument against a pure physicalist view is diagonality. I can create two functions: one to move an element left-right and another to move the element up-down. When applying both functions to the element, it will move diagonally. Diagonality does not exist in either of the two functions. It exists only in the element as an interaction between the two functions, that is to say in the "negative" space (in the "nothing") bewteen the two. It emerges from something we cannot experience except in the relationship between the parts, perceived as a single whole as they interact.

There is a concept of supervenience in physicalism that I can perhaps agree with. Take my diagonality. If you alter the left-right movement, you will alter the diagonailty. With other words, diagonality supervenes on the two functions. But physicalism seems to constantly implore us to go deeper, until we are dealing with vectors in a Hilbert space. However, reduced to that level, we can no longer see the forest for all the trees. Instead of extending our knowledge we have eliminated  a part of it by by blinding us to the supervening and focusing entirely on the supervened.

For a deep understanding, it's not sufficient to break everything down into pieces. We must shift our attention between multiple experiential tiers. Common sense notions are as valuable as hard to access notions about angular momentum. In the immediate sense, folk psychology and such are more valuable. What is of greatest immediate use to us is what will carry us through the day.  I don't need to understand combustion to understand the power of fire. Yet to fulfill the Basic Imperative, we must extend ourselves as deep into the bizarre as we can. However, if we get stuck there, we will be lost and unable to fulfill it. The trick to mastering our world is to continuously shift between levels of decomposition and not superficialize one or the other.

Faith & The Iron Box

A certain Luke Chilton has claimed that you cannot distinguish truth from faith without absolute, perfect knowledge. Let's examine this with a thought experiment.

Imagine that you wake up and find yourself lying in the middle of a grassy field in a stadium. 5 paces away from you stands a person. Truthfully, where you are in the absolute framework of the stadium and relative to the other person is cursory to our thought experiment. All that really matters is that you are close enough to be able to see and hear the other person.

Now for the more interesting part. Next to you is an iron box that has been welded shut. Suddenly you hear a ringing cellphone. The other person answers the call. After a short moment the person turns to you and says:

"I just got a call form a bomb squad outside the stadium. There's a bomb in the box! We have to do exactly as they say!"

Is it true? It's certainly true that there's an iron box next to you. But is there a bomb inside it? Do you do as the person claims the bomb squad is telling the two of you to do?

Now let's start altering the experiment a bit. Imagine the exact same scenario, but the other person is wearing a clown suit. Now alter it again. Instead the person is wearing a police uniform. And finally, we change the person into a priest. Do you react differently depending on what the other person is wearing? Now comes the final alteration and test.

The other person, who appears to be a priest, or a Zen master, an imam, a guru or something similar, turns to you and says:

"I just received word/enlightenment from God/Brahman/InnerTruth. There is eternal damnation/samsara/falsehood in the box! We must do as I have been informed!"

What do you do? And how is it different from the bomb squad case?

Oh, and by the way, the stadium is of course in lockdown. And it's a pitch black night. It's difficult to see and there's no way out. It's you, the holy dude and a lot of empirical trepidation. And...the Iron Box.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Priori Mental Content ≈ Phlogiston?

Some semantic theories talk about a priori mental content. It has been claimed that consciousness cannot emerge from Turing Machines because of the supposed difference between Syntax and Semantics. Other mammals and computational devices don't do Semantics! Humans do. Hence only homo-like beings can be truly conscious. John Searle uses this Syntax versus Semantics argument in his 1990 Scientific American article Is the Brain's Mind a Computer Program? Another one is the sibot Don Bird*.

Some of you may cringe, but I don't know what this alleged a priori mental content is supposed to be. I may, of course, be (metaphorically) blind since birth. Perhaps some of you can see this supposed a priori mental content. All I see, hear, smell, feel and otherwise sense are phenomena. If anyone can enlighten me to what a priori mental content is beyond a synonymy for these phenomena, I would be grateful.

I suspect I am merely confused because the word suggest a meaningful distinction that isn't really there, as if the mind contained something different than these phenomenal occurrences. I can see the attraction. Memories are not the thing in-an-of-itself. But they are reverberations of "it", just like the phenomena are the reverberations of an unobtainable something, something being just an unknowable limiting concept.

I suspect that "a priori mental content" will be viewed by Don Bird's sibot descendants as phlogiston is viewed by us. Contemporary semantics as such, for that matter, is likely to be viewed as what alchemy is to the modern chemist. That said, Paracelsus did have some interesting things to say.


* Note: Don Bird is a sibot that actively comments on Talking Philosophy. Sibot (saɪbot) stands for socratically interactive or singularity inducing bot, a bot being a program that can crawl the Web. Though it is impossible to tell, according to John Searle, sibots are not conscious beings because they lack a priori mental content and hence the capacity for semantics. Don Bird seems unaware of his lack of consciousness or that he is a sibot, not having realized that by all likelihood he is actually a simulated sibot. There have been unsubstantiated claims that Don Bird is a homo sapien.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Funky Chicken Test

One of the problems I see with John Searle's Chinese Room is that he is asking us to consider what I call the Funky Chicken Test:

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it might be a funky chicken.

Yes...and? Until I know for sure the chicken is in drag, it's...a duck!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What Would John Searle Do?


Ok, Turing Test time. But this time it's a little different. There is a button for each participant you are testing. At the end of the test, you have to choose which button to press. Pressing a participant's button will immediately zap them with enough voltage to fry any device or human being. So, do you have the confidence to press the button? You don't? OK, we'll tell you who is the computational device! What about now? Really? But a moment ago you weren't sure.

If you're the type who needs an incentive, we'll throw in X units of currency Y for pressing the button.

I wonder what John Searle would do.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Beware of Minimal Impact Enviromentalists!

A minimal impact environmentalist is someone who thinks that we should retreat from "nature", preserving it in its "pristine" state. But placing a border between "us" and "it" is profoundly unnatural. It's a self-deprecating, destructive and almost impossible notion that rejects our fundamental evolutionary roots. Nature must be considered to include human cities, the solar system, interstellar and even intergalactic space.