Category Archives: philosophy

A valley in the Alps

How to measure consciousness

What is consciousness? Is it an all-or-nothing affair? Or are some beings more conscious than others?

Even though we may not know the answers to many of these questions, we have some clues. It seems intuitively obvious that a bacterium is more conscious than a rock but less than a person. This may be wrong, but on the surface it seems plausible. I think I have found a way to show that, indeed, this is the case. What follows is my take on the matter.

There is already a serious attempt at describing and measuring consciousness: I am talking, of course, of Tononi’s famous Integrated Information Theory. My gut feeling -though I have very little more than that- is that Tononi’s theory at least partially describes some of the conditions for consciousness. It also seems obvious to me that highly conscious organisms will have high values of “phi,” Tononi’s measure of consciousness. However, as Scott Aaronson points out in his blog, there may be many systems with a high “phi” but nothing that we could call consciousness.

I think Tononi is missing something, and that something is the rest of the world. That is: when Tononi talks about a conscious system, he only talks about that system, but not its surroundings. But consciousness is not just consciousness: consciousness has to be consciousness of something. Organisms evolved to perceive the world around them and make sense of it in order to survive. Consciousness cannot be understood without this.

I propose that the degree of consciousness of a being is proportional to the correlation between its internal states and the state of the universe. That is: the more sensitive the internal state of a being is to the state of the universe, the more conscious it is.

This will be clearer with an example. Think about a rock: its behaviour is completely determined by its weight, shape and current position. Let’s say this rock is in a valley in the middle of the Alps: the shape of the peak 50 km from it has no bearing whatsoever on the internal structure of the rock. Neither does the colour of the tree 20 m from it, nor the rattle of the wings of a crow in the distance. Only the most immediate vicinity (and hardly so) has an influence on the internal state of the rock. I don’t need to know what is happening around the rock to understand its crystalline structure.

How about a person? Well, this morning I happened to be in that valley, looking at the mountains around me. It turns out that the shape of the peak 50 km from me had a notable influence on my internal state, as it determined the firing of my neurons. So did the rattle of the wings of the crow. Of course, the cow pasturing besides me may have felt similar things. Is it as conscious as I am? Hardly. For example, I have studied physics and know about the Big Bang and inflation. My mental states are, therefore, determined by things that happened billions of years ago and which are completely outside of the realm of what a cow may wonder about. Yesterday I was reading about the history of Rome: this means that events that transpired thousands of kilometres from my current position have a measurable influence on my internal state. I am highly interconnected with the rest of the universe. In fact, I am a more faithful mirror of the cosmos than a cow or a rock. It is safe to say, then, that I am more conscious.

How could we measure this? How can we put a number on the degree of consciousness? I have a couple of ideas, but they are half-baked (I thought of this barely 4 hours ago.) The first is to use a measure from physics called “entanglement entropy,” which measures the degree of entanglement between two systems. A highly conscious system should exhibit a high entanglement entropy between itself and the rest of the universe. Since one could theoretically add entanglement just by adding things to the system, I think that probably entanglement entropy density would be a better candidate, but the idea is the same.

Unfortunately, this would be very hard to calculate for a system such as a human. There may be other measures, based on classical probability theory. For example, I could ask myself how different my mental states would be if I changed a certain chunk of the universe, then measure the degree of correlation. This would certainly be easier, though I would have to find a systematic way of going about it. There may already be some way of measuring this type of correlation that I am not aware of: if so, please leave it in the comments and I will be eternally grateful. It could also be that the measurement is related to Tononi’s “phi,” but adding the extra requirement that the processing links to some entity outside the conscious being.

This is as far as my thoughts go as of now. I am dumping them here in hope of some sort of feedback though, after how long this blog has been in hibernation, I would be surprised to get any. If you’re still there and feel like dropping a line, it would be most welcome.

The Fuzz about Fuzzy Logic

You have a heap of sand and take a grain of sand from it. Is it still a heap? If you answered “yes,” then, by virtue of induction, you will be forced to admit that one grain of sand is also a heap, as well as no grains of sand, since I can recursively ask you the same question for a million times and you will be forced to give me the same answer. This is the famous Sorites paradox and it is one of the many reasons there are for abandoning classical logic.

Classical logic can be thought of as common-sense logic. For each statement, there are two possibilities: it is either true or false. There is no such thing as a half-true statement. This seemingly obvious requirement actually causes problems, such as the paradox above. It is precisely this which allowed me to mathematically prove immortality is moral a week or so ago: by not allowing the sentence “living for X years” to be more or less true, the reader got stuck with a black or white choice.

Fuzzy logic, invented in the seventies by Lofti Zadeh, aims to change all of that. The idea is extremely simple but very powerful: expand the concept of truth. Let a sentence be 70% true or 30% false, depending on your aesthetic preference.

en: A clothes dryer using "fuzzy logic&qu...

A clothes dryer using “fuzzy logic”. This is a Candy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike what it may seem, this has nothing to do with probabilities. That a sentence is 70% true does not mean that it has a 70% percent probability of being true: that would be falling back into old, classical logic. What it means is precisely what it says: the sentence is partly true and partly false. The perfect example is a glass which is 70% full. Is it full? Well, kind of. Is the sentence true? Well, kind of.

Fuzzy logic solves the Sorites paradox by allowing the truth-value of a sentence to decrease gradually. If I remove a grain from a heap of sand, is it still a heap? Yes, but less so than before. For example, we could say that the truth value of “this is a heap” decreases by 1 divided by the total number of grains of sand, for example.

There seem to be several issues with this. For example: how do you assign the truth-values? Isn’t it arbitrary to say that a sentence is 53.4% false? How do you know it’s not 53.5?

Here there are several points to be made. Firstly, the beauty of fuzzy logic is that the particular numbers do not matter, but only the relationship between them. That is: any transformation that leaves the hierarchy of truths untouched will not affect the outcome of our operations. Secondly, the sentence “this sentence is 53.4% true” is also fuzzy: there is no point in asking whether it is true or not, but only in asking how true it is. In this sense, one could think of a meta-fuzzy logic on fuzzy predicates themselves.

Fuzzy logic is an offshoot of another branch of mathematics called “fuzzy set theory.” In this case, the idea is even simpler: one element can belong to a set to a certain extent. Using the example from before, we could say that a glass which is 70% full belongs to the set of full glasses to a 70% degree. This will be important later, when defining fuzzy integrals.

English: 3D Graphical Representation of an ope...

English: 3D Graphical Representation of an operator usable in fuzzy logic (a set of several fuzzy operators is provided) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fuzzy logic is not speculative mathematics and it is not open to debate, in the same way that Riemannian geometry is not open to debate. It is routinely used in electronics and artificial intelligence and powers almost every washing machine in the planet, as well as most likely the brakes of your car. So it is not just an idea put forward by some detached mathematician: it is being used every day to run stuff in your everyday life.

Fuzzy logic can also be used in philosophy for a number of things. A lot of philosophical problems can be dealt with by realizing we’re using classical logic instead of fuzzy statements. Take, for example, individuality. I think I am an individual; however, my two brain hemispheres are not. If you and I were connected with the same bandwidth as my two hemispheres (sharing thoughts, memories, perceptions and the like) we would most likely feel as if we were one individual. One could use this to justify there is no such thing as an individual, since we cannot draw the line between individual and non-individual.

However, this can be easily overcome using fuzzy logic. One can allow for the sentence “X is an individual” to be fuzzy, thus having truth-values between zero (totally false) and one (totally true.) In fact, it is possible to define the degree of individuality as:

I = 1 – (Information exchanged externally) / (Information exchanged internally)

Which, as you can check for yourself, behaves properly for the extreme cases. Bear in mind, though, that any other definition preserving the truth hierarchy would work just as well.

Warm fuzzy logic member function

Warm fuzzy logic member function (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On to more abstract stuff. If you are allergic to math, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs!

You may be familiar with something called an “integral” in mathematics. An integral is just a sum of some value over some region of space. A perfect example is the height of a mountain at different coordinates. An integral adds up each of these values (the height at point A plus the height at point B and so on), multiplied by the (infinitesimal) area element they are on.

Plot of approximations to integral of sqrt(x) ...

An integral of the square root function: we add up each value, multiplied by the length increment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can imagine an integral as adding up all the values that belong to a certain set, defined by the area or volume where we are performing the addition. But what if we make this set fuzzy? What if we say “the points in the middle count for sure, but for the ones at the border we’re not so sure”? In this case, the number we will get at the end will be a fuzzy number, determined by how strongly each point belongs to the set. This can be particularly useful for determining areas of regions which are not well delimited, for example.

Fuzzy logic is not the only alternative to classical logic. There are other contenders, such as intuitionist logic (which is pretty similar, though) or quantum logic, each of which has its own merits, demerits and areas of application. I am particularly attached to fuzzy logic because I derived it independently using something called “tensors” in my early twenties and was fascinated (and a little bummed) to discover it was already invented. I also think it may be the answer to predicaments such as the one brought about by Gödel’s theorem, an Earth-shaking mathematical result that I will tackle at some other point.

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Is Artificial Intelligence Possible? Well, Yes

The debate on the possibility of artificial intelligence seems to rage on, despite the fact that one side’s position verges on the supernatural. In here I want to try to debunk once and for all the claim that it will never be possible to produce a sentient machine.

Here are the two sides of the debate:

  1. Intelligence can be reproduced artificially.
  2. Intelligence cannot be reproduced artificially.

In between those there are a number of shades of gray. For example, Penrose would be on the “artificial intelligence is possible” side while adding “but we would need a quantum computer for that.”

In order to argue my point I will assume we are material beings. That is, our intelligence and understanding do not come from a soul that resides outside the physical realm, but from the workings of our brain. I think any rational, scientifically-minded person will agree with this.

Frog Brains <i>in</i>, umm... <i>sort of vivo</i>?

Frog Brains in, umm… sort of vivo? (Photo credit: Mal Cubed)

If we accept that we are material beings and that intelligence is what brains do, then the two sides of the debate are reduced to:

  1. It is possible to create an artificial brain.
  2. It is impossible to create an artificial brain.

If by “artificial” we mean “made by people” then there is no debate: artificial brains have been created already. In fact, they are being produced by the scores every day, using a very ancient and pleasant procedure most of us are quite familiar with.

If by “artificial” we mean “made by means other than having babies” then, no, we still haven’t created a brain. Is it possible? Certainly yes. Using stem cells we can produce neurons which we can then connect. Given enough time, we could definitely create a brain: maybe not a human brain (not in a while, anyway) but a brain nonetheless.

However, by “artificial” most people mean “non-biological.” In this case, things seem to be a bit more debatable. But consider this: it is possible to create a machine or a piece of software that reproduces the behavior of a neuron, at least in its relevant parts. This has not only been done, but is the basis for a lot of our current technology. Yes, these virtual neurons are not the same as real ones, but that is because we have no need to add self-maintaining routines and reproduction. We have stripped neurons down to the characteristics that are important for cognition.

Deutsch: Phrenologie

Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given enough neurons and enough information on how to place them, it is fairly obvious we could create a thinking brain. You can think of it this way: I make a machine that mimics the behavior of a neuron and I replace one of your real, live neurons with it. I repeat the procedure millions of times until your whole brain is made up of those artificial neurons. There you go: an artificial brain.

This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of the objections to the possibility of artificial intelligence. Most of them include a somewhat veiled belief on the soul, as well as a romanticized view of what “knowledge” and “understanding” mean.

I think the issue that prevents people from intuitively agreeing that machines will be (or are) able to think is that they confuse knowledge and understanding with the feeling of knowing or understanding. Our brains are statistical processors: they receive inputs from the exterior and construct statistical models based on the most likely scenario. This allows them to operate with insufficient information and to optimize problem-solving algorithms which would otherwise take too long to process. Certainty is expensive.

However, that is not what we feel. When we know something, we can feel it. We know we know. We can almost touch the certainty. We also feel understanding in a way that we cannot readily explain and therefore are unable to imagine a machine, which is a mechanical being, understanding anything. But those feelings are not knowing and understanding: they are just ways our bodies have of telling us a certain model is trustworthy, in the sense that operating according to it has a very small chance of resulting in an unfavorable outcome.

English: Complete neuron cell diagram. Neurons...

English: Complete neuron cell diagram. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think the “Chinese room” argument by John Searle is so appealing precisely because it appeals to our feelings of understanding and not to its operational definition. In this thought experiment, there is a person in a room who only speaks English but who, following a certain amount of rules in his language, is able to build strings of Chinese characters that sound like native speech. Searle equates saying that a machine “understands” with saying the English person in the room can speak Chinese. He certainly doesn’t!

This argument is misguided because it does not understand how intelligence works. For example, each of the neurons in my brain acts according to a specific set of rules. And, indeed, none of them speak English. What speaks English is the aggregate of neurons that makes up my self: the knowledge resides in the system. Similarly, while the person in the Chinese room does not speak Chinese, the expert system constituted by him and the set of rules certainly does. The argument fails because it assumes knowledge has to be placed in a singular location, whereas it is actually distributed. The fact that the same thought experiment can be applied to our own brains to reach exactly the same conclusion should tell us one of two things:

  1. There is really no intelligence, natural or artificial.
  2. Intelligence is distributed and is not what Searle thinks it is.

The intuitive argument against artificial intelligence is, however, extremely powerful, since it is grounded on very vivid feelings and strong beliefs. I don’t expect to have convinced anyone, but at least I hope you will consider the possibility that knowledge and understanding are not equivalent to the feeling of having them; I would also be greatly pleased if this made you reflect on the nature of intelligence and understanding; even more if you shared your thoughts below.

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No Such Thing as Causation

A recurrent argument for the existence of God is that of the “uncaused cause.” What caused the Big Bang? Did this all come from nothing? There must have been something to set it all in motion, a First Cause. God.

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning uses a concept that may sound uncontroversial but is in fact quite problematic: causation. Here I will argue two things:

  1. There is no such thing as causation in the universe.
  2. There is no suitable definition of causation.

The first one is easy to argue by taking a physicalist approach. By this, I mean that the state of the universe at any given time is determined and is such that it can be derived using some set of fixed rules. This doesn’t mean there really are a set of rules written in the sky or that electrons are little people who read those rules and comply.


I don’t know why this photo is called “causality” but there are robots on it. (Photo credit: Clement Soh)

The thing about the laws of physics is that they’re a bunch of differential equations. In order to solve a differential equation one needs two things: the equation itself and something called a “boundary condition.” A boundary condition is just the requirement that the function have a certain value at some point. For example, in order to solve the differential equations for a harmonic oscillator I have to specify where it was at the beginning. However, I could also specify where it was after 10 seconds or 30,000. I just need to set one instant and the rest of the motion becomes determined.

In this sense, then, how can I say the present causes the future? Boundary conditions may be set at the past or at the future; once that’s done, the rest is determined. It makes as much sense to say the past causes the future as to say the futures causes the past.

If you adopt a relativistic approach, things are even clearer: in relativity, time and space are just part of a 4-dimensional space and are exactly as real. In this sense, our universe is just a frozen 4-dimensional shape and, therefore, no causality applies, since there is no evolution.

Hence, there is no such thing as causality in the universe.

However, one can still try to find a finding a working definition of causation which preserves what we understand by it. It is a tricky issue, which still has philosophers scratching their heads as I write this.

The first idea one comes up with is that some event A always happens before some other event B; furthermore, if we want this to be more than correlation, B shouldn’t happen unless A happened before. That is, A is necessary for the occurrence of B.

However, this does not apply to the vast majority of situations one can think of. For example, let’s take lighting a match. We could say that friction causes the match to light: it happens before and, without it, the match won’t light. However, this doesn’t always work. If the match was doused in water, for example, the match still won’t light. Therefore, requiring a cause to be sufficient is not feasible.

There is a way around this, suggested by Mackie. He says that a cause is an “insufficient but necessary part of a sufficient but unnecessary condition.” That is: friction is necessary but insufficient, whereas the absence of water and gusts of CO2 are the rest of the sufficient but unnecessary condition.

The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-li...

The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-linear dynamical system. Studying this system helped give rise to Chaos theory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, there is a problem, thanks to chaos theory. Chaos theory applies to any system of, say, more than five particles. The idea is that complex systems are so sensitive to initial conditions that their behavior becomes impossible to predict after enough time. What this means is that, in principle, a match could spontaneously light up without us scratching it against any surface, so that friction is not necessary. It could also happen that we have all of our sufficient conditions in place and the match still didn’t light. So our sufficient condition is not sufficient.

If you don’t like chaos theory and think that I’m using the wrong physics, the issues I just pointed out still apply when using quantum mechanics (and then some).

It may be able, however, to define some kind of probabilistic causation. This type of causation is evidently not as useful as the previous one. It certainly seems less impressive to think of a deity setting the universe in motion “with a 52.3 chance.” A probabilistic causation would work like this: given a controlled environment, one will observe fixed probabilities for the occurrence of certain pairs of events.

Whether this qualifies as causation is open to debate, but let’s assume it does. This account has the usual problems: isolation is hard to define and to apply and the probabilities will be real numbers, which have infinite precision and are therefore impossible to check. One can get around those by specifying reasonable accuracies and error margins, just like scientists do every day.

Bayes theorem

Bayes theorem (Photo credit: disownedlight)

There is another issue, though, which concerns the very nature of probability. When we say that an event has a probability of 72% of happening we don’t mean that, if we try 100 times, it will happen 72. We mean that, as the number of tries approaches infinity, the ratio between the number of events and the number of tries will approach 0.72. But this doesn’t have to happen: in fact, I could spin heads or tails a million times and always get heads. There’s nothing in the laws of probability to prevent this. Of course, if that happened I’d be quite suspicious, with my level of certainty that the coin is rigged approaching 100% as each spin yields tails. But the thing is I have no way to check. Probabilistic causality does not work either.

So, should we throw causality and be done with it? I don’t think so. There is room for causation, as long as we realize it is nothing but a shortened way of speaking about statistical correlations between events that happen because of how matter is organized in space-time. But taking the idea of cause and effect too far will lead us to nonsensical conclusions, because causation as a concept is unsound when it is applied outside its area of definition.

I hope this article caused you to have a good time. However, we can never be sure.

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A Mathematical Proof that Immortality is Moral

(Disclaimer: this is meant as a joke, not as serious proof.)


1. There is at least a number N such that living for N years is moral.

2. If living for M years is moral, then so is living for M + 1 years.

From here we reason by induction:

3. Living for N years is moral  (because of (1)).

4. Living for N + 1 years is moral (because of (2)).

5. Living for (N + 1) + 1 years is moral (because of (2)).

6. Living for ((N + 1) + 1) + 1 years is moral (because of (2)).

7. Living for ((((….(N + 1) + 1) + 1)…) years is moral (because of (2) applied repeatedly).

Rearranging the terms from (7) we get:

8. Living for N + M years is moral, where M is any integer, no matter how large, and N is any arbitrary integer.

Therefore, it is moral to live for K years, where K is any integer which can be arbitrarily large. In other words, it is moral to have an arbitrarily large lifespan: for any number of years, it can be shown there is always a larger number of years for which living is moral.


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On Art, Awe and Simulations

I recently read two great posts on art by livelysceptic and bloggingisaresponsibility, followed by an amazing reply by Steve Armstrong. Today I’d like to add my grain of sand, bearing in mind what I say will be mostly applicable to music and literature, being as I am extremely ignorant of more visual art. And again and just in case people forget, these are just tentative ideas that I myself don’t take too seriously but that, hopefully, will give someone a little to think about.

One thing caught my attention in Steve’s extremely long reply to bloggingaresponsibility: he said that art is not about transmitting feelings and that, when it is, he considers it “amateur.” I think I understand what he means: it’s easy to make a sad song. That’s not the goal. The goal is to make a great sad song. However, I’d like to elaborate a bit and say that art is about transmitting feelings. In fact, it is about causing a very particular feeling in the receiver: awe.

Awe is hard to define, but it usually arrives when we are confronted with something that we can barely comprehend. Something that seems too big for our mind to contain. Awe may be felt when gazing at the stars or the ocean, but the feeling is particularly humbling when facing something made by another human being.

But where does this awe come from? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it may be related to the ability to simulate another mind. By this, I mean the ability to reproduce in our heads the author of that particular piece’s train of thought in making it. Here I am drawing on my own experience, so I am not sure whether this applies to other people.

Beckwith James Carroll Lost in Thought

Beckwith James Carroll Lost in Thought (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I listen to a song, I don’t limit myself to listening. In fact, I unconsciously analyze what I’m hearing and try to predict what’s coming. I’d say most of us do this or there would be little point in saying a song does something “unexpected.” In this sense, I am simulating the author in my head. When I am perceiving art, my mind automatically tries to simulate the thought process that produced it.

Sometimes, what I am hearing or seeing feels so completely alien that it remains a mystery. In this case, I don’t feel much when facing it. It could be a work of genius or it could be a piece of crap, but I have no way of knowing. Sometimes, I will hear or see something so familiar that I can almost picture every step in the creation process. In this case, I will probably deem the work “naïve” and move on. But sometimes, there is just enough for me to understand what the author was trying to do, but not enough for me to reproduce their thought process. That’s when the awe comes.

But let me elaborate, because I feel I’m not managing to communicate what I mean.

James Blunt en concert le 19 juillet lors du f...

James Blunt. He’s beautiful. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I’ll be listening to a song and, after two measures, I’ll be able to predict the rest of it. This causes a very particular feeling: boredom. In some, very rare occasions, I’ll even be able to predict the lyrics. I remember listening to James Blunt’s “You’re beautiful” for the first time and, after he said “and I don’t know what to do” I remember thinking: “please, for the love of God, don’t say “cause I’ll never be with you.”” Alas, he didn’t listen to my inner voice, thus causing another, very familiar feeling: embarrassment.

The same happens with books. Nothing kills a book more than being able to see its sewers. Reading a passage and thinking: “here the author was trying to be deep” or “now he wants me to feel sad.” When you manage to picture the author writing these lines, to simulate his thought process when writing, the book is doomed.

Art lives at the outer border of understanding. Sometimes we can get a glimpse of the author’s thought process, but the glimpse dies quickly and we’re just left with awe. Take Bach, for example. You can listen to Bach and try to follow each one of the many parallel melodies he manages; you probably won’t succeed. You can follow one for a while, then another. Sometimes you’ll be aware of two and maybe, at a moment of clarity, you’ll be able to gaze upon the whole in its full glory for a split second, enough to marvel at the genius of this man who not only was able to follow the voices but to write them, and then you’ll be back into darkness, having experienced awe. The same happens when you listen to Clare Fischer’s solo piano excursions or to Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.”

edited image of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, signin...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In literature, the feeling of awe comes (to me) from perfectly-rounded novels like Kundera’s “Immortality” or Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Works where each page counts but, maybe more importantly, where after reading the last page you are left with a feeling of completeness, of perfection. Nothing is there by accident; everything makes sense. You can perceive that roundness, that wholeness, but you wouldn’t be able to create it. You are unable to reproduce the author’s thought process, you can’t simulate their mind. You are smart enough to understand why what they did is so awe-inspiring; you’re just not smart enough to be able to create something like that yourself. Their work seems to come from a different, more elevated place that you will never be able to reach.

Hence, awe.

It is also possible to feel awe at other acts of human creation that would not generally be considered art. I felt awe when I first learned about general relativity and Riemannian geometry. I felt it when I saw the Euler formula for complex numbers and when I first learned about quantum mechanics and Hilbert spaces. I felt it when I discovered Gödel’s theorem and I learned about its implications for my beliefs on mathematical truth.

Would I define art this way? I am not sure. Maybe art is anything that strives to cause this feeling, the varying levels of success being the difference between great, good and bad art. Maybe not.  And of course, whether the art is considered good or bad will also depend on the observer: that which is too obvious to me may be not so obvious to you and vice-versa. The divide between the musical tastes of musicians and non-musicians seems extremely pronounced and is easily explained by the different capacities to simulate the creation of that particular piece.

Anyway, these are my fifty cents on art. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

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Using Technology to Modify Desires

I recently ran into this article from Noahpinion, an economics blog with a penchant for science fiction that I highly recommend. He spoke about something he called D-Mod or “desire-modification technology.” He argued in his article that D-Mods would be a lot more disruptive than any other technological advancement, including the ability to cure any illness or to upload a brain into a computer. I tend to agree.

D-Mod is something that I always took for granted when I imagined a transhuman world. By “transhuman world” I mean a world where humans have learned to harness technology in order to modify go beyond their current limitations. For exam

ple, we could have an army of nanobots constantly repairing our bodies and making sure we stayed young and healthy; or we could live as uploads in a computer and enjoy a virtual paradise. The whole idea is that, once we learn to control our biology and do whatever we want with it, this control will naturally extend to our emotional states. That is, we will be able to live in a state of eternal, pure bliss.

When I explain this most people react by saying: “we would get bored of so much happiness.” This amounts to not understanding what controlling our emotions means. Boredom is a state of mind and thus can also be controlled. If we know how to hack our hormones and brains to feel bliss, we can also modify them in order to never feel bored of that bliss. That is, we could have a 3,000 year-long orgasm and never get tired of it.

T2i - Desire is the very Essence of Man

T2i – Desire is the very Essence of Man (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

If we were constantly in a state of pure bliss we would likely never eat or sleep, but that shouldn’t be a problem as long as we had machines to take care of us. If we are living as uploads, the matter takes care of itself. If we’re living as flesh-and-bone humans, it is a bit more complicated to solve, but probably not too hard if our technology is already that advanced.

Of course, living in a state of pure bliss may render us completely inactive, therefore stopping all technological progress. But this doesn’t have to be the case. We could choose to feel pleasure while doing or learning something. Or we could just have the machines do the research and simply sit back and watch while gathering all the knowledge they create for us. Being able to modify our emotional states will allow us to find pleasure in whatever activity we choose. So, as Noahpinion puts it, our focus would be on meta-desires: what to want? What to want to want? And so on.

Noahpinion also makes the great point that a desire-modifying drug (or technology) would destroy the capitalist economy. The whole system is based on some dissatisfaction that needs to be taken care of: we are hungry, we buy food; we are bored, we go to the movies. If everyone is completely satisfied all the time, there will be no need for economic activity. In this sense, a desire-modifying technology would render all of our system instantly obsolete.

Is such a technology desirable? I guess it depends on what we choose to do with it. Will we choose to desire more knowledge? Will we choose to desire nothing at all? If we are uploaded beings, we may even choose to split ourselves into many copies, each pursuing a different desire; after a while, we could augment our memory-storage capacity and download all the different experiences (a bit like Naruto’s kagebunshin) literally pursuing every imaginable dream.

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The Transhumanist Wager

Some weeks ago, I saw a review of Zoltan Istvan’s book “The transhumanist wager.” It was a rave review and I was interested in the topic, so I got curious. Shortly after, Istvan himself contacted me and offered me a copy of the book, asking me if I’d like to review it. I accepted.

I have finally finished the book and am ready to give my verdict. However, I will also use the occasion to reflect on some of the philosophical matters touched upon in the book, which I believe will be of more interest to my readers than the book itself.

As you probably have guessed, “The Transhumanism Wager” is about transhumanism. More particularly, it is about the struggle between transhumanism, religion and (in the author’s opinion) our outdated morality. If you don’t know what transhumanism is, I’ll summarize the idea here: transhumanism is the belief that humans should strive to improve themselves and their bodies, using technology to better the human race and transcend its biological limitations, such as (but not limited to) death and aging.

Biocomplexity spiral

Biocomplexity spiral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I consider myself a transhumanist or, at least, I am not opposed to many of their tenets. As I have argued elsewhere, I don’t want to die, mainly because I like living. If I was given the chance to go on living, I’d probably take it. If I could make myself smarter and stronger and faster and able to fly, I’d probably do it. I don’t hold my current form in such high esteem that I wouldn’t want to change it.

That said, I found the book to be lacking as a defense of transhumanism, precisely because it goes too far with it. The debate about transhumanism is presented as having two sides: in one, there are the smart and capable scientists that want to build a transhumanist world. On the other, there are the religious zealots, which hold the human body as sacred and do not want it to be changed. These religious zealots, on top of that, are portrayed in an extremely sinister light, which does not do justice to a great fraction of religious people out there.

The reason I don’t like this is that, by minimizing the opponent’s case, the arguments for transhumanism sound weaker. I would have liked to see several factions, each with good reasons for rejecting what the transhumanists had to offer. This way, I would have actually enjoyed reading all the (extremely long) philosophical discussions and speeches, which in this case were just too obvious to merit any further consideration. By only taking into account the religious arguments against it, Istvan made the transhumanist philosophy look naïve. That does not do the transhuman movement any favors.

There is something else that made me uneasy: in the book, transhumanism is equated with being in favor of social inequality and opposed to universal health care, for example. In the words of the author, “your freebies are over.” He actually goes out of his way to say, through the main character, things like: “if you offer no value, you will be eliminated” or “only people who can demonstrate their productivity will be allowed to reproduce.” I have two problems with this: first, I think these represent the author’s extreme right-wing views and have nothing to do with transhumanism itself, so mixing those two actually misrepresents the philosophy. Second, if what he was trying to do was convince people that transhumanism is not so bad, that’s a heck of a way to start: advocating eugenics and the state-approved killing of unproductive individuals.

Cover of the first issue of h+ Magazine, a web...

Cover of h+ Magazine, a web-based quarterly publication that focuses on transhumanism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, it was precisely this brutal ideology that made me want to keep reading the book. I found it at odds with my own beliefs but quite fascinating in its own right. Even though the tone of the writing seemed quite juvenile (I was actually convinced the author was in his early twenties until I found his webpage) the novel was easy to read. I was even excited at some points, especially when he delved into some subjects that have been touched upon in this blog and that I won’t reveal in case someone wants to give this book a go.

Istvan’s main point seems to be this: we are in a race against time to achieve immortality. We should devote every single resource available to this task. Any individual who does not contribute should be left to his or her own devices: we are in the middle of a battle against death and we cannot afford to waste any resources. Not doing anything is actually murderous, if you think about the amount of people who are being condemned to dying and who could be living forever. There is also another point that ties in with the former and which has Nietzschean resonances: every human strives to become the most powerful self they can. This is undeniable human nature. Moral rules are for the weak: for the transhumanist (his kind of transhumanist) there is only one imperative: become as powerful as you can, as fast as you can, through any means available. The first step for this is, of course, not dying.

The author has a utilitarian view of humans that would have horrified Kant: he sees them as means to achieve power and immortality, nothing else. The analogy he uses is comparing himself to a machine that tries to achieve a certain objective in the most rational way possible. Humans are just pieces in the game, variables to be considered. Nothing more.

Istvan’s idea seems to be that in such a Darwinian society, creativity would thrive and technology would advance by leaps and bounds. I am not so sure. Furthermore, I’m also not sure whether I would like to live in such society, even if it did advance that fast. There are plenty of examples of non-egalitarian societies and none of them seem like a great place to live. Believing that only talent (and not the ability to drink socially and suck up to people, for example) is enough to gather riches is naïve at best.

Istvan seems to have some understanding of science, though every time he speaks about physics (“you have to harness the power of quantum”) or mixes it with philosophy (when speaking about “quantum Zen”) I cringe a little. At one point he mentions a “photon generator,” which made me laugh out loud. I have several at home: they’re called “lamps.”

All in all, I found “The Transhumanist Wager” a fun read, though slightly embarrassing at times and lacking in serious philosophical discussion (in the sense that it lacked competing, coherent points of view). If you are a fan of transhumanism and the most brutal brand of capitalism, you might enjoy it. Even if you’re not, it’s still fun to read.

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What Is Your Purpose?

Many people believe they have a purpose. “What is the meaning of life?” They’ll ask. “It is finding your true purpose. The reason you exist. This all has to be for something. Everything happens for a reason.”

I find it interesting that many humans, myself included, find the need to see themselves as tools. If your life has a purpose it means that it is not a goal in itself, but that it happens for some ulterior motive. Your life, then, is a means to an end. And this makes you a tool.

The idea of purpose is of course very human. There is probably an evolutionary incentive to think in terms of purpose. Good things are those conductive to survival and propagation of one’s genes; bad things are the opposite. Things can then be seen as conductive to either. It makes sense, then, to attach a purpose to each object or act one encounters: things will either help to achieve gene propagation or they won’t. The fact that we use this label for ourselves and our own lives can, then, only be seen as an unintended consequence of this otherwise very helpful drive to classify things as useful or useless.

This image makes my point completely.

This image makes my point completely.

Finding the meaning of life through purpose seems to miss the mark, then. First, it uses a human concept which has nothing to do with the way the universe works. Second, it assumes some other entity for which we have a purpose: the purpose of that other entity is left undetermined, thus begging the question. Finally, it takes value from our life and puts it somewhere else, in the future. Why we would bother to go through our whole, value-less life to reach that future state, when that entity could have just created the final state directly, is unclear.

The obvious reaction to this is to take purpose out of the quest for meaning and return the value to the present moment, to the individual’s life. If life has a value on its own, it is its own meaning. There is no need for a purpose: life should be lived for its own sake. Every moment is as good as any other and placing our hopes in the future seems like a futile, life-denying exercise.

Speaking of futile exercises, what I am going to attempt now will probably end up in disaster, so I apologize in advance. See the end for more details.

Once one realizes the pointlessness of purpose and the importance of the present moment, there are two different, extreme routes one can take. Nietzsche would call them “life-affirming” and “life-denying.” Since that terminology is loaded, I will use instead “self-affirming” and “self-denying.”

I know, not very intellectual. I just had to add it. I just had to.

I know, not very intellectual. I just had to add it. I just had to.

The self-denying route would go like this. First, one must realize most experiences in life involve suffering of some kind. Even happy moments are filled with fear: the fear which stems from attachment to that happiness and the possibility of losing it. Humans constantly strive for pleasure and run away from pain and thus are never content. The only way to place value in the moment is to stop the strife: to stop chasing the good and fleeing the bad. We can do this by training ourselves to observe our feelings without judging them: to observe them and watch their course without getting involved. This way, feelings lose their meaning, becoming just sensations, perceptions, which in themselves are meaningless. When the strife ends, we can just concentrate on the present moment, free from desire and free of suffering.

Even though the self-affirming and self-denying routes share the same starting point, the self-affirming route takes the opposite path. Instead of advocating distance, it advocates the opposite: taking a full dive on those emotions, embracing both the good and the bad ones, taking life in without discriminating, saying “yes” to experience. This may look similar to the self-denying route: after all, aren’t we accepting both pain and pleasure too? However, the similarity is only superficial. Whereas the self-denying view advocates distancing oneself from these emotions and watching them as one watches something external, the self-affirming view does exactly the opposite. If we watch our emotions from afar, we take the meaning away from them. When they stop being “good” or “bad” and start being a collection of events, their emotional content is lost. But living is precisely that emotional content: denying that is denying life. And life, argues the self-affirming view, is the ultimate value.

Now, the self-denying may not agree. Life is not the ultimate value. The concept of “value” itself holds no water. The only worthwhile struggle is being free from pain. Also, one may argue that what the self-affirming people are suggesting is impossible: if you embrace the good and the bad, you take the meaning away from them. The bad is precisely that which you run away from: if you stop running away from it, it stops being bad. In this sense, the self-affirming view is self-contradictory. To that, the self-affirmers may reply that, likewise, the self-denying philosophy is contradictory: a complete annihilation of the self would lead to the ceasing of all desire, which in turn would irremediable lead to the death of the individual. Both goals are unachievable, but seen as worth striving for.

Hamlet with Yorick's skull

Hamlet with Yorick’s skull (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another key difference between these views is their attitude towards the world. In the self-affirming view, the individual has one drive: to impose their will on the world, which includes both their external and internal reality. It is this struggle between self and world which defines the individual and makes it grow. In the self-denying view, happiness is achieved when the struggle ceases. And, when it does, there ceases to be a difference between individual and world: those are then in total harmony and are thus indisti

nguishable. That is why I call this view self-denying: its goal is to erase the self. Once the self is erased, the will disappears; once the will is erased, the self disappears. The struggle against the world and the self are one and the same thing: the cause of our suffering.

Of course, the self-affirming would then claim that there are simpler methods for erasing the self, such as putting a bullet in your brain. If one is alive, one should embrace life and not run away from it, aiming to become like a stone. Why live, while trying to be like something that’s not alive? Why try to remove the borders between the self and the world, when it is precisely those borders which define the self? Why try to get rid of the self, if it is precisely the self who creates value? Remove the self and remove all value; remove all value and remove all meaning; remove all meaning and remove all life.

This was an attempt to summarize my doubts about both the Buddhist and the Nietzschean approach to life. For obvious space and talent reasons, I haven’t done justice to either point of view. In fact, I believe there are two bloggers who would do a much better job than I, each in their own niche: bloggingisaresponsibility and Tongue Sandwich. Since I’m still waiting to see a good discussion between them on this topic (I think I would honestly pay a substantial amount of money just to be able to read that exchange) I did the next best thing and started the ball rolling.

I am still trying to make up my mind (or even build a middle way, though honestly I wouldn’t know where to start) so any further thoughts will be greatly appreciated.

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Monkeys, Ideas and Social Status

I’ve been recently analyzing my reaction to disagreements in my blog and I don’t like what I’ve seen. Now, my answers are usually quite measured and level-headed, even when I strongly disagree with the person. Does this mean I am a measured, level-headed man? Quite the opposite, in fact.

Some (though not all) criticisms cause in me something that can only be described as aggression. It is not a conscious reaction, but an instinctive, animalistic one. Whenever my ideas are challenged, especially when I hold them dear (and especially when the commenter uses a confrontational style), my body reacts with adrenaline and a metaphorical thirst for blood. I can almost feel the monkey inside, seething, wanting to beat up the stranger who has come to challenge my right to the territory.

It is not a pleasant feeling; it is also not a feeling I’m proud of.

But I don’t want to get into a morality play in which I digress about how evil we are all inside. I want to analyze what it is about disagreements that makes me (anyone else?) react as if there was a physical challenge happening from a rival male.

Here’s my theory, which I just made up five minutes ago, so it’s likely to be wrong. It’s also likely to be wrong because it only applies to males, but I’ve seen similar urges in women, so it can’t be the whole story. Any way, even if it’s only for your amusement, here it goes.

Common chimpanzee in the Leipzig Zoo.

Me, surveying my territory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in the day, primates fought for territory. More territory meant more females, which in turn meant more offspring. Thus, males who were obsessed about protecting their territory and could use aggression to do so were more likely to have offspring, which would in turn be similarly inclined to protect and expand their land.

This drive for territory soon became more complex and turned into what we would now call “the drive for social status.”  Higher social status usually means attracting more females and the rest follows as before. That having social status attracts more females has been researched for a while (see here and here). And yes, I am perfectly aware that this is just a statistical result that does not imply that all women are attracted to social status. In fact, I’d never date one that was.

Social status is a hard thing to measure. Nowadays we can probably do it with money: the more money, the more status. However, that is not completely accurate. There are a lot of intangibles: influence, reputation. Bono may not have as much money as Bill Gates, but he’s probably more successful with the opposite sex. One could say that social status is related to image and that this image is tied to a number of intangibles, thus making status quite hard to define.

Bono and fans

Bono. He haz status. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This influence is of coursed measured, partly, by how much sway our opinions have over the rest of the world. As such, then, opinions are part of our “virtual territory”: just like our net worth (by the way, am I the only person who’s appalled by calling how much money a person has their “worth”?). And, just like it, we feel a need to protect it from intruders: opinions are our domains and, when a stranger comes and tries to take them down, we react just as if someone was trying to enter our house and burn it.

That is why changing your mind is so hard: in a way, it’s like letting the other person violate you. It’s admitting they have won; like giving them part of your territory. It’s not a question of ideas but a battle with winners or losers. Just like a war fought over a piece of land, each argument is a confrontation over a piece of mental landscape, over a piece of influence.

It takes a lot of self-control to override this instinct. In fact, most people are not capable of such feats and thus seem unable to change their minds, no matter how much evidence piles up against their views. It is remarkable, then, that a whole branch of human knowledge – science – has been built precisely on the willingness to be proven wrong. This speaks volumes of scientists, who must overcome these urges every day in the service of a greater goal, which is knowledge. It is also not surprising that some of them will succumb to their instincts and try to cover up results, disregard evidence or purposely misunderstand their colleagues’ research in order to keep their ideas intact.

Summarizing, behind the civilized appearance of my replies, there is a beast that just want to tear the commenters apart and let out a cry of victory. Thankfully for all of us, I (and most, if not all of the people who interact with me) am able to look at my instincts from above and see them for what they are: a vestige from a more animalistic past.

That said, I do think it would be fun if the next philosophical debate was settled with the philosophers just fighting for it.

It would not be fair if I didn’t finish this article by mentioning this one by bloggingisaresponsibility, which tackles a similar topic and offers a different answer that, I believe, is complementary to this one.

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