26 September 2013

Scotland: An Abstracted State of Potential Grace

A wide-eyed Merida.
Image ©Alice the Photo Ninja
I used to be political; now I’m just politic.

Following on from my recent article Neuro with Everything, where I raised the vexatious issue of so-called neuropolitics, I will now take a deeper refractory look at our psychological blocks against things constitutional. Why are we uncomfortable about the mechanics of nationhood? Because we don’t really know what ‘nations’ are. Why is this relevant? Because, in Scotland, we are in a process of building a new one. Now, pass me that torque wrench.

Nations (yawn), how un-futuristic. Not so fast, there. While futurists tend to look forward to a time when all humankind will live in harmony, perhaps even under the auspices of a benevolent form of world government, some of us ponder what is the most expedient way to get there. Nations can be desperately un-futuristic, especially when they are cobbled together from the zombie vestiges of dead empires. Alternatively, they can be dynamic, paradigm-shifting agents in this world of exploding complexity.

Nations don’t exist. Countries don’t exist. Landmasses do exist, at least in the ordinary physical sense. People exist, living on landmasses. No, that’s not right. Roving biomasses exist on landmasses. Better. Some of these roving biological entities (us) are self-aware. These self-aware entities tend to group together with others whom they feel are like them – they are social entities. This can cause problems. These entities tend to argue with, fight with, and sometimes kill others whom they feel are dissimilar to them. Nations form. ‘In-groups’ delineate their territories using convenient geological boundaries, and then call these nation/territory constructs ‘countries’.

The term statist is often used as an insult, these days, against people who think that nation states can be effective vehicles for delivering on the needs and aspirations of individuals. You might expect such an attitude from capitalists (even the modern anarcho-capitalist variety) and ‘libertarians’, but why do many technoprogressive leftists also take this stance? I think it is because they assume that all nations, both existing and emerging, have been and will be built using the same failed templates that past nations used.

People are ‘agents’ within nations; neurons can be thought of as ‘agents’ within persons. Yet, perhaps because nations are seen as ‘not natural’ and ‘manufactured’ whereas persons are seen as wholly natural, we tend to dismiss the fact that they are both types of abstraction.[i] There are many ways in which neurons in their communicative context of human brains are different from humans in their communicative context of nations; I am not claiming that they produce the same types of abstraction, only that both can be seen as abstraction-generating agents of sorts.

Nations may behave unpredictably, but they each seem to have a unique ‘character’. They can be calm or aggressive, colourful or dour, outgoing or reclusive. They may form intimate relationships with other nations. Sometimes those relationships become strained, or abusively one-sided.

Scotland has a ‘character’. It is often identified as female. Some persons tend to think of her as traditional, wise, and cautious, but others see the growing scintilla in her eye. She craves.

We represent ourselves in myriad different ways. We change ourselves. We think. We act. Those of us who spend time pondering the future of the human race should not pretend that we can leap from here to utopia in a single bound. The Singularity might happen, but, then again, it might not. We need to interrogate our world, and engage with it. We cannot sit around waiting for some kind of ‘hard takeoff’.[ii]

The elevation of morality is important to me. I want to live in a morally-elevated world. On this trajectory, I choose the expedient of personal agency; I also find that I must choose the expedient of the fair, diverse, creative, forward-looking, independent nation state that I think we have an opportunity to create here. This may be unfashionable in futurist circles, but what should a futurist care for fashion?

Empires – and bloated nations that act like empires – shrink persons. They reduce us to mere ‘subjects’ with little more agency than synaptically-weak neurons in a conflicted brain. But consensual nations, chosen freely and fairly, can connect us together in fascinatingly teleodynamic ways. They can bring us together and help us to reach out. They can give us a clear voice in the growing din. Under the right circumstances, they can grant us citizenship within a well-adjusted, constantly-questioning, fully-functioning, enlightened ‘national consciousness’.

[i]     D. Parfit. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
[ii]    Inspired by a talk, in 2013, by James Hughes Ph.D., of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

20 September 2013

Quantum Consciousness: The Ultimate Gap-filler

wanderer between the worlds
Image ©Cornelia Kopp
When Daniel Dennett coined the term ‘greedy reductionism’, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), he may not have fully realised just how byzantinely gluttonous some ‘high tech’ forms of such reductionism could become.

Dennett was taking aim at the false type of reductionism; the kind that ‘gobbles up’ entire layers of complexity warranting scientific investigation in its haste to get to some imagined seed of perfect truth. I think he primarily had religion in mind, because of its obvious zeal to dig for gods at the slightest opportunity, and to brand everything unexplained as proofs of ‘intelligent design’. There is another kind of greedy reductionism, however, that is more of a closet bulimic than an out-and-out hog.

In my sights right now is the so-called orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR) hypothesis devised by mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose, and anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Here, the gods of consciousness are squeezed into such tiny gaps that the gaps aren’t really gaps at all, but quantum states.

Orch-OR holds that human consciousness depends on exotic quantum-mechanical phenomena such as Bose-Einstein condensates. When, in his book The Emperor’s New Mind (1989), Penrose posited the idea of consciousness as a quantum phenomenon, he lacked an explanatory framework for it. Penrose utilised the counter-intuitive mathematics of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in claiming that thought must be non-computable, but he did not propose any substantive alternative to classical-physics theories of the ways that neurons and synapses work.

What is unusual about Orch-OR, compared with the various other ‘quantum soul’ notions, is that it has an ostensibly scientific basis; quantum superpositions, Bose-Einstein condensates, macroscopic quantum effects, quantum entanglement, and so on are all real phenomena. It seems, then, reasonable to look at an apparently very strange and inexplicable outcome of a biological substrate – consciousness – and explain it wholly in terms of quantum strangeness. So why are other scientists so keen to attack this hypothesis?

There is another ‘why?’ that we should first ask ourselves: why ignore all the other possible explanations that have still to be fully explored, and go straight for the quantum one? Investigation of nanoscale components of neurites in the brain, such as microtubules and neurofilaments, requires an electron microscope. The potential information-bearing capacity of these ‘components’ is unimaginably huge. And it is highly likely that they are capable of performing their role without the influence of quantum effects. Granted, as holistic reductionists we should not assume that, say, microtubules are bearers of discrete pieces of information, such as memories. But we should be prepared to accept that they contribute to the substrate of the brain, allowing – in highly-convolved combination with all the other levels of material processes – a kind of computation to happen in the system as a whole.

Now we’re getting down to it: computability versus non-computability. If we are going to insist that computation is ‘made’ of numbers, then we open ourselves up to attack by non-reductionists (and by so-called greedy reductionists). But, the way I like to think of it, computation isn’t made of numbers any more than money is made of paper. Computation can be represented in numerical form, and money can be represented in paper form; that doesn’t mean that those representations are what those things are.

Physicists such as Max Tegmark have rebutted Orch-OR, citing experiments indicating that the quantum states claimed for it by Hameroff would not arise and/or would not last long enough to play a role in consciousness. We should also bear in mind that Hameroff believes in ghosts. In an interview for the website of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, he stated: ‘I think consciousness is actually fundamental and intrinsic to the universe, that it’s built into the universe.’ This, of course, is animistic; Hameroff clearly believes in some type of ‘animating life force’ permeating the Universe. So his agenda is clear – he wants to find a way to scientise his belief in what really amounts to a ‘quantum soul’.

Our universe is quantum. It is probabilistic all the way up and all the way down. But if we allow non-reductionists masquerading as hungry reductionists to gobble up all the classical levels in between, we will have no classical matter left to interact with. We will be giving up on our place in the Universe, kicking back, shrugging our shoulders, munching on the junk food of bad science, and saying, ‘Wow, you know, it’s all like... energy, man.’ We will be making ourselves inexplicable, when there is absolutely no need to do so.

We are well used to hearing this kind of line from the religious. Now we also have to be constantly on our guard against plausible-sounding quantum hucksters (see Deepak Chopra, among others). We reductionists may cause you discomfort, by breaking you down into smaller and smaller parts. But these greedy reductionists and non-reductionists will swallow you whole as soon as look at you.

10 September 2013

Neuro with Everything

My brainIt seems like you can’t switch on your TV or open a web browser these days without bumping into brains. Neuroscientific discoveries are beginning to impact on areas of our lives that we had thought were set in sociocultural aspic, not in grey and white matter.

One that particularly interests me is so-called neuropolitics – ‘the interplay between the brain and politics.’ Using the word ‘interplay’ (as the Wikipedia definition does) is something of a cop-out, for we need to face up to the fact that politics happens inside brains, and the societies we live in are largely created by the repercussions of the actions that stem from those neural ruminations.

Tempting though it is to brand the examination of such linkages as pointless ‘neurobollocks’, we cannot continue to view the outcomes of policies as somehow removed from their sources in the biological brains of those in positions of power. Obviously, many of us are uncomfortable with the notion that we might be governed by ‘bad apples’ who, in some cases, we may have helped to rise to the top. More uncomfortable, though, is the realisation that all political ideologies are patterns of electrical signals running through the accrued pathways of their gelatinous substrates.

Does that matter? Couldn’t we say the same about all human experience? Yes, we could; the key point here is that the impact on us of the cognitive activity of our leaders in disproportionate and asymmetrical. They can think us into prosperity, poverty, or oblivion, but we, as individuals, cannot do the same to them.

I have suggested in a previous article that we should implement some form of neurological testing of political candidates, to try, as best we can, to tease out their true motivations. Saying that you are fit to run a country is an extraordinary claim – one that, in my opinion, requires extraordinary evidence.

And talking of evidence, what is all the fuss around neurolaw? As well as writing fascinating science and philosophy-of-science books such as Sum: Tales from the Afterlives and Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman spends a good deal of his time writing papers and speaking on this subject. The truth of whether or not a person has committed a crime is in the brain. The idea of trying to extract that truth by means other that the traditional question-and-answer method is, however, ethically problematic to say the least.

Rather than raising the distressing prospect of courtroom psychosurgery, Eagleman tends to concentrate on the neuroscientifc facts behind our concepts of blame and punishment: If we have little choice in the ways our brains turn out, can we really be blamed and punished when our actions cross the line, stepping from socially acceptable to socially proscribed? In Incognito, he comes across as optimistic about the future: ‘The upshot will be that we can have an evidence-based legal system in which we will continue to take criminals off the streets, but we will change our reasons for punishment and our opportunities for rehabilitation.’ He also admits, however, that there are and will still be criminals for whom neither punishment nor rehabilitation will succeed.

I have certain sympathies with those who cry ‘neurobollocks!’ when writers and broadcasters attempt to dress up thinly-informed neuron-gazing as true scientific insight. For example, although I enjoyed it at the time, I now take Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink with a hefty pinch of incredulity. Now what was his hypothesis again? That we are really smart and usually right when we don’t think things through, and instead just go with our ‘instincts’? Ponder the merit of that claim next time you end up in a police cell after punching somebody in the face. It is perhaps not the kind of self-help you were looking for.

It is also fair to say that the bright lights of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) have dazzled many. Nuanced interpretations of what are, in reality, maps of blood flow in the brain don’t make for exciting news stories.

But let us not be too hard on those who try to frame every element of the human condition in cognitive terms. It can be good for us to think that way. It can be truly humbling. In the introduction to his book Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, Sebastian Seung puts it this way: ‘It is all of these things. Indeed, sometimes I think it is everything.’ The wistful sentiment bundled with that otherwise-austere statement touches me. Seung is not circumscribing our potential; he is rejoicing in it, while acknowledging its intricately fragile, self-referencing roots.

The blizzard of neuro- neologisms will blow harder yet in the years to come. Some of its fall will melt away; some will chill us to the cores of our being. An open mind does not have to be a suggestible one. A healthy dose of scepticism may serve us well during the great, surging neurostorm [sic] ahead.

06 September 2013

Figure-Ground Reversal

‘Consciousness is irreducible,’ proclaimed John Searle in a recent TED talk. This was just after telling us that we need to learn to think of it as a wholly biological process.

So, let me get this straight – it’s an irreducible biological process. I like John Searle’s manner – the irritable, baggy-trousered old philosopher thing works well for him. He is best known for his Chinese room thought experiment: an argument against the possibility of true artificial intelligence (AI). He used an elaborate metaphor involving Chinese characters written on bits of paper being passed into a locked room where they are interpreted, using a set of logical rules, by a person who does not speak the language. The set of rules also enables the person in the room to respond in kind.

The argument, as you can see, is to do with ‘actual’ understanding. Searle was claiming that there would be no understanding of the language going on within the locked room; ergo, there would be no understanding going on inside even the most sophisticated AI subjected to the Turing test. I’ll admit that I’m a little biased against Searle’s argument, having seen it systematically disassembled by Daniel Dennett, in his book Consciousness Explained, but I don’t think it would be unfair to say that some of Searle’s claims about the nature of consciousness seem to be somewhat lacking in levels.

We know that the phenomenon of consciousness arises from the biological substrate of the brain. It’s a dualistic waste of time to argue otherwise. Searle is clearly frustrated by the endless philosophical debates over its real or illusory nature, and I’m with him on that, but not because I think we must unequivocally brand it as real; I’m frustrated by that debate because I think both words are wrong.

We often forget that there is a vast range of phenomena in the Universe for which we have no semantic classifications: What do you call that feeling of rocks changing shape by the process of erosion? What do you call that sense of thirsty tree root seeking water? You may argue that these examples have nothing to do with human consciousness. Nevertheless, there are all kinds of micro-processes going on inside you that you don’t ‘experience’ directly but which have some kind of teleonomic ‘direction’ to them.

Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature has most recently influenced my thoughts on this. The book is hard going sometimes, but I’m excited by his formalisation of the idea of a kind of ‘figure-ground reversal’ – what may be important about phenomena like consciousness is not what is present but what is absent. It is a theory of constraints: a whirlpool is a phenomenon produced by the constraining of water molecules to follow a range of downward-spiralling trajectories; perhaps consciousness is an inevitable result of constraint of molecules into a very specific biological configuration. What is absent, in both these cases, is the near-infinite range of trajectories and configurations that those molecules might otherwise have followed or taken on.

Deacon’s ‘essential absences’ – ‘absentials’ – resonate with me. I think it is partly because they demonstrate just how inadequate our semantic modes in the consciousness debate have been. It’s also because I like the idea of being an absential rend in the fabric of the not-me Universe. For many, though, talk of essential absence induces a kind of existential trypophobia – an irrational fear of holes – rendering them confused, frightened, or even disgusted by the notion.

So what about the Chinese room? Well, you just fill it with a vast number of people who don’t understand the symbols, give them the correct rules, and set them to work. If it is correctly set up, the room will produce the correct answer. But, surely, the understanding is still missing. Exactly. There are many things missing from this setup – understanding is an essential one of them. It is a kind of phenomenon that is being generated despite its absence as a specific phenomenon. That is why it looks irreducible.

Strange? Yes, very. But cogito ergo sum! I suppose it’s a good enough shorthand for this: something is producing a phenomenon that other somethings producing this phenomenon and the something producing the phenomenon call ‘thinking’. Constraint steers that clumsy definition towards an essentially useful I.

As I am an inveterate reductionist, you might think I should be more concerned about the biological mechanisms that make this possible. Certainly, the mechanisms fascinate me. However, that does not mean that I expect to be able to tap my finger on a screen and say, ‘Look, that’s consciousness right there.’ I may be able to say, ‘Those are the structures from which the state of consciousness emerges’, but that’s not quite the same. Phenomenal states emerge, and they have many different characteristics. Try pinpointing the vorticity in a whirlpool.

Before I am dragged under, I’d better round this off. If this were a letter, I think it would be pleasing to sign it off with a warmly heartfelt...

...absentially, consciously yours,