Wise Words

April 8, 2012

“I think that there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and an equivalence is presented — which reinforces I think people’s cynicism about Washington generally. [The debate over deficit reduction] is not one of those situations where there’s an equivalence. I’ve got some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress who were prepared to make significant changes to entitlements that go against their political interests, and who said they were willing to do it. And we couldn’t get a Republican to stand up and say, we’ll raise some revenue, or even to suggest that we won’t give more tax cuts to people who don’t need them.”

– Barack Obama


A Basic Model for Consciousness

February 4, 2012

The nature of consciousness is a fundamental mystery of human condition, as much a philosophical and epistemological question as a scientific one. Many of the blog posts so far have explored the exact nature of consciousness; this will briefly introduce one that I find attractive: Higher Order Theory.

Higher Order Theory is basically a theory which states that the brain has thoughts, such as “I am hungry” or “It’ll probably rain tomorrow” or “William Henry Harrison was our most prolific president.” However, every now and again, the brain will have thoughts about thoughts (also called metacognition) and that produces consciousness. This theory is intuitively similar to cognitivism, which views consciousness as “the sensation of your most significant thoughts being highlighted.”

Higher Order Theory has several advantages. First of all, it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Humans certainly aren’t the only animals which are self-aware – if an animal can recognize itself in a mirror, doesn’t that count? In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins postulates that consciousness could’ve developed gradually, as an organism’s cognitive worldview became comprehensive enough to include itself. Secondly, it’s a model which lends itself well to definition via computer science and logic, since comprehensive work has already been done in areas such as Kleene’s Recursion Theorem, which could conceivably someday be linked to defining the theory more specifically.

Free-market solutions to saving the environment?

December 28, 2011

The new Republican flavor of the week is Ron Paul, and since he looks like a contender to win the Iowa caucuses, I’ve been reading up on libertarianism and its proposed solutions on several issues that critics historically identify as failings of the free market.

I think that Ron Paul has not properly addressed the issue of climate change and environmental protection. He claims to have approached the problem “the same way [he] look[s] at all other serious issues: as objectively and open-minded as possible.” His interpretation of climate data, although a step up from his fellow party members, is still wishy-washy. Maybe, considering the results of the recent Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study might warrant a second look from Mr. Paul.

However, many libertarian solutions to saving the environment are intriguing, and they might end up saving us. While most Western countries’ governments debate the best ways to combat climate change, Congress seems to spend its time arguing about whether it’s even real.

And what if it isn’t? I remember a quote from somewhere a few years ago, which went something like, “Maybe one day, when we’re independent of foreign energy and our environment is clean and well-preserved, it’ll turn out that global warming was a hoax after all. Then we’ll say, ‘Man, those liberals really got us, huh?'” There are a lot of free-market incentives to searching for sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources. Solar power can be cheap, abundant, clean, and non-political. Much of the turmoil in the Middle East would effectively end, and corrupt and repressive dictatorships from Venezuela to Russia would collapse.

Solar power doesn’t even have to be a cute little thing that wealthy liberal Western European countries such as Germany or Denmark subsidize – according to this article, solar power could be, in terms of efficiency and cost, a better alternative to hydrocarbons in just a few years. Cost of solar energy has been decreasing exponentially, or approximately halving every two years (a similar trend as Moore’s law regarding the number of transistors on a computer chip). Meanwhile, oil isn’t getting any cheaper or tech-savvier.

This is still largely speculative. Free-market environmentalism doesn’t properly address many topics such as protecting endangered species (there may not be strong incentives for the majority of individuals to do so),  or negative externalities in general. A lot of environmental protection involves solutions that are realized over a long period of time, or don’t allow a do-over – two situations which historically have not been the free market’s strong points. However, maybe it’s not too naive to hope that the world may be saved by those who would profit immensely from doing so.

Poverty of The Stimulus and the Rationalist/Empiricist Debate

December 28, 2011

(Note: This is my second post in the series about the philosophy of cognitive science)

Imagine that you’re a traveler passing through a small village in a foreign land, and as you’re trying to communicate (with difficulty) with the locals, you see a rabbit running by you. As it runs by, a local says, “Gavagai!” Now, of course, you might infer that he was referring to the rabbit. So does “gavagai” mean rabbit? Could it mean furry? It could even mean Nice Day! You don’t know.

This dilemma was devised by Van Gordon Quine (1960) to refer to something called the “poverty of the stimulus” problem – under-determination. If we consider the brain to be a sort of information-processing device, an instantiation of the abstract concept of a “mind,” then researchers are dogged by the issue of language-learning, and all kinds of inductive learning in general. Noam Chomsky, renowned linguist and cognitive scientist, framed the problem thus – children can learn a grammar which can produce an infinite number of sentences by only hearing a finite number. How do children possess the universal and consistent ability to learn languages, using a relatively small amount of data to learn an internal representation of language capable of making sense of unfamiliar languages?

Chomsky believes that certain aspects of language must be innate. According to him, certain (universal) aspects of language are encoded into our genome. Important as this question is, it in turn raises bigger ones – to what extent is our knowledge and mind predetermined?

As Dwight Schrute from The Office might say, there are basically two schools of thought. The first is rationalism, the philosophy based on the belief that our mind comes equipped with innate ideas. The  second is empiricism, which believes our mind is fully shaped by experience.

Empiricism, influenced greatly by the thinker John Locke, promotes the idea of a tabula rasa, or blank slate – at birth, we are all equal, and our minds are fully shaped by the experiences and actions of our lifetimes. It’s an attractive idea, and one of the tenets of libertarianism, the political philosophy of which Locke was in many ways an intellectual ancestor. With empiricism, the entirety of knowledge is based in ideas. Some ideas are direct, others are abstract and indirect. Mathematical concepts, such as the triangle, would be considered “abstract.” Although some would argue that triangles, as well as other abstract concepts, might be impossible to properly represent in an idea-scheme, some empiricists such as John Stuart Mill went so far as to proclaim that all of mathematics COULD be depicted in terms of definitional relations between ideas. The purpose of reason and logic, then, were to organize ideas. One important empiricist belief is that the mind is a domain-general device, in that it uniformly picks up and learns from experiences and stimuli.

Rationalism is quite the opposite – according to this philosophy, the mind comes equipped with innate ideas. Essentially, the mind takes an axiomatic approach about learning about the world, with the axioms built in. Some knowledge is not derived from experience. This is because many ideas, such as identity, must be inherent, or otherwise we wouldn’t have any ideas at all. This is where Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” comes in. This is also where Descartes’ dubious proofs of the existence of God come in – as I mentioned in a previous post, he believed that since we had an idea of God, it had to be implanted in us innately. And what force could possibly provide an idea of the existence of God? Why, God him and or herself. Also, the rationalists believe that the mind is a domain-specific device – because of innate characteristics, it is specially structured to learn from different stimuli differently.

So which is it, empiricism or rationalism? This is, at a base level, the philosophical equivalent of nature vs. nurture, and in many ways, not very practically applicable, because it doesn’t tell us much anything useful. The ideas of the innateness of language and the modularity of the mind (we use different parts of our brain to respond to different situations, eg. we’re really smart if we suspect someone might be cheating) are scientific, not philosophical theories. The rationalism/empiricism debate is an important episode in the history of the philosophy of the mind, but it went back to a time when thinkers didn’t make a connection between the actual physical structure of the brain and the structure of the “mind.” Now, from a scientific perspective, we cannot proclaim rather little, because nature vs. nurture is an ongoing debate with far-reaching societal, and even political, considerations (think libertarianism). Some scientific theories, such as the poverty of the stimulus problem, argue for a certain representation of the mind, but whether or not there are significant preexisting structures in inexperienced minds that produce variation or bias in learning abilities and predispositions is still an open question.

Stay tuned for my next post, on the problem of other minds and first- and third-person perspectives!


An incredibly simple proof of the halting problem (in Scheme)

December 20, 2011

Don’t know the programming language Scheme? Don’t have to! (Even if you *had* to it would take less than an hour to learn basic syntax).

When I began this blog I intended to make a blog post explaining a formal proof of Turing’s halting theorem (eg. no algorithm can exist which determines whether a computational procedure always halts for every input. For example, a program that took in a number and printed every number greater than that up to 100 would not halt for every number, for obvious reasons). Both Alan Turing, with Turing machines, and Alonzo Church, with the lambda calculus, independently proved the halting problem (“Entscheidungsproblem”). However, both of these proofs require a lot of background explanation, and they’re not the best way to do it anyways.

The best way, I found, was a simple exercise from the textbook, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. Here is a construction of the proof:

Suppose we have “a procedure halts? that correctly determines whether p halts on a for any procedure p and object a.”

Then we write the following procedures:

(define (run-forever) (run-forever))

(This is an infinite loop), and then a specially constructed:

(define (try p)
  (if (halts? p p)

Now, imagine that we called  the expression (try try) and let it run. If (halts? try try) evaluates to true, signaling that the function try halts when called on itself, then try runs forever, a contradiction. Similarly, if halts? decides that try does NOT halt when called on itself, the function halts.

And there you have it – the contradiction! By reductio ad absurdum, a function such as halts? cannot exist.

This proof by construction can be implemented in any language where functions are first-class objects, such as Python, JavaScript, and many other modern ones (not Java, of course. Java kind of sucks).

And in addition, if you’re ever taking a computer science course which uses SICP as a textbook, Exercise 4.15 is answered for you!

“On foreign policy, Obama trounces GOP rivals”

November 23, 2011

The Article – CNN

If Barack Obama becomes a one-term president as our beloved turtle Mitch McConnell so badly wants him to be, he can at the very least point to an impressive foreign policy and national security. Arguably, in redefining America’s role in international peacekeeping after the Bush years and reaching out to the Muslim world, President Obama has, in many ways, lived up to the rather undeserved Nobel Prize he received a few years ago.

I think that this article perfectly describes the atmosphere of vitriol and opposition for opposition’s sake on the part of the GOP. Newt Gingrich practically switched from accusing the president of being secretly anti-military to praising him for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, all in the same breath.Presidential contenders can rail on about the bad economy and be justified, but Obama has a foreign policy that they largely cannot touch. Yet they say the darnedest things. We have Herman Cain saying, “Obama….supported the opposition, correct?” and then, without having any idea what is actually going on in Libya, still managing to make sure that everyone knew “[he] would have done a better job…in determining who the opposition is.” How the hell can you say you would have done a better job of figuring out who the opposition is, when you literally don’t know who the opposition is? Cain’s willful ignorance is quite frankly disgusting. For the full clip, see this.

If you don’t feel like reading the article, here are my favorite lines:

“Jake Tapper of ABC News documented that Mitt Romney has held  five different views on the Libya Operation.”

“Mitt Romney originally built his argument against Obama’s foreign policy by attacking the new START treaty — an agreement supported by every living Republican secretary of state and our entire current military leadership.”

“Herman Cain made a telling gaffe last week when he insisted that he is ‘not supposed to know anything about foreign policy.'”

What’s it Like to Be a Bat? Contemplating the Mind-Body Problem

October 1, 2011

(Note: This is my first post in a series about the philosophy of cognitive science(s))

Today’s story begins with a well-known 16th-century French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher by the name of Descartes. Many will know Descartes for his contributions to mathematics (fun fact: He may be the reason that ‘x’ is most commonly used to express an unknown, such as a variable in an algebraic equation. For a longer discussion, see this).

Descartes also had a novel and extremely important worldview – he was one of the founders of the philosophy called “rationalism” – one which seeks absolute truths from the inside via the “pure light of reason.” Unfortunately, Descartes used the axiom “I think, therefore I am” to derive the existence of God – a dubious proof at best, one that undoubtedly calls into question Descartes’ own willingness to depart from a preexisting worldview.

But all of that is secondary. What Descartes is relevant for in the current discussion is for his theory of Cartesian dualism. Descartes believed that mind and body were dualistic, or two fundamentally separate substances. This view, popularly adapted into “soulism,” is still held by the majority of the world’s population.

Interestingly enough, even though Cartesian dualism is considered naive by today’s cognitive scientists, his work indicated that he was surprisingly willing to push the limits of a mechanistic world-view, even believing that nonhuman animals, or “brutes” as he called them, were entirely robotic. Humans were separate because of capacity for formidably complex mental feats such as natural language, and because of creative responses to novel situations. Acting as a historian, I postulate that Descartes, for the skeptic and rationalist that he was, was unable to completely divorce himself from a Catholic scientific worldview – evidence for this being his curious and convoluted arguments for the existence of God and his placement of humans in a fundamentally different category from other animals. Of course, evolution hadn’t been discovered yet so he’s not too much to blame.

The concept of Cartesian dualism, now rejected by the mainstream of philosophers, evolved into the “mind-body problem.”  To save a lot of explanation, the mind-body problem has essentially two parts:

1) Are things we consider “mental states” entirely physical?
2) If so, how can we explain such phenomena as consciousness?

To elaborate on question 1, we have to consider the difference between dualism and physicalism. Dualism is Descartes’ worldview, which holds that mental states are immaterial, whereas physicalism holds that they are entirely explained away by the particular architecture of human brains and “minds” in general. Dualism is largely debunked by the problem of causation – Burning one’s hand one a hot stove causes a mental reaction, the feeling of pain. The mental desire of hunger causes us to go and eat chips. How do these things affect each other, or how are they causally linked, if mental and physical states are distinct? To answer that we turn to physicalism.

Physicalism is, simply put, the view that all “things” in the universe are physical, so it rejects the possibility of supernatural entities or souls. So physicalism invokes something called the “monist view” of the mind-body problem – that mental states are causally linked to physical  states for the reason that they are physical states themselves. Simple enough. Within physicalism, there are various degrees of strength too. The strongest view is an actual empirical hypothesis waiting to be proven, the “type-identity theory,” which states that mental states and properties are identical to physical states and properties. This is particularly bold because it seems to suggest that every mind which contains the idea that “grass is green” would have some identical structure. I think that this inference isn’t completely accurate – different minds such as that of a cricket compared to that of a snake could contain the representation of grass analogously or isomorphically (Douglas Hofstadter’s term) but wouldn’t necessarily have to be identical to for the type-identity theory to hold.

There are also weaker forms of physicalism, especially property dualism or nonreductive physicalism, which says that even though physicalism is correct, it is not fully reductionist – i. e. low-level properties of physical objects such as magnitude, velocity, chemical composition, etc are not always sufficient to explain higher-level phenomena such as psychological states. This is closely related to emergentism, which holds that even though high levels of organization in a complex system such as the brain are dependent on low-level activity, they cannot be explained through the lower-level activity. Some thinkers, myself included, believe that the theory of emergence sweeps the problem under the rug, and isn’t fundamentally distinct from believing in dualism anyway, since it relies on “mystery” and “the unknown.”

So that largely sums up the answer to the first part of the mind-body problem, ie. whether mental states are physical or not. The second part is a lot trickier though. We arrive at something that Thomas Nagel terms “the knowledge problem” – even if we knew all the physical “facts” about the phenomenon of pain, for example, we wouldn’t know what pain feels like, extrapolating from those facts about pain. In his famous paper “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel delivers a critique against reductionist physicalists who reduce the problem of understanding consciousness to “low-level neuronal activity” without being more specific. According to Nagel, “consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable.” Can we imagine different intelligent cognitive architectures? By some stretch of the imagination, we may be able to imagine what it’s like to be a bat. But now we only know what it’s like for a human to be a bat…what about what it’s like for a bat to be a bat? Does being a bat feel like anything? Is that an absurd question, like asking what it feels like to be a water bottle? Or is it somewhere in between?

I guess I’ve probably provided more answers than questions. Consciousness will be dealt with in more detail later. But in the meantime, we swing around full circle to Descartes, who, as you might remember, believed animals were essentially robots. We all observe apparently intelligent behavior in “lower creatures,” even insects, but is it really intelligent or is it just robotic, as Descartes would say? Here’s an excerpt on the “sphex wasp” provided by Douglas Hofstadter in Godel, Escher, Bach:

When the time comes for egg laying, the wasp Sphex builds a burrow for the purpose and seeks out a cricket which she stings in such a way as to paralyze but not kill it. She drags the cricket into the burrow, lays her eggs alongside, closes the burrow, then flies away, never to return. In due course, the eggs hatch and the wasp grubs feed off the paralyzed cricket, which has not decayed, having been kept in the wasp equivalent of a deepfreeze. To the human mind, such an elaborately organized and seemingly purposeful routine conveys a convincing flavor of logic and thoughtfulness — until more details are examined. For example, the wasp’s routine is to bring the paralyzed cricket to the burrow, leave it on the threshold, go inside to see that all is well, emerge, and then drag the cricket in. If the cricket is moved a few inches away while the wasp is inside making her preliminary inspection, the wasp, on emerging from the burrow, will bring the cricket back to the threshold, but not inside, and will then repeat the preparatory procedure of entering the burrow to see that everything is all right. If again the cricket is removed a few inches while the wasp is inside, once again she will move the cricket up to the threshold and reenter the burrow for a final check. The wasp never thinks of pulling the cricket straight in. On one occasion this procedure was repeated forty times, with the same result. [from Dean Wooldridge’s Mechanical Man: The Physical Basis of Intelligent Life]

Well that’s all I have to say on the mind-body problem for now. Stay tuned for more!

Further Reading:

What Is It Like to Be a Bat? – Thomas Nagel

(Note: All information is from MITECS and personal reflection (this is philosophy, after all), unless otherwise stated)