Wednesday, August 27, 2008

youtube blackface craze?

did this start it?

did this start it on youtube?

this one builds up to it:

this one's seen bamboozled:

this one's trying to make a point about social liberty:

philosophers of mind = lazy?

Are philosophers of mind just lazy? Two points of evidence:

1) The excessive dependence of the literature on thought experiments which exhibit obvious inadequacies for addressing the subtle issues at stake.

Often, these thought experiments depend upon the "argument from lack of imagination." Thought experiments of the form: "consider bizarre situation X, you wouldn't say X would exhibit [explanandum Y], would you? Therefore your theory of [explanandum Y] is inadequate." Usually Y = meaning, consciousness, intelligence, etc. The Chinese Room is a famous example here.

Unfortunately, this argument form is absurdly weak and can always be countered by an opponent who simply claims to have the requisite amount of imagination. ("Yes, I would say X exhibits [explanandum Y].") This strategy is pursued by Dennet in Consciousness Explained and is implicit in the likes of Hofstadter.

Another deficiency of these thought experiments is their flagrant physical impossibility. Why our philosophy of mind should be based primarily on the consideration of physically impossible situations is beyond me.

Consider, for example, Mary the Cognitive Scientist, who has supposedly been raised in a situation where she will never "see" (ie experience the qualia associated with) red (while nevertheless learning everything cognitive science has to say about color vision, etc., etc.). We are then asked to consider her reaction upon leaving her isolation chamber and seeing red for the first time.

But, how would she be isolated from seeing red? Red surfaces are not needed for this experience, white light, appropriately manipulated, is all that's necessary (we've known this since Newton (an absurdly conservative estimate)). In fact, no special apparatus is needed: simply pressing on one's closed eyelids while turned toward a light is enough to experience all the colors of the rainbow.

Suppose, however, one could somehow prevent any redness triggers from reaching Mary's brain, would she then experience the same qualia red as the rest of us when finally exposed to the appropriate stimulus? This seems highly unlike given what we know about brain development. Faculties not used during the appropriate developmental period (say, language in a wild child, or horizontal-sensors in a cat's visual system) simply atrophy. If the experiment could be performed, most likely Mary could never experience red qualia, no matter what stimulus she was presented with.

So, thought experiments = lazy with research, lazy with argumentation.

2) If we rank theories of brain dynamics w/r/t popularity amongst philosophers and w/r/t the difficulty of the associated mathematics, the rankings match up precisely.

Consider three theories about the appropriate formalism for understanding intelligent behavior:

i) GOFAI, ie rule-based relations between logical formulae

ii) Connectionism, ie models based on simple "neuron-like" nodes arranged in an interconnected network

iii) Dynamical systems, ie dynamic models involving differential equations where arbitrarily small changes in initial conditions can result in drastically different behavior

Despite the tendency on the part of both GOFAI and Connectionism to feign an embattled, minority status, I think it's fair to characterize some loose form of the logic-based picture as maintaining dominance, even if not in the extreme "GOFAI" form of its most famous defender, Fodor. Supposing even that Connectionism is a distant second, it is still far ahead of the dynamical systems approach.

Yet, the dynamical systems approach has a lot going for it:

a) It is the same formalism we use to model other complex systems in nature (weather, population dynamics, fluid flow). Why think the human brain is intrinsically simpler than these other natural systems?

b) The mathematics subsumes that of Connectionism (neural networks are a special case of a dynamical system).

c) In the abstract, the formalism is indifferent between several levels of description (we could use it to describe interactions between neurons, or interactions within the electrical field generated by the brain, or something more abstract even).

Connectionism's main claim, that it is modeled on the behavior of actual neurons, falls apart with just a few moments' research into neural behavior. GOFAI's abject failure in the realm of linguistics and AI leaves little going for it other than a priori analysis into the essence of intelligence (well, and a lot of thought experiments . . .).

However, note: the mathematics of GOFAI is just first order logic, often simplified to propositional logic; pretty easy compared to the probability and continuous mathematics needed for the learning rules in connectionist networks. However, connectionist networks can be simplified, and sometimes even analyzed in terms of simple nonmonotonic logics; nothing compared to the difficulties surrounding the differential equations of a dynamical system.

As an example, analysis of logical systems is relatively easy (proving how they will behave: such metalogical proofs are the bread and butter of professional logicians and theoretical computer scientists). However, analysis of differential equations can be quite difficult (if not impossible). Many investigators resort to running simulations because top-down analysis (proofs about how the system will behave) is so difficult.

So, are the resistance of philosophers of mind to dynamical systems models and the embarrassingly underinformed rejections of connectionist models by the likes of Fodor, just instances of armchair philosopher laziness?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

phil. mind: laughingstock?

Physicalism is generally reagarded, at least by most physicalists, as a naturalist position that is motivated by science. Yet, with few exceptions, physicalists rarely offer direct arguments for physicalism using premises drawn from science itself. The debates in which physicalists do engage, including defending physicalism by dealing with various objections to it, are striking for the near total absence of reference to current scientific theories or results. Much of the contemporary debate over physicalism concerns variations on the knowledge argument (paradigmatically concerning what Mary, the colour-perception-deprived yet cognitively omnipotent colour scientist, could or could not know about colour) and reflections on the putative possibility of zombies, inverted spectra, and other exotica utterly unrepresented in the literature of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Earlier, one would more likely find debate over physicalism expressed through discussion of worries over epiphenomenal ectoplasm, or worlds physically differing from our own only in the position of one ammonium molecule, but at which there are no mental properties at all. A striking feature of these debates in at least some versions of each of them is that no facts accessible to (third-person) science bear on whether the scenarios in question are actual or not: there are no epiphenomenal ectoplasm detectors, zombies are identical to us as far as any third-person investigation can tell, and worlds at which there are no mental properties at all pose the same problem on a larger scale. This dislocation from what could be discovered empirically is odd in debate over a position ostensibly motivated by naturalism.

Ladyman & Ross (2007) Everything Must Go, 39-40
The philosophy of mind is over. The two main debates in the philosophy of mind over the last few decades about the essence of mental states (are they physical, functional, phenomenal, etc.) and over mental content have run their course. Positions have hardened; objections are repeated; theoretical filigrees are attached. These relatively armchair discussions are being replaced by empirically oriented debates in philosophy of the cognitive and neural sciences. We applaud this, and agree with Quine that "philosophy of science is philosophy enough."

Chemero & Silberstein (2008) "After the Philosophy of Mind: Replacing Scholasticism with Science"

Friday, August 22, 2008

quine on communication

What are commonly said to be communicated, apart from diseases, are ideas. An idea that has been occupying one mind gets duplicated, it would seem, in another mind. "Peering into the darkness of another's mind," in Santayana's phrase, we cannot easily say how faithful the duplication is. Such is the vagueness of the very idea of IDEAS, q.v., indeed, that it is anybody's guess what the form, content, and limits even of one of our own idea might be said to be. Anybody's guess including our own.

The nature and limits of communication can be somewhat clarified if we put the vaporous idea of ideas aside and address ourselves to tangible, visible, and audible reality. Simple sentences about this robust subject matter are apt to be unfailing vehicles of communication, especially if the objects concerned are of kinds that both we and our communicants continue to encounter from time to time. . . .

Examples taper off to where communication is less firmly assured, as when Hegel writes "Truth is in league with reality against consciousness," or I write "Logic chases truth up the tree of grammar." I am confident that I grasp and appreciate this message of Hegel's, and that there are philosopher's of logic who grasp mine. But mere acknowledgement, however sincere—"I dig you," or "I read you. Roger and over"—is not conclusive evidence of successful communication. The Latin pupil gets low marks who says "Oh, I know what it means, but I can't quite put it into words." Stage comics have dramatized failure of communication by protracted cross-purpose dialogue in which the audience is privy to the misunderstanding while the performers ostensibly are not.

There are objective checkpoints. We are content that we have communicated if our interlocutor reacts appropriately, perhaps by stepping briskly up onto the curb, or by looking up at a particular quarter of the night sky, or by continuing the dialogue in so penetrating way as to render cross purposes unthinkable. . . .

The farther we venture from simple discourse about familiar concrete things, however, the farther apart the checkpoints tend to be spaced and the less decisive each checkpoint tends to be. We discourse blithely to patiently receptive ears and pick up only an occasional inconclusive indication, if any, that we have communicated our idea (excuse the expression) or perhaps engendered some unintended one. No news is good news. We read the listener's mind by what Neil Wilson called the principle of charity. We get an exaggerated idea of how well we have been understood, simply for want of checkpoints to the contrary. The miracle of communication, in its outer reaches, is a little like the miracle of transubstantiation: what transubstantiation?

W.V.O. Quine on communication in Quiddities, 1987

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Saturday, August 16, 2008

anonymous in hamburg

Witnessed a tiny Anonymous demonstration in front of the Hamburg Hauptbahnhopf. Roughly 5 - 10 guys dressed in standard hipster black and wearing V for Vendetta masks: while blaring a bizarre German cover of the Ghostbusters theme (?!?!?), they displayed anti-Scientology signs and one guy passed out leaflets (auf deutsch).

Although I support Anonymous in their efforts against Scientology, this display provoked several questions:

° Is such behavior really efficacious? (also: how would one measure its efficacy?)

° Suppose the anti-Scientology crusade succeeds; who next? Since Anonymous purports to be a loose collective of likeminded individuals (rather than a hierarchical organization), is this true democracy in action? A segment of the population becomes so fed up with the oppressive behavior of some organization that it spontaneously donates its time to publicizing and interfering with said oppressive behavior.

OK, but the most obvious targets for such publicizing / reprimanding of oppressive behavior are governments. Governments share with Scientology the ability to harass, attack, and otherwise suppress individual voices, so Anonymous's strategy of literally anonymous action may be uniquely suited to combating this form of oppression as well. But also: uniforms and anonymous group attacks by one segment of the populace upon another are the hallmarks of fascism. What's to prevent an initially altruistic Anonymous from metamorphosing into the very oppressive object it most abhors?

Supposedly, here, the answer is Anonymous's non-hierarchical structure. Without identifiable leaders, convincing other members of such a group that particular actions are just, only those actions uniformly supported on the basis of prior (=unmanipulated) values will guide action. Here's the rub, though: hierarchical structures seem to arise naturally from any complex interacting group (not just people, here, think dogs, bees, genes, atoms: this is the essence of the claim of evolution (see Herbert Simon's seminal "The Architecture of Complexity")). So, if Anonymous is successful, and continues, it will necessarily metamorphose into its evil twin.

° V for Vendetta masks: I can't decide if this is profoundly appropriate or merely evidence of the transient and shallow nature of Anonymous.

Friday, August 15, 2008

all fall down

As I type these words, a room full of computers is rapidly dismantled and boxed for shipment to [undisclosed location]. As each user gets up from his or her terminal, a team of coordinated technicians pounce to unplug, roll-up, bubble-wrap, and tape. Claustrophobia dissolves into agoraphobia. The effect is disconcerting in the extreme, and I fear the moment when the eager technicians' rate of boxing overtakes the rate of user abandonment.

To end this session means this terminal's demise . . .

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thursday, August 7, 2008

the "hamburger hamburger"

Empirical investigation confirms that, while the namesake of the famous food may indeed be a city, it is most certainly not the most famous so named. In fact, the "Hamburger hamburger" proved to be the most revolting specimen of this foodstuff encountered in travels spanning four continents. A dank greasespot on a city-menu otherwise radiant with tasty foodstuffs.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

ich bin ein hamburger

hostel all full up
metalheads in every room
t-shirt uniforms