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Feb
3rd
Sun
permalink

'Elegance,' 'Symmetry,' and 'Unity': Is Scientific Truth Always Beautiful?

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"Today the grandest quest of physics is to render compatible the laws of quantum physics—how particles in the subatomic world behave—with the rules that govern stars and planets. That’s because, at present, the formulas that work on one level implode into meaninglessness at the other level. This is deeply ungainly, and significant when the two worlds collide, as occurs in black holes. The quest to unify quantum physics (micro) and general relativity (macro) has spawned heroic efforts, the best-known candidate for a grand unifying concept presently being string theory. String theory proposes that subatomic particles are not particles at all but closed or open vibrating strings, so tiny, a hundred billion billion times shorter than an atomic nucleus’s diameter, that no human instrument can detect them. It’s the “music of the spheres”—think vibrating harp strings—made literal.

A concept related to string theory is “supersymmetry.” Physicists have shown that at extremely high energy levels, similar to those that existed a micro-blink after the big bang, the strength of the electromagnetic force, and strong and weak nuclear forces (which work only on subatomic levels), come tantalizingly close to converging. Physicists have conceived of scenarios in which the three come together precisely, an immensely intellectually and aesthetically pleasing accomplishment. But those scenarios imply the existence of as-yet-undiscovered “partners” for existing particles: The electron would be joined by a “selectron,” quarks by “squarks,” and so on. There was great hope that the $8-billion Large Hadron Collider would provide indirect evidence for these theories, but so far it hasn’t. (…)

[Marcelo Gleiser]: “We look out in the world and we see a very complicated pattern of stuff, and the notion of symmetry is an important way to make sense of the mess. The sun and moon are not perfect spheres, but that kind of approximation works incredibly well to simulate the behavior of these bodies.”

But the idea that what’s beautiful is true and that “symmetry rules,” as Gleiser puts it, “has been catapulted to an almost religious notion in the sciences,” he says. In his own book A Tear at the Edge of Creation (Free Press), Gleiser made a case for the beauty inherent in asymmetry—in the fact that neutrinos, the most common particles in the universe, spin only in one direction, for example, or that amino acids can be produced in laboratories in “left-handed” or “right-handed” forms, but only the “left-handed” form appears in nature. These are nature’s equivalent of Marilyn Monroe’s mole, attractive because of their lopsidedness, and Orrell also makes use of those examples.

But Weinberg, the Nobel-winning physicist at the University of Texas at Austin, counters: “Betting on beauty works remarkably well.” The Large Hadron Collider’s failure to produce evidence of supersymmetry is “disappointing,” he concedes, but he notes that plenty of elegant theories have waited years, even decades, for confirmation. Copernicus’s theory of a Sun-centered universe was developed entirely without experiment—he relied on Ptolemy’s data—and it was eventually embraced precisely because his description of planetary motion was simply more economical and elegant than those of his predecessors; it turned out to be true.

Closer to home, Weinberg says his own work on the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism had its roots in remarkably elegant, purely abstract theories of researchers who came before him, theories that, at first, seemed to be disproved by evidence but were too elegant to stop thinking about. (…)

To Orrell, it’s not just that many scientists are too enamored of beauty; it’s that their notion of beauty is ossified. It is “kind of clichéd,” Orrell says. “I find things like perfect symmetry uninspiring.” (In fairness, the Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall has used the early unbalanced sculptures of Richard Serra as an example of how the asymmetrical can be as fascinating as the symmetrical, in art as in physics. She finds this yin-yang tension perfectly compatible with modern theorizing.)

Orrell also thinks it is more useful to study the behavior of complex systems rather than their constituent elements. (…)

Outside of physics, Orrell reframes complaints about “perfect-model syndrome” in aesthetic terms. Classical economists, for instance, treat humans as symmetrical in terms of what motivates decision-making. In contrast, behavioral economists are introducing asymmetry into that field by replacing Homo economicus with a quirkier, more idiosyncratic and human figure—an aesthetic revision, if you like. (…)

The broader issue, though, is whether science’s search for beautiful, enlightening patterns has reached a point of diminishing returns. If science hasn’t yet hit that point, might it be approaching it? The search for symmetry in nature has had so many successes, observes Stephon Alexander, a Dartmouth physicist, that “there is a danger of forgetting that nature is the one that decides where that game ends.”

Christopher Shea, American writer and editor, Is Scientific Truth Always Beautiful?, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 28, 2013.

The Asymmetry of Life

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                                     Image courtesy of Ben Lansky

"Look into a mirror and you’ll simultaneously see the familiar and the alien: an image of you, but with left and right reversed.

Left-right inequality has significance far beyond that of mirror images, touching on the heart of existence itself. From subatomic physics to life, nature prefers asymmetry to symmetry. There are no equal liberties when neutrinos and proteins are concerned. In the case of neutrinos, particles that spill out of the sun’s nuclear furnace and pass through you by the trillions every second, only leftward-spinning ones exist. Why? No one really knows.

Proteins are long chains of amino acids that can be either left- or right-handed. Here, handedness has to do with how these molecules interact with polarized light, rotating it either to the left or to the right. When synthesized in the lab, amino acids come out fifty-fifty. In living beings, however, all proteins are made of left-handed amino acids. And all sugars in RNA and DNA are right-handed. Life is fundamentally asymmetric.

Is the handedness of life, its chirality (think chiromancer, which means “palm reader”), linked to its origins some 3.5 billion years ago, or did it develop after life was well on its way? If one traces life’s origins from its earliest stages, it’s hard to see how life began without molecular building blocks that were “chirally pure,” consisting solely of left- or right-handed molecules. Indeed, many models show how chirally pure amino acids may link to form precursors of the first protein-like chains. But what could have selected left-handed over right-handed amino acids?

My group’s research suggests that early Earth’s violent environmental upheavals caused many episodes of chiral flip-flopping. The observed left-handedness of terrestrial amino acids is probably a local fluke. Elsewhere in the universe, perhaps even on other planets and moons of our solar system, amino acids may be right-handed. But only sampling such material from many different planetary platforms will determine whether, on balance, biology is lefthanded, right-handed, or ambidextrous.”

Marcelo Gleiser, The Asymmetry of Life, § SEEDMAGAZINE, Sep 7, 2010.

"One of the deepest consequences of symmetries of any kind is their relationship with conservation laws. Every symmetry in a physical system, be it balls rolling down planes, cars moving on roads, planets orbiting the Sun, a photon hitting an electron, or the expanding Universe, is related to a conserved quantity, a quantity that remains unchanged in the course of time. In particular, external (spatial and temporal) symmetries are related to the conservation of momentum and energy, respectively: the total energy and momentum of a system that is temporally and spatially symmetric remains unchanged.

The elementary particles of matter live in a reality very different from ours. The signature property of their world is change: particles can morph into one another, changing their identities. […] One of the greatest triumphs of twentieth-century particle physics was the discovery of the rules dictating the many metamorphoses of matter particles and the symmetry principles behind them. One of its greatest surprises was the realization that some of the symmetries are violated and that these violations have very deep consequences. (…) p.27

Even though matter and antimatter appear in equal footing on the equations describing relativistic particles, antimatter occurs only rarely. […] Somehow, during its infancy, the cosmos selected matter over antimatter. This imperfection is the single most important factor dictating our existence. (…)

Back to the early cosmos: had there been an equal quantity of antimatter particles around, they would have annihilated the corresponding particles of matter and all that would be left would be lots of gamma-ray radiation and some leftover protons and antiprotons in equal amounts. Definitely not our Universe. The tiny initial excess of matter particles is enough to explain the overwhelming excess of matter over antimatter in today’s Universe. The existence of mattter, the stuff we and everything else are made of, depends on a primordial imperfection, the matter-antimatter asymmetry. (…) p.29.

We have seen how the weak interactions violate a series of internal symmetries: charge conjugation, parity, and even the combination of the two. The consequences of these violations are deeply related to our existence: they set the arrow of time at the microscopic level, providing a viable mechanism to generate the excess of matter over antimatter. […] The message from modern particle physics and cosmology is clear: we are the products of imperfections in Nature. (…)

It is not symmetry and perfection that should be our guiding principle, as it has been for millennia. We don’t have to look for the mind of God in Nature and try to express it through our equations. The science we create is just that, our creation. Wonderful as it is, it is always limited, it is always constrained by what we know of the world. […] The notion that there is a well-defined hypermathematical structure that determines all there is in the cosmos is a Platonic delusion with no relationship to physical reality. (…) p. 35.

The critics of this idea miss the fact that a meaningless cosmos that produced humans (and possibly other intelligences) will never be meaningless to them (or to the other intelligences). To exist in a purposeless Universe is even more meaningful than to exist as the result of some kind of mysterious cosmic plan. Why? Because it elevates the emergence of life and mind to a rare event, as opposed to a ubiquitous and premeditated one. For millennia, we believed that God (or gods) protected us from extinction, that we were chosen to be here and thus safe from ultimate destruction. […]

When science proposes that the cosmos has a sense of purpose where in life is a premeditated outcome of natural events, a similar safety blanket mechanism is at play: if life fails here, it will succeed elsewhere. We don’t really need to preserve it. To the contrary, I will argue that unless we accept our fragility and cosmic loneliness, we will never act to protect what we have. (…)

The laws of physics and the laws of chemistry as presently understood have nothing to say about the emergence of life. As Paul Davies remarked in Cosmic Jackpot, notions of a life principle suffer from being teleologic, explaining life as the end goal, a purposeful cosmic strategy. The human mind, of course, would be the crown jewel of such creative drive. Once again we are “chosen” ones, a dangerous proposal. […] Arguments shifting the “mind of God” to the “mind of the cosmos” perpetuate our obsession with the notion of Oneness. Our existence need not be planned to be meaningful.” (…) p.49.

Unified theories, life principles, and self-aware universes are all expressions of our need to find a connection between who we are and the world we live in. I do not question the extreme importance of understanding the connection between man and the cosmos. But I do question that it has to derive from unifying principles. (…) p.50.

My point is that there is no Final Truth to be discovered, no grand plan behind creation. Science advances as new theories engulf or displace old ones. The growth is largely incremental, punctuated by unexpected, worldview-shattering discoveries about the workings of Nature. […]

Once we understand that science is the creation of human minds and not the pursuit of some divine plan (even if metaphorically) we shift the focus of our search for knowledge from the metaphysical to the concrete. (…) p.51.

For a clever fish, water is “just right“ for it to swim in. Had it been too cold, it would freeze; too hot, it would boil. Surely the water temperature had to be just right for the fish to exist. “I’m very important. My existence cannot be an accident,” the proud fish would conclude. Well, he is not very important. He is just a clever fish. The ocean temperature is not being controlled with the purpose of making it possible for it to exist. Quite the opposite: the fish is fragile. A sudden or gradual temperature swing would kill it, as any trout fisherman knows. We so crave for meaningful connections that we see them even when they are not there.

We are soulful creatures in a harsh cosmos. This, to me, is the essence of the human predicament. The gravest mistake we can make is to think that the cosmos has plans for us, that we are somehow special from a cosmic perspective. (…) p.52

We are witnessing the greatest mass extinction since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The difference is that for the first time in history, humans, and not physical causes, are the perpetrators. […] Life recovered from the previous five mass extinctions because the physical causes eventually ceased to act. Unless we understand what is happening and start acting toghether as a species we may end up carving the path toward our own destruction. (…)” p.56

Marcelo Gleiser is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth College, A Tear at the Edge of Creation, Free Press, 2010.

See also:

Symmetry in Physics - Bibliography - PhilPapers
The Concept of Laws. The special status of the laws of mathematics and physics, Lapidarium notes
Universe tag on Lapidarium notes

Jan
27th
Sun
permalink

Daniel C. Dennett on an attempt to understand the mind; autonomic neurons, culture and computational architecture

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"What Darwin and Turing had both discovered, in their different ways, was the existence of competence without comprehension."

— Daniel C. Dennett, What Darwin’s theory of evolution teaches us about Alan Turing and artificial intelligence, Lapidarium

"I’m trying to undo a mistake I made some years ago, and rethink the idea that the way to understand the mind is to take it apart into simpler minds and then take those apart into still simpler minds until you get down to minds that can be replaced by a machine. This is called homuncular functionalism, because you take the whole person. You break the whole person down into two or three or four or seven sub persons that are basically agents. They’re homunculi, and this looks like a regress, but it’s only a finite regress, because you take each of those in turn and you break it down into a group of stupider, more specialized homunculi, and you keep going until you arrive at parts that you can replace with a machine, and that’s a great way of thinking about cognitive science. It’s what good old-fashioned AI tried to do and still trying to do.

The idea is basically right, but when I first conceived of it, I made a big mistake. I was at that point enamored of the McCulloch-Pitts logical neuron. McCulloch and Pitts had put together the idea of a very simple artificial neuron, a computational neuron, which had multiple inputs and a single branching output and a threshold for firing, and the inputs were either inhibitory or excitatory. They proved that in principle a neural net made of these logical neurons could compute anything you wanted to compute. So this was very exciting. It meant that basically you could treat the brain as a computer and treat the neuron as a sort of basic switching element in the computer, and that was certainly an inspiring over-simplification. Everybody knew is was an over-simplification, but people didn’t realize how much, and more recently it’s become clear to me that it’s a dramatic over-simplification, because each neuron, far from being a simple logical switch, is a little agent with an agenda, and they are much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.

The question is, what happens to your ideas about computational architecture when you think of individual neurons not as dutiful slaves or as simple machines but as agents that have to be kept in line and that have to be properly rewarded and that can form coalitions and cabals and organizations and alliances? This vision of the brain as a sort of social arena of politically warring forces seems like sort of an amusing fantasy at first, but is now becoming something that I take more and more seriously, and it’s fed by a lot of different currents.

Evolutionary biologist David Haig has some lovely papers on intrapersonal conflicts where he’s talking about how even at the level of the genetics, even at the level of the conflict between the genes you get from your mother and the genes you get from your father, the so-called madumnal and padumnal genes, those are in opponent relations and if they get out of whack, serious imbalances can happen that show up as particular psychological anomalies.

We’re beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy. In fact, it’s much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy. Sometimes you can achieve stability and mutual aid and a sort of calm united front, and then everything is hunky-dory, but then it’s always possible for things to get out of whack and for one alliance or another to gain control, and then you get obsessions and delusions and so forth.

You begin to think about the normal well-tempered mind, in effect, the well-organized mind, as an achievement, not as the base state, something that is only achieved when all is going well, but still, in the general realm of humanity, most of us are pretty well put together most of the time. This gives a very different vision of what the architecture is like, and I’m just trying to get my head around how to think about that. (…)

The vision of the brain as a computer, which I still champion, is changing so fast. The brain’s a computer, but it’s so different from any computer that you’re used to. It’s not like your desktop or your laptop at all, and it’s not like your iPhone except in some ways. It’s a much more interesting phenomenon. What Turing gave us for the first time (and without Turing you just couldn’t do any of this) is a way of thinking in a disciplined way about phenomena that have, as I like to say, trillions of moving parts. Until late 20th century, nobody knew how to take seriously a machine with a trillion moving parts. It’s just mind-boggling.

You couldn’t do it, but computer science gives us the ideas, the concepts of levels, virtual machines implemented in virtual machines implemented in virtual machines and so forth. We have these nice ideas of recursive reorganization of which your iPhone is just one example and a very structured and very rigid one at that.

We’re getting away from the rigidity of that model, which was worth trying for all it was worth. You go for the low-hanging fruit first. First, you try to make minds as simple as possible. You make them as much like digital computers, as much like von Neumann machines, as possible. It doesn’t work. Now, we know why it doesn’t work pretty well. So you’re going to have a parallel architecture because, after all, the brain is obviously massively parallel.

It’s going to be a connectionist network. Although we know many of the talents of connectionist networks, how do you knit them together into one big fabric that can do all the things minds do? Who’s in charge? What kind of control system? Control is the real key, and you begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. Control in your commercial computer is very much a carefully designed top-down thing.

You really don’t have to worry about one part of your laptop going rogue and trying out something on its own that the rest of the system doesn’t want to do. No, they’re all slaves. If they’re agents, they’re slaves. They are prisoners. They have very clear job descriptions. They get fed every day. They don’t have to worry about where the energy’s coming from, and they’re not ambitious. They just do what they’re asked to do and do it brilliantly with only the slightest tint of comprehension. You get all the power of computers out of these mindless little robotic slave prisoners, but that’s not the way your brain is organized.

Each neuron is imprisoned in your brain. I now think of these as cells within cells, as cells within prison cells. Realize that every neuron in your brain, every human cell in your body (leaving aside all the symbionts), is a direct descendent of eukaryotic cells that lived and fended for themselves for about a billion years as free-swimming, free-living little agents. They fended for themselves, and they survived.

They had to develop an awful lot of know-how, a lot of talent, a lot of self-protective talent to do that. When they joined forces into multi-cellular creatures, they gave up a lot of that. They became, in effect, domesticated. They became part of larger, more monolithic organizations. My hunch is that that’s true in general. We don’t have to worry about our muscle cells rebelling against us, or anything like that. When they do, we call it cancer, but in the brain I think that (and this is my wild idea) maybe only in one species, us, and maybe only in the obviously more volatile parts of the brain, the cortical areas, some little switch has been thrown in the genetics that, in effect, makes our neurons a little bit feral, a little bit like what happens when you let sheep or pigs go feral, and they recover their wild talents very fast.

Maybe a lot of the neurons in our brains are not just capable but, if you like, motivated to be more adventurous, more exploratory or risky in the way they comport themselves, in the way they live their lives. They’re struggling amongst themselves with each other for influence, just for staying alive, and there’s competition going on between individual neurons. As soon as that happens, you have room for cooperation to create alliances, and I suspect that a more free-wheeling, anarchic organization is the secret of our greater capacities of creativity, imagination, thinking outside the box and all that, and the price we pay for it is our susceptibility to obsessions, mental illnesses, delusions and smaller problems.

We got risky brains that are much riskier than the brains of other mammals even, even more risky than the brains of chimpanzees, and that this could be partly a matter of a few simple mutations in control genes that release some of the innate competitive talent that is still there in the genomes of the individual neurons. But I don’t think that genetics is the level to explain this. You need culture to explain it.

'Culture creates a whole new biosphere'

This, I speculate, is a response to our invention of culture; culture creates a whole new biosphere, in effect, a whole new cultural sphere of activity where there’s opportunities that don’t exist for any other brain tissues in any other creatures, and that this exploration of this space of cultural possibility is what we need to do to explain how the mind works.

Everything I just said is very speculative. I’d be thrilled if 20 percent of it was right. It’s an idea, a way of thinking about brains and minds and culture that is, to me, full of promise, but it may not pan out. I don’t worry about that, actually. I’m content to explore this, and if it turns out that I’m just wrong, I’ll say, “Oh, okay. I was wrong. It was fun thinking about it,” but I think I might be right.

I’m not myself equipped to work on a lot of the science; other people could work on it, and they already are in a way. The idea of selfish neurons has already been articulated by Sebastian Seung of MIT in a brilliant keynote lecture he gave at Society for Neuroscience in San Diego a few years ago. I thought, oh, yeah, selfish neurons, selfish synapses. Cool. Let’s push that and see where it leads. But there are many ways of exploring this. One of the still unexplained, so far as I can tell, and amazing features of the brain is its tremendous plasticity.

Mike Merzenich sutured a monkey’s fingers together so that it didn’t need as much cortex to represent two separate individual digits, and pretty soon the cortical regions that were representing those two digits shrank, making that part of the cortex available to use for other things. When the sutures were removed, the cortical regions soon resumed pretty much their earlier dimensions. If you blindfold yourself for eight weeks, as Alvaro Pascual-Leone does in his experiments, you find that your visual cortex starts getting adapted for Braille, for haptic perception, for touch.

The way the brain spontaneously reorganizes itself in response to trauma of this sort, or just novel experience, is itself one of the most amazing features of the brain, and if you don’t have an architecture that can explain how that could happen and why that is, your model has a major defect. I think you really have to think in terms of individual neurons as micro-agents, and ask what’s in it for them?

Why should these neurons be so eager to pitch in and do this other work just because they don’t have a job? Well, they’re out of work. They’re unemployed, and if you’re unemployed, you’re not getting your neuromodulators. If you’re not getting your neuromodulators, your neuromodulator receptors are going to start disappearing, and pretty soon you’re going to be really out of work, and then you’re going to die.

In this regard, I think of John Hollands work on the emergence of order. His example is New York City. You can always find a place where you can get gefilte fish, or sushi, or saddles or just about anything under the sun you want, and you don’t have to worry about a state bureaucracy that is making sure that supplies get through. No. The market takes care of it. The individual web of entrepreneurship and selfish agency provides a host of goods and services, and is an extremely sensitive instrument that responds to needs very quickly.

Until the lights go out. Well, we’re all at the mercy of the power man. I am quite concerned that we’re becoming hyper-fragile as a civilization, and we’re becoming so dependent on technologies that are not as reliable as they should be, that have so many conditions that have to be met for them to work, that we may specialize ourselves into some very serious jams. But in the meantime, thinking about the self-organizational powers of the brain as very much like the self-organizational powers of a city is not a bad idea. It just reeks of over-enthusiastic metaphor, though, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that this idea has been around since Plato.

Plato analogizes the mind of a human being to the state. You’ve got the rulers and the guardians and the workers. This idea that a person is made of lots of little people is comically simpleminded in some ways, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t, in a sense, true. We shouldn’t shrink from it just because it reminds us of simpleminded versions that have been long discredited. Maybe some not so simpleminded version is the truth.

There are a lot of cultural fleas

My next major project will be trying to take another hard look at cultural evolution and look at the different views of it and see if I can achieve a sort of bird’s eye view and establish what role, if any, is there for memes or something like memes and what are the other forces that are operating. We are going to have to have a proper scientific perspective on cultural change. The old-fashioned, historical narratives are wonderful, and they’re full of gripping detail, and they’re even sometimes right, but they only cover a small proportion of the phenomena. They only cover the tip of the iceberg.

Basically, the model that we have and have used for several thousand years is the model that culture consists of treasures, cultural treasures. Just like money, or like tools and houses, you bequeath them to your children, and you amass them, and you protect them, and because they’re valuable, you maintain them and prepare them, and then you hand them on to the next generation and some societies are rich, and some societies are poor, but it’s all goods. I think that vision is true of only the tip of the iceberg.

Most of the regularities in culture are not treasures. It’s not all opera and science and fortifications and buildings and ships. It includes all kinds of bad habits and ugly patterns and stupid things that don’t really matter but that somehow have got a grip on a society and that are part of the ecology of the human species in the same way that mud, dirt and grime and fleas are part of the world that we live in. They’re not our treasures. We may give our fleas to our children, but we’re not trying to. It’s not a blessing. It’s a curse, and I think there are a lot of cultural fleas. There are lots of things that we pass on without even noticing that we’re doing it and, of course, language is a prime case of this, very little deliberate intentional language instruction goes on or has to go on.

Kids that are raised with parents pointing out individual objects and saying, “See, it’s a ball. It’s red. Look, Johnny, it’s a red ball, and this is a cow, and look at the horsy” learn to speak, but so do kids who don’t have that patient instruction. You don’t have to do that. Your kids are going to learn ball and red and horsy and cow just fine without that, even if they’re quite severely neglected. That’s not a nice observation to make, but it’s true. It’s almost impossible not to learn language if you don’t have some sort of serious pathology in your brain.

Compare that with chimpanzees. There are hundreds of chimpanzees who have spent their whole lives in human captivity. They’ve been institutionalized. They’ve been like prisoners, and in the course of the day they hear probably about as many words as a child does. They never show any interest. They never apparently get curious about what those sounds are for. They can hear all the speech, but it’s like the rustling of the leaves. It just doesn’t register on them as worth attention.

But kids are tuned for that, and it might be a very subtle tuning. I can imagine a few small genetic switches, which, if they were just in a slightly different position, would make chimpanzees just as pantingly eager to listen to language as human babies are, but they’re not, and what a difference it makes in their world! They never get to share discoveries the way we do and to share our learning. That, I think, is the single feature about human beings that distinguishes us most clearly from all others: we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Our kids get the benefit of not just what grandpa and grandma and great grandpa and great grandma knew. They get the benefit of basically what everybody in the world knew in the years when they go to school. They don’t have to invent calculus or long division or maps or the wheel or fire. They get all that for free. It just comes as part of the environment. They get incredible treasures, cognitive treasures, just by growing up. (…)

A lot of naïve thinking by scientists about free will

Moving Naturalism Forward" was a nice workshop that Sean Carroll put together out in Stockbridge a couple of weeks ago, and it was really interesting. I learned a lot. I learned more about how hard it is to do some of these things and that’s always useful knowledge, especially for a philosopher.

If we take seriously, as I think we should, the role that Socrates proposed for us as midwives of thinking, then we want to know what the blockades are, what the imagination blockades are, what people have a hard time thinking about, and among the things that struck me about the Stockbridge conference were the signs of people really having a struggle to take seriously some ideas which I think they should take seriously. (…)

I realized I really have my work cut out for me in a way that I had hoped not to discover. There’s still a lot of naïve thinking by scientists about free will. I’ve been talking about it quite a lot, and I do my best to undo some bad thinking by various scientists. I’ve had some modest success, but there’s a lot more that has to be done on that front. I think it’s very attractive to scientists to think that here’s this several-millennia-old philosophical idea, free will, and they can just hit it out of the ballpark, which I’m sure would be nice if it was true.

It’s just not true. I think they’re well intentioned. They’re trying to clarify, but they’re really missing a lot of important points. I want a naturalistic theory of human beings and free will and moral responsibility as much as anybody there, but I think you’ve got to think through the issues a lot better than they’ve done, and this, happily, shows that there’s some real work for philosophers.

Philosophers have done some real work that the scientists jolly well should know. Here’s an area where it was one of the few times in my career when I wanted to say to a bunch of scientists, “Look. You have some reading to do in philosophy before you hold forth on this. There really is some good reading to do on these topics, and you need to educate yourselves.”

A combination of arrogance and cravenness

The figures about American resistance to evolution are still depressing, and you finally have to realize that there’s something structural. It’s not that people are stupid, and I think it’s clear that people, everybody, me, you, we all have our authorities, our go-to people whose word we trust. If you want to question about the economic situation in Greece, for instance, you need to check it out with somebody whose opinion on that we think is worth taking seriously. We don’t try to work it out for ourselves. We find some expert that we trust, and right around the horn, whatever the issues are, we have our experts, and so a lot of people have as their experts on matters of science, they have their pastors. This is their local expert.

I don’t blame them. I wish they were more careful about vetting their experts and making sure that they found good experts. They wouldn’t choose an investment advisor, I think, as thoughtlessly as they go along with their pastor. I blame the pastors, but where do they get their ideas? Well, they get them from the hierarchies of their churches. Where do they get their ideas? Up at the top, I figure there’s some people that really should be ashamed of themselves. They know better.

They’re lying, and when I get a chance, I try to ask them that. I say, “Doesn’t it bother you that your grandchildren are going to want to know why you thought you had to lie to everybody about evolution?” I mean, really. They’re lies. They’ve got to know that these are lies. They’re not that stupid, and I just would love them to worry about what their grandchildren and great grandchildren would say about how their ancestors were so craven and so arrogant. It’s a combination of arrogance and cravenness.

We now have to start working on that structure of experts and thinking, why does that persist? How can it be that so many influential, powerful, wealthy, in-the-public people can be so confidently wrong about evolutionary biology? How did that happen? Why does it happen? Why does it persist? It really is a bit of a puzzle if you think about how they’d be embarrassed not to know that the world is round. I think that would be deeply embarrassing to be that benighted, and they’d realize it. They’d be embarrassed not to know that HIV is the vector of AIDS. They’d be embarrassed to not understand the way the tides are produced by the gravitational forces of the moon and the sun. They may not know the details, but they know that the details are out there. They could learn them in 20 minutes if they wanted to. How did they get themselves in the position where they could so blithely trust people who they’d never buy stocks and bonds from? They’d never trust a child’s operation to a doctor that was as ignorant and as ideological as these people. It is really strange. I haven’t got to the bottom of that. (…)

This pernicious sort of lazy relativism

[T]here’s a sort of enforced hypocrisy where the pastors speak from the pulpit quite literally, and if you weren’t listening very carefully, you’d think: oh my gosh, this person really believes all this stuff. But they’re putting in just enough hints for the sophisticates in the congregation so that the sophisticates are supposed to understand: Oh, no. This is all just symbolic. This is all just metaphorical. And that’s the way they want it, but of course, they could never admit it. You couldn’t put a little neon sign up over the pulpit that says, “Just metaphor, folks, just metaphor.” It would destroy the whole thing.

You can’t admit that it’s just metaphor even when you insist when anybody asks that it’s just metaphor, and so this professional doubletalk persists, and if you study it for a while the way Linda [pdf] and I have been doing, you come to realize that’s what it is, and that means they’ve lost track of what it means to tell the truth. Oh, there are so many different kinds of truth. Here’s where postmodernism comes back to haunt us. What a pernicious bit of intellectual vandalism that movement was! It gives license to this pernicious sort of lazy relativism.

One of the most chilling passages in that great book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is where he talks about soldiers in the military: "Far better is it for an army to be too savage, too cruel, too barbarous, thant to possess too much sentimentality and human reasonableness.” This is a very sobering, to me, a very sobering reflection. Let’s talk about when we went into Iraq. There was Rumsfeld saying, “Oh, we don’t need a big force. We don’t need a big force. We can do this on the cheap,” and there were other people, retrospectively we can say they were wiser, who said, “Look, if you’re going to do this at all, you want to go in there with such overpowering, such overwhelming numbers and force that you can really intimidate the population, and you can really maintain the peace and just get the population to sort of roll over, and that way actually less people get killed, less people get hurt. You want to come in with an overwhelming show of force.”

The principle is actually one that’s pretty well understood. If you don’t want to have a riot, have four times more police there than you think you need. That’s the way not to have a riot and nobody gets hurt because people are not foolish enough to face those kinds of odds. But they don’t think about that with regard to religion, and it’s very sobering. I put it this way.

Suppose that we face some horrific, terrible enemy, another Hitler or something really, really bad, and here’s two different armies that we could use to defend ourselves. I’ll call them the Gold Army and the Silver Army; same numbers, same training, same weaponry. They’re all armored and armed as well as we can do. The difference is that the Gold Army has been convinced that God is on their side and this is the cause of righteousness, and it’s as simple as that. The Silver Army is entirely composed of economists. They’re all making side insurance bets and calculating the odds of everything.

Which army do you want on the front lines? It’s very hard to say you want the economists, but think of what that means. What you’re saying is we’ll just have to hoodwink all these young people into some false beliefs for their own protection and for ours. It’s extremely hypocritical. It is a message that I recoil from, the idea that we should indoctrinate our soldiers. In the same way that we inoculate them against diseases, we should inoculate them against the economists’—or philosophers’—sort of thinking, since it might lead to them to think: am I so sure this cause is just? Am I really prepared to risk my life to protect? Do I have enough faith in my commanders that they’re doing the right thing? What if I’m clever enough and thoughtful enough to figure out a better battle plan, and I realize that this is futile? Am I still going to throw myself into the trenches? It’s a dilemma that I don’t know what to do about, although I think we should confront it at least.”

Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, The normal well-tempered mind, Edge, Jan 8, 2013.

'The Intentional Stance'

"Dennett favours the theory (first suggested by Richard Dawkins) that our social learning has given us a second information highway (in addition to the genetic highway) where the transmission of variant cultural information (memes) takes place via differential replication. Software viruses, for example, can be understood as memes, and as memes evolve in complexity, so does human cognition: “The mind is the effect, not the cause.” (…)

Daniel Dennett: "Natural selection is not gene centrist and nor is biology all about genes, our comprehending minds are a result of our fast evolving culture. Words are memes that can be spoken and words are the best example of memes. Words have a genealogy and it’s easier to trace the evolution of a single word than the evolution of a language." (…)

I don’t like theory of mind. I coined the phrase The Intentional Stance. [Dennett’s Intentional Stance encompasses attributing feelings, memories and beliefs to others as well as mindreading and predicting what someone will do next.] Do you need a theory to ride a bike? (…)

Riding a bike is a craft – you don’t need a theory. Autistic people might need a theory with which to understand other minds, but the rest of us don’t. If a human is raised without social interaction and without language they would be hugely disabled and probably lacking in empathy.”

Daniel C. Dennett, Daniel Dennett: ‘I don’t like theory of mind’ – interview, The Guardian, 22 March 2013.

See also:

Steven Pinker on the mind as a system of ‘organs of computation’, Lapidarium notes
Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks - ‘To be human is to be quantum’, Lapidarium notes
Human Connectome Project: understanding how different parts of the brain communicate to each other
How Free Is Your Will?, Lapidarium notes
Susan Blackmore on memes and “temes”
Mind & Brain tag on Lapidarium notes

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Kevin Slavin: How algorithms shape our world

“But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?

People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good. Every instance of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.

The same ambiguity that motivated dubious academic AI projects in the past has been repackaged as mass culture today. Did that search engine really know what you want, or are you playing along, lowering your standards to make it seem clever? While it’s to be expected that the human perspective will be changed by encounters with profound new technologies, the exercise of treating machine intelligence as real requires people to reduce their mooring to reality.”

Jaron Lanier, You are Not a Gadget (2010)

Kevin Slavin argues that we’re living in a world designed for — and increasingly controlled by — algorithms. In this riveting talk from TEDGlobal, he shows how these complex computer programs determine: espionage tactics, stock prices, movie scripts, and architecture.

"We’re writing things (…) that we can no longer read. And we’ve rendered something illegible, and we’ve lost the sense of what’s actually happening in this world that we’ve made. (…)

“We’re running through the United States with dynamite and rock saws so that an algorithm can close the deal three microseconds faster, all for a communications framework that no human will ever know; that’s a kind of manifest destiny.”

Kevin Slavin, Entrepreneur, Raconteur Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT Media Lab, Kevin Slavin: How algorithms shape our world, TED, July 2011.

See also:

☞ Jane Wakefield, When algorithms control the world, BBC, Aug 23, 2011.

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Nicholas Carr on the meaning of ‘searching’ these days

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"All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected. But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible relationships. A timeless interval was spent doing that."

— Isaac Asimov, “The Last Question”, cited in John Battelle's The Search

"When we talk about “searching” these days, we’re almost always talking about using Google to find something online. That’s quite a twist for a word that has long carried existential connotations, that has been bound up in our sense of what it means to be conscious and alive. We don’t just search for car keys or missing socks. We search for truth and meaning, for love, for transcendence, for peace, for ourselves. To be human is to be a searcher.

In its highest form, a search has no well-defined object. It’s open-ended, an act of exploration that takes us out into the world, beyond the self, in order to know the world, and the self, more fully. T. S. Eliot expressed this sense of searching in his famously eloquent lines from “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Google searches have always been more cut and dried, keyed as they are to particular words or phrases. But in its original conception, the Google search engine did transport us into a messy and confusing world—the world of the web—with the intent of helping us make some sense of it. It pushed us outward, away from ourselves. It was a means of exploration. That’s much less the case now. Google’s conception of searching has changed markedly since those early days, and that means our own idea of what it means to search is changing as well.

Google’s goal is no longer to read the web. It’s to read us. Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and AI speculator, recently joined the company as its director of research. His general focus will be on machine learning and natural language processing. But his particular concern, as he said in a recent interview, will entail reconfiguring the company’s search engine to focus not outwardly on the world but inwardly on the user:

“I envision some years from now that the majority of search queries will be answered without you actually asking. It’ll just know this is something that you’re going to want to see.” While it may take some years to develop this technology, Kurzweil added that he personally thinks it will be embedded into what Google offers currently, rather than as a stand-alone product necessarily.

(…) Back in 2006, Eric Schmidt, then the company’s CEO, said that Google’s “ultimate product” would be a service that would “tell me what I should be typing.” It would give you an answer before you asked a question, obviating the need for searching entirely. (…)

In its new design, Google’s search engine doesn’t push us outward; it turns us inward. It gives us information that fits the behavior and needs and biases we have displayed in the past, as meticulously interpreted by Google’s algorithms. Because it reinforces the existing state of the self rather than challenging it, it subverts the act of searching. We find out little about anything, least of all ourselves, through self-absorption. (…)

To be turned inward, to listen to speech that is only a copy, or reflection, of our own speech, is to keep the universe alone. To free ourselves from that prison — the prison we now call personalization — we need to voyage outward to discover “counter-love,” to hear “original response.” As Frost understood, a true search is as dangerous as it is essential. It’s about breaking the shackles of the self, not tightening them.

There was a time, back when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were young and naive and idealistic, that Google spoke to us with the voice of original response. Now, what Google seeks to give us is copy speech, our own voice returned to us.”

Nicholas Carr, American writer who has published books and articles on technology, business, and culture, The searchers, Rough Type, Jan 13, 2013.

See also:

The Filter Bubble: Eli Pariser on What the Internet Is Hiding From You
☞ Tim Adams, Google and the future of search: Amit Singhal and the Knowledge Graph, The Observer, 19 January 2013.

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Researchers discover surprising complexities in the way the brain makes mental maps

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Spatial location is closely connected to the formation of new memories. Until now, grid cells were thought to be part of a single unified map system. New findings from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology demonstrate that the grid system is in fact composed of a number of independent grid maps, each with unique properties. Each map displays a particular resolution (mesh size), and responds independently to changes in the environment. A system of several distinct grid maps (illustrated on left) can support a large number of unique combinatorial codes used to associate new memories formed with specific spatial information (illustrated on right).

Your brain has at least four different senses of location – and perhaps as many as 10. And each is different, according to new research from the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. (…)

The findings, published in the 6 December 2012 issue of Nature, show that rather than just a single sense of location, the brain has a number of “modules” dedicated to self-location. Each module contains its own internal GPS-like mapping system that keeps track of movement, and has other characteristics that also distinguishes one from another.

"We have at least four senses of location," says Edvard Moser, director of the Kavli Institute. "Each has its own scale for representing the external environment, ranging from very fine to very coarse. The different modules react differently to changes in the environment. Some may scale the brain’s inner map to the surroundings, others do not. And they operate independently of each other in several ways."

This is also the first time that researchers have been able to show that a part of the brain that does not directly respond to sensory input, called the association cortex, is organized into modules. The research was conducted using rats. (…)

Technical breakthroughs

A rat’s brain is the size of a grape, while the area that keeps track of the sense of location and memory is comparable in size to a small grape seed. This tiny area holds millions of nerve cells.

A research team of six people worked for more than four years to acquire extensive electrophysiological measurements in this seed-sized region of the brain. New measurement techniques and a technical breakthrough made it possible for Hanne Stensola and her colleagues to measure the activity in as many as 186 grid cells of the same rat brain. A grid cell is a specialized cell named for its characteristic of creating hexagonal grids in the brain’s mental map of its surroundings.

"We knew that the ‘grid maps’ in this area of the brain had resolutions covering different scales, but we did not know how independent the scales were of each other," Stensola said. "We then discovered that the maps were organized in four to five modules with different scales, and that each of these modules reacted slightly differently to changes in their environment. This independence can be used by the brain to create new combinations - many combinations - which is a very useful tool for memory formation.

After analysing the activity of nearly 1000 grid cells, researchers were able to conclude that the brain has not just one way of making an internal map of its location, but several. Perhaps 10 different senses of location.

Perhaps 10 different senses of location

image
The entorhinal cortex is a part of the neocortex that represents space by way of brain cells that have GPS-like properties. Each cell describes the environment as a hexagonal grid mesh, earning them the name ‘grid cells’. The panels show a bird’s-eye view of a rat’s recorded movements (grey trace) in a 2.2x2.2 m box. Each panel shows the activity of one grid cell (blue dots) with a particular map resolution as the animal moved through the environment. Credit: Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, NTNU

Institute director Moser says that while researchers are able to state with confidence that there are at least four different location modules, and have seen clear evidence of a fifth, there may be as many as 10 different modules.

He says, however, that researchers need to conduct more measurements before they will have covered the entire grid-cell area. “At this point we have measured less than half of the area,” he says.

Aside from the time and challenges involved in making these kinds of measurements, there is another good reason why researchers have not yet completed this task. The lower region of the sense of location area, the entorhinal cortex, has a resolution that is so coarse or large that it is virtually impossible to measure it.

"The thinking is that the coordinate points for some of these maps are as much as ten metres apart," explains Moser. "To measure this we would need to have a lab that is quite a lot larger and we would need time to test activity over the entire area. We work with rats, which run around while we make measurements from their brain. Just think how long it would take to record the activity in a rat if it was running back and forth exploring every nook and cranny of a football field. So you can see that we have some challenges here in scaling up our experiments."

New way to organize

Part of what makes the discovery of the grid modules so special is that it completely changes our understanding of how the brain physically organizes abstract functions. Previously, researchers have shown that brain cells in sensory systems that are directly adjacent to each other tend to have the same response pattern. This is how they have been able to create detailed maps of which parts of the sensory brain do what.

The new research shows that a modular organization is also found in the highest parts of the cortex, far away from areas devoted to senses or motor outputs. But these maps are different in the sense that they overlap or infiltrate other. It is thus not possible to locate the different modules with a microscope, because the cells that work together are intermingled with other modules in the same area.

“The various components of the grid map are not organized side by side,” explains Moser. “The various components overlap. This is the first time a brain function has been shown to be organized in this way at separate scales. We have uncovered a new way for neural network function to be distributed.”

A map and a constant

The researchers were surprised, however, when they started calculating the difference between the scales. They may have discovered an ingenious mathematical coding system, along with a number, a constant. (Anyone who has read or seen “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” may enjoy this.) The scale for each sense of location is actually 42% larger than the previous one. “

We may not be able to say with certainty that we have found a mathematical constant for the way the brain calculates the scales for each sense of location, but it’s very funny that we have to multiply each measurement by 1.42 to get the next one. That is approximately equal to the square root of the number two,” says Moser.

Maps are genetically encoded

Moser thinks it is striking that the relationship between the various functional modules is so orderly. He believes this orderliness shows that the way the grid map is organized is genetically built in, and not primarily the result of experience and interaction with the environment.

So why has evolution equipped us with four or more senses of location?

Moser believes the ability to make a mental map of the environment arose very early in evolution. He explains that all species need to navigate, and that some types of memory may have arisen from brain systems that were actually developed for the brain’s sense of location.

“We see that the grid cells that are in each of the modules send signals to the same cells in the hippocampus, which is a very important component of memory,” explains Moser. “This is, in a way, the next step in the line of signals in the brain. In practice this means that the location cells send a different code into the hippocampus at the slightest change in the environment in the form of a new pattern of activity. So every tiny change results in a new combination of activity that can be used to encode a new memory, and, with input from the environment, becomes what we call memories.”

Researchers discover surprising complexities in the way the brain makes mental maps, Medical press, Dec 5, 2012.

The article is a part of doctoral research conducted by Hanne and Tor Stensola, and has been funded through an Advanced Investigator Grant that Edvard Moser was awarded by the European Research Council (ERC).

See also:

☞ Hanne Stensola, Tor Stensola, Trygve Solstad, Kristian Frøland, May-Britt Moser & Edvard I. Moser, The entorhinal grid map is discretized, Nature, 5 Dec 2012.
Mind & brain tag on Lapidarium notes

Dec
10th
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Cargo cult science by Richard Feynman
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Adapted from the Caltech commencement address given in 1974.

"During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas—which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked—or very little of it did.
 
But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFOS, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.
 
Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I’m overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism, and mystic experiences. I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it’s a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn’t realize how much there was.
 
At Esalen there are some large baths fed by hot springs situated on a ledge about thirty feet above the ocean. One of my most pleasurable experiences has been to sit in one of those baths and watch the waves crashing onto the rocky shore below, to gaze into the clear blue sky above, and to study a beautiful nude as she quietly appears and settles into the bath with me.
 
One time I sat down in a bath where there was a beautiful girl sitting with a guy who didn’t seem to know her. Right away I began thinking, “Gee! How am I gonna get started talking to this beautiful nude babe?”
 
I’m trying to figure out what to say, when the guy says to her, I’m, uh, studying massage. Could I practice on you?”
 
"Sure," she says. They get out of the bath and she lies down on a massage table nearby.
 
I think to myself, “What a nifty line! I can never think of anything like that!” He starts to rub her big toe. “I think I feel it, “he says. “I feel a kind of dent—is that the pituitary?”
 
I blurt out, “You’re a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!”
 
They looked at me, horrified—I had blown my cover—and said, “It’s reflexology!”
 
I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.
 
That’s just an example of the kind of things that overwhelm me. I also looked into extrasensory perception and PSI phenomena, and the latest craze there was Uri Geller, a man who is supposed to be able to bend keys by rubbing them with his finger. So I went to his hotel room, on his invitation, to see a demonstration of both mindreading and bending keys. He didn’t do any mindreading that succeeded; nobody can read my mind, I guess. And my boy held a key and Geller rubbed it, and nothing happened. Then he told us it works better under water, and so you can picture all of us standing in the bathroom with the water turned on and the key under it, and him rubbing the key with his finger. Nothing happened. So I was unable to investigate that phenomenon.
 
But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to cheek on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down—or hardly going up in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress—lots of theory, but no progress— in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.
 
Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way—or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn’t do “the right thing,” according to the experts.
 
So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.
 
I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.
 
Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
 
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.
 
In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.
 
The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson oil doesn’t soak through food. Well, that’s true. It’s not dishonest; but the thing I’m talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest, it’s a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will— including Wesson oil. So it’s the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true, and the difference is what we have to deal with.
 
We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.
 
A great deal of their difficulty is, of course, the difficulty of the subject and the inapplicability of the scientific method to the subject. Nevertheless it should be remarked that this is not the only difficulty. That’s why the planes didn’t land—but they don’t land.
 
We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.
 
Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.
 
But this long history of learning how not to fool ourselves—of having utter scientific integrity—is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.
 
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.
 
I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.
 
For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing—and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.
 
One example of the principle is this: If you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results.
 
I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.
 
Other kinds of errors are more characteristic of poor science. When I was at Cornell, I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this—it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.
 
I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person—to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know that the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.
 
She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happens.
 
Nowadays there’s a certain danger of the same thing happening, even in the famous (?) field of physics. I was shocked to hear of an experiment done at the big accelerator at the National Accelerator Laboratory, where a person used deuterium. In order to compare his heavy hydrogen results to what might happen with light hydrogen” he had to use data from someone else’s experiment on light hydrogen, which was done on different apparatus. When asked why, he said it was because he couldn’t get time on the program (because there’s so little time and it’s such expensive apparatus) to do the experiment with light hydrogen on this apparatus because there wouldn’t be any new result. And so the men in charge of programs at NAL are so anxious for new results, in order to get more money to keep the thing going for public relations purposes, they are destroying—possibly—the value of the experiments themselves, which is the whole purpose of the thing. It is often hard for the experimenters there to complete their work as their scientific integrity demands.
 
All experiments in psychology are not of this type, however. For example, there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on—with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.
 
The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.
 
He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.
 
Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using—not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.
 
I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of cargo cult science.
 
Another example is the ESP experiments of Mr. Rhine, and other people. As various people have made criticisms—and they themselves have made criticisms of their own experiments—they improve the techniques so that the effects are smaller, and smaller, and smaller until they gradually disappear. All the parapsychologists are looking for some experiment that can be repeated—that you can do again and get the same effect—statistically, even. They run a million rats no, it’s people this time they do a lot of things and get a certain statistical effect. Next time they try it they don’t get it any more. And now you find a man saying that it is an irrelevant demand to expect a repeatable experiment. This is science?
 
This man also speaks about a new institution, in a talk in which he was resigning as Director of the Institute of Parapsychology. And, in telling people what to do next, he says that one of the things they have to do is be sure they only train students who have shown their ability to get PSI results to an acceptable extent— not to waste their time on those ambitious and interested students who get only chance results. It is very dangerous to have such a policy in teaching—to teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity.
 
So I have just one wish for you—the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”     

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Richard Feynman, American theoretical physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics (he proposed the parton model), Laureate of the Nobel Prize in Physics, (1918-1988), Cargo cult science, Caltech commencement address given in 1974. (Pictures source: 1) Scientific American, 2) Richard Feynman at Caltech giving his famous lecture he entitled "There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom." (credit: California Institute of Technology))

See also:

Richard Feynman on how we would look for a new law (the key to science)
Richard Feynman on the way nature work: “You don’t like it? Go somewhere else!”
Richard Feynman on the likelihood of Flying Saucers
Richard Feynman tag on Lapidarium

Nov
18th
Sun
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Human Brain Is Wired for Harmony


Musical score based on the neurological activity of a 31-year-old woman. Image: Lu et al./PLoS One

"Since the days of the ancient Greeks, scientists have wondered why the ear prefers harmony. Now, scientists suggest that the reason may go deeper than an aversion to the way clashing notes abrade auditory nerves; instead, it may lie in the very structure of the ear and brain, which are designed to respond to the elegantly spaced structure of a harmonious sound. (…) If the chord is harmonic, or “consonant,” the notes are spaced neatly enough so that the individual fibers of the auditory nerve carry specific frequencies to the brain. By perceiving both the parts and the harmonious whole, the brain responds to what scientists call harmonicity. (…)

“Beating is the textbook explanation for why people don’t like dissonance, so our study is the first real evidence that goes against this assumption” (…) It suggests that consonance rests on the perception of harmonicity, and that, when questioning the innate nature of these preferences, one should study harmonicity and not beating.” (…)

Sensitivity to harmonicity is important in everyday life, not just in music,” he notes. For example, the ability to detect harmonic components of sound allows people to identify different vowel sounds, and to concentrate on one conversation in a noisy crowd.”

See also:

☞ M.Cousineaua, J. H. McDermottb, I. Peretz, The basis of musical consonance as revealed by congenital amusia (2012)
☞ S.Leinoa, E. Bratticob, M.Tervaniemib, P. Vuust, Representation of harmony rules in the humanbrain: Further evidence from event-related potentials, 2007
☞ Brandon Keim, Listen: The Music of a Human Brain, Wired Science, Nov 15, 2012.

Oct
29th
Mon
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A Book is Technology: An Interview with Tan Lin — “Reading is a kind of integrated software”

           

"People forget that a book or codex is a technology. My interest with HEATH and 7CV was to treat the book as a distinct medial platform through which a lot of ancillary information passes, much like a broadcast medium like TV or a narrow-cast medium like Twitter or Tumblr. Reading is information control, just as a metadata tag is a bibliographic control. So I wanted to highlight the book’s medial and time-based underpinnings. (…)

A book in Google Books, like someone’s search history, isn’t really a book; it’s data connected to other data, and it’s searchable. Reading, like autobiography, is a subset of a search function. (…)

"Reading is a kind of integrated software."

Integrated software is a genre of software that combines word processing, database management, and spreadsheet applications, and communications platforms. This genre has been superseded by various full-function office suites, but I was interested in reading modelled in that way, i.e., different kinds of reading, each with specific functions. I mean, you read Harlequin romances differently than recipes, and you read Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets differently than you read Excel, and you read experimental Japanese novels differently than you read text messages, and in terms of documents processed by software, you have distinctions between, say, end-user manuals, bills of sales, Unified Modeling Language models, and legal contracts. These are genres of reading, and they’re housed or processed in the same generic platform that I call “reading.” So reading is an application that processes or assembles varied kinds of material. I was interested in creating works of literature that could be read like recipes or spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations.  (…)

I think it’s a way to talk about new modalities of reading. In software engineering, the authoring is sometimes implemented with what are called frames, where kinds of (reading or processing) functionality are packed into frames, and where a frame is “a generic component in a hierarchy of nested subassemblies” (Wikipedia). You’ll have word processing frames and graphics frames, etc., and these individual frames can be linked in a unified programming system. This enables you to embed graphics and spreadsheet functions into a text document, or you can have shared graphical contexts, where material pops up in multiple frames at the same time—this, I think, is what is happening in 7CV with its graphical elements, text elements, processing text instructions in the form of prefaces (so-called “source” material) and meta data tags. I also inserted other languages: Chinese and machine codes. 7CV has various things in it that look like captions or interfaces or even bits of source code, and I was interested in the difference between a caption and bit of machine code in a book. If you look at the handwritten Chinese text in 7CV (it was written by my mother) you’ll notice that it was put in upside down by the typesetter! This is not true of the machine-generated Chinese, provided by Google Translate. But at any rate you have a complex ecosystem of different languages in single publishing/reading platform.

I assembled both PowerPoint works similarly. Bibliographic Sound Track was compiled from SMS, IM chats, video game walk-throughs, Tweets, Tumblr entries, PowerPoint bullet points, photographic slides, the overhead transparency, the text box, the couplet, the book page, the fading film titling sequence, etc. PowerPoint is a multimedia ecosystem that encompasses a wide variety of reading practices, and where each slide or page is a frame: modular, linked to other frames, and encompassing various platform specific reading or communications functions. So here was a generic poem, where a poem is the most varied collection of different material that could be read continuously in a time-based manner with a definite run time. Reading can be looped. That, I think, is the definition of a poem today!

Q: What are the differences between your PowerPoint works and your print books?  

The most obvious difference is that when you read a book or codex, the only thing moving is your eye; with the PowerPoint works, both text and eye are moving. In this sense, PowerPoint makes reading autonomous and it sets it in motion, literally: Individual slides are animated, slide transitions are animated, and the piece overall is software that is processing information. That’s why we turned out the lights during the screening and projected large: No one expects to go to the cinema and read a book on the screen, one word at a time, but that’s kind of what I wanted to do. The most beautiful thing is a book that could read itself! So reading is a kind of integrated software or the frame technology that manufactures software, and a book is the software application that is manufactured.

But I think there are a lot of similarities between digital and print-based reading experiences. The PowerPoint pieces, like my books, all bracket reading in a larger perceptual (and social) field that includes smells and sounds, i.e., they situate reading in a larger geography or reading environment. People tend to forget that reading is a kind of all-over experience, and it takes place in a particular room or in a particular moment of childhood. So the idea was to not confine reading to a particular object (book) or platform (PowerPoint) but allow it to expand outwards into the social space around it. I was more interested in what might be called the general mood of reading: the overall atmosphere or medium in which we experience our daily thoughts and perform actions—what Heidegger termed Stimmung and the psychologist Daniel Stern calls affective or amodal attunements. Bibliographic Sound Track is a mood-based system, but so is HEATH. And these mood-based systems, which are common to Zen meditative states, are bottom-up, non-directed, allotropic modes of general receptiveness rather than top-down, attention-based focus on specific objects or things. A book, at bottom, is a very general and very generic thing (that we happen to be reading). (…)

I’m not so interested in knowledge in that teleological sense; I’m more interested in the dissipation of knowledge, unfocused attention, and generic receptiveness. It would be nice if a book could reduce the amount of knowledge in the air. I’m equally interested in the public and communal architecture of reading practices as they intersect with individuals and park benches, the subway and the seminar room. Why can’t a book be more like a perfume? Or a door? Or the year after we graduated from college? A perfume is a communications medium just as literature is. Moods, furniture, restaurants, and books are communications mediums. What is it that Warhol said? “I think the right hormones can make Chanel No. 5 smell very butch.” (…)

For me, I think of reading as data management rather than passive absorption on a couch, though these dichotomies are ultimately false. Reading is and probably always will be a bit of both. At any rate, ideas about information processing are altering the contours of printed and digital works. Suddenly the book is just one element in a larger system of textual controls, distribution models, and controlled vocabulary systems. This is certainly true of the two PowerPoint works. I mean what are they? Are they poems or are they more like Twitter feeds? They don’t seem like PowerPoint presentations because they’re weak didactically and they don’t make a point. They are inflected by communications devices, but they do have a rhythm, which poems tend to have! And likewise with Twitter. Is it a broadcast medium using a pull system much like an RSS feed? Or is it more of a storage device, like a scroll or a poem? The idea of a network as a platform for collaborative work (rather than software housed on an individual’s desktop) might be applied to a book, no longer regarded as discrete, stand-alone object but as something that gets updated on a periodic basis in a social network. But this may not be that new an idea. After all, David Hume praised the printing press because it made it possible to issue countless emendations, revisions, and new editions.

Q: Can you state briefly what you see as the future of the book?

Let’s return for a moment to the bootleg by Westphalie Verlag in Vienna. Did the publisher David Jourdan in this case create what, under U.S. copyright law, would be termed “strong” copyleft where the derivative work is “based on the program” and has a “clear will to extend it to “dynamic linkage”? At this point, we are talking about software development licensing, shared libraries, primary access to source code, site linkages, share and share alike provisions, and software pools. My question is: Can a book be made to look like the authoring of such software, caught in a complicated licensing and development system? I think so! Maybe that’s the future of the book: to look like a licensing agreement regarding the future dissemination of its own information.”

Tan Lin, Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing, New Jersey City University, A Book is Technology: An Interview with Tan Lin, Rhizome, Oct 24th, 2012. (Illustration source)

Oct
8th
Mon
permalink

Aleppo, a City in Flames

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                               Handcraft market near Aleppo Castle (Photo: A. Asaad)

The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.

The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.

— 10th century poet al-Mutanabbi at court of Emirate of Aleppo


Aleppo located in northwestern Syria 310 kilometres from Damascus, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; it has been inhabited since perhaps as early as the 6th millennium BC. Excavations at Tell as-Sawda and Tell al-Ansari, just south of the old city of Aleppo, show that the area was occupied since at least the latter part of the 3rd millennium BC; and this is also when Aleppo is first mentioned in cuneiform tablets unearthed in Ebla and Mesopotamia, in which it is noted for its commercial and military proficiency. Such a long history is probably due to its being a strategic trading point midway between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia.

The city’s significance in history has been its location at the end of the Silk Road, which passed through central Asia and Mesopotamia.” (Wiki)

"Located at the crossroads of several trade routes from the 2nd millennium B.C., Aleppo was ruled successively by the Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols, Mamelukes and Ottomans. The 13th-century citadel, 12th-century Great Mosque and various 17th-century madrasas, palaces, caravanserais and hammams all form part of the city’s cohesive, unique urban fabric. (…)

The old city of Aleppo reflects the rich and diverse cultures of its successive occupants. Many periods of history have left their influence in the architectural fabric of the city. Remains of Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ayyubid structures and elements are incorporated in the massive surviving Citadel. The diverse mixture of buildings including the Great Mosque founded under the Umayyads and rebuilt in the 12th century; the 12th century Madrasa Halawiye, which incorporates remains of Aleppo’s Christian cathedral, together with other mosques and madrasas, suqs and khans represents an exceptional reflection of the social, cultural and economic aspects of what was once one of the richest cities of all humanity." (UNESCO)

Remembering Syria’s historic Silk Road souk in Aleppo

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                                           Souk in Aleppo (Photo: A. Skomorowska)

"A few miles from Aleppo are the hills where human beings first domesticated wild grasses. All the wheat we eat originates from those plants and the first farmers. Once those hunter gatherers settled, they set in motion developments that led to towns and then markets. Aleppo was one such place and its souk lay on the first great trade routes, becoming part of an economic engine that made astonishing new products available to more and more people. The warehouses filled up with soaps, silks, spices, precious metals, ceramics and textiles, especially the colourful and diaphanous type favoured by harem-dwellers. Eventually all this mercantile activity focussed into one particular area and a fabulous bazaar was built, mostly in the Ottoman heyday of the 15th and 16th centuries. It was a honeycomb of surprises and flavours, a tribute to the best aspects of human society, but now it has run smack into the opposite tendency: war. (…)

Of course, the human suffering is far more important and pressing, but I also mourn the loss of a place that so effortlessly encapsulated everything that was light, vivacious, sociable and friendly, everything that war is not. (…)

What it had was tradition, heritage and incredible diversity. Five hundred years after Shakespeare made Aleppo souk the epitome of a distant cornucopia, you could still buy almost anything here, eat and drink a vast range of dishes, and even bathe in the traditional Hammam Nahasin. There were eight miles of lanes linking a range of khans or caravanserai – the British Consul held court in one of them well into the 20th century. When I first wandered in via the gate near the citadel, I discovered that there was only one thing I could not find in there: the desire to leave. It was just too diverting and fascinating. Every shopkeeper seemed to want to have a chat over a glass of red tea.

"Let me tell you about scarves. You buy antelope hair for the woman you want and silk for the mistress.’

"What about wives?"

He shrugs. “We have polyester. It comes with divorce papers.”

It was clear that this was not a place that ever stood still. Neither was it a museum, and certainly not a pastiche preserved for tourists. (…)

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         Architecture during the Ottoman Occupation from 1516 to 1918 (Photo: S. Maraashi)

In great trading cities filled with communal diversity, the inhabitants usually learn to get along and trust each other. It is outsiders who bring danger and suspicion. In fact Aleppo has been sacked, destroyed and left in ruins many times over. When Tamerlane visited in 1400, he left a pile of severed heads outside – reportedly 20,000 of them. The Byzantines had previously done their worst, as had the Mongols, more than once. But it was politics that did for the city’s pre-eminence as a market. Slowly and inexorably it was cut off from its hinterlands. The Silk Road died, the Suez Canal was dug, the northern territories were taken by Turkey as were the ports of the Levant. The machinations of the Great Powers turned a vibrant trading city into a divided backwater.

In some ways that decline helped preserve the medieval nature of the place, but now it is gone. When Syria rises out of the chaos, there can be some idea of restoration. But any future attempt to rebuild will always be a re-creation, probably with the tourist buck in mind. That will be better than nothing, of course, but it cannot hide the fact that one of the world’s greatest treasures has been lost.”

— Kevin Rushby, Remembering Syria’s historic Silk Road souk in Aleppo, The Guardian, Oct 5, 2012.

Aleppo and Arab history

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    A horseman crossing at Bab Qennesrine at sunset, Aleppo old town (Photo: E. Lafforgue)

"If stones could weep, the ancient foundations of Aleppo would be wet for centuries.

Since the time of Abraham they have been pounded by the hooves of invaders’ horses, stained by the blood of Muslims, Christians and Jews, and torched by conquerors expunging all trace of their enemies.

This week, one of the world’s oldest cities became Ground Zero in Syria’s spiralling civil war. And as rebel forces edge closer to the medieval citadel that is Aleppo’s proudest symbol of survival, the scene is set for a deadly clash between the city’s future and its past.

Aleppo — where Abraham legendarily milked his cows, Alexander the Great pitched his tents, the Crusaders met defeat, King Faisal declared Syria’s independence and a secret vault guarded the oldest text of the Hebrew bible — has become a nearly deserted war zone, its irreplaceable treasures exposed to destruction and theft.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen this before,” says Michael Danti, an archaeology professor from Boston University who has worked in Syria for more than 20 years. “It’s not just the loss of buildings and museum objects, it’s the risk of losing entire sets of data that make up history.”

But relentless war is nothing new for a historic centre that once crowned the known world, and was cast into the dust as many times as there were invaders to conquer it.

The hub of culture and commerce in northern Syria, Aleppo boasts history that goes back to the first inklings of human settlement. As a city, its earliest traces date to around 5000 BC, and it claims, with Damascus, to be one of the longest-inhabited urban sites on earth.

Before the dawn of Christianity, Aleppo was put to the sword by Hittites, Mittannians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire and Rome. And they were only curtain-raisers for another 2,000 years of wreckage and rebuilding to come.

Close to the Middle East’s main waterways, the Mediterranean Sea and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Aleppo was a fertile agricultural region and a stop on the storied Silk Road trade route. But its riches and geography made it a target for invaders. The citadel, a defensive base in pre-Islamic times, was fortified in the late 12th century to become one of the great strongholds of the medieval Islamic world.

That didn’t stop the Mongols from overrunning the city. In the 13th century, Hugalu, son of Genghis Khan, stormed Aleppo and killed 50,000 people. Later, the fearsome emperor Timur would pile a mountain of skulls at the city gates as a warning to would-be rebels.

But throughout battles between Timur and Turkey’s muscular Ottoman Empire, Aleppo flourished. Its mosques and madrassas expanded, and it was again a centre for art and culture. Caravanserais were built to shelter Silk Road travellers shuttling between Italy and Persia. Merchants flocked to buy spices, coffee, pepper, intricate jewelry and Eastern luxuries. The sprawling souks were a smorgasbord of languages and cultures, and visiting businessfolk enjoyed lavish homes with Ottoman, Venetian and European touches.

Aleppo survived not only attacks, but a devastating earthquake, plague and famine. But miraculously, traces of its old empires remain — from the 12th century Great Mosque and citadel to the churches of the Christian quarter and the 15th-century Al-Bandara Central Synagogue, reborn from the ruins of an earlier temple.

Now, as the civil war rages on, UNESCO’s director-general warned in a statement of the danger to Aleppo’s “astounding monumental heritage reflecting the diverse cultures of the peoples that have settled here over millennia.”

What’s at risk is more than ancient buildings. (…) For Aleppo’s other treasures, there is more uncertainty.

“The Citadel is a natural fortress with lots of tunnels and subterranean spaces,” says Danti. “It would be hard to dislodge (fighters) from there without using heavy weapons.” (…)

For centuries Aleppo has been destroyed by outsiders. Now its fate depends on two homegrown foes who must decide whether, in planting their flags on the future, they will destroy their common past.”

Syria: The death of historic Aleppo, Aug 3, 2012

"Built at the crossroads of important trade routes between East and West, the city has seen more than its share of war and violence.

Architecturally and culturally, Aleppo carries the genetic imprint of a succession of ruling powers and invaders including Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, crusading European Christians, Mamelukes and Ottomans.

But now, a city that over the centuries has survived the attentions of countless besieging armies, appears in danger of being destroyed from within by its own people, with shocking images of the ancient souq consumed by fire as Syria’s civil war pits rebels and government forces for control of one of the world’s oldest cities.

"I do not have the words that can possibly express my dismay and horror at what has happened to Syria," says Prof Jeremy Johns, director of the Khalili Research Centre and professor of art and archaeology of the Islamic Mediterranean at Oxford University.

In addition to the destruction being wrought on priceless archaeological monuments, Prof Johns fears for the future of the nation’s artefactual heritage.

"I know that antiquities looted from archaeological sites are already reaching the international market," he says. (…) "The monuments are being destroyed but also the whole social fabric around them is being destroyed at the same time."

Prof Johns also worries about the future of the city’s relatively modern history.

"The Armenian Baron Hotel where T. E. Lawrence and all sorts of other players in that extraordinary early 20th century colonial game stayed, including archaeologists, politicians and spies, is in the centre of Aleppo and I have little doubt that will be damaged.”

Unesco declared Aleppo a World Heritage Site in 1986 and says it has “exceptional universal value because it represents medieval Arab architectural styles that are rare and authentic, in traditional human habitats”.

It is, for example, “an outstanding example of an Ayyubid 12th century city, with its military fortifications constructed as its focal point following the success of Sala El-Din against the crusaders”.

The multilayered history of the city, reflected in its disparate mix of buildings, layout and spaces, constitutes “testimony of the city’s cultural, social and technological development, representing continuous and prosperous commercial activity from the Mameluke period.

"It contains vestiges of Arab resistance against the Crusaders, but there is also the imprint of Byzantine, Roman and Greek occupation in the streets and in the plan of the city."

The monumental Citadel of Aleppo “rising above the souqs, mosques and madrasas of the old walled city, is testament to Arab military might from the 12th to the 14th centuries”. (…)

Here, in the walls of mosques, palaces and bath buildings, can be found evidence of occupation by civilisations dating back to the 10th century BC. In Aleppo, every ancient brick tells a story - and every shattered brick threatens the loss of that story for future generations.

The extraordinary thing about the Citadel, says Prof Johns, “is that is essentially an artificial mound that has grown up with human detritus over the millennia, and that you can stand in the remains of the Ottoman fortress, looking down to the excavated remains of cultures that go back into the second millennium BC.

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                                       Inside the Aleppo Citadel (Photo: S. Maraashi)

"There’s continuity in that whole site that sums up the historical and architectural development of Syria and the whole region, and that is what is under threat."

According to a report from the city this week, the wooden gates of the Citadel are now destroyed and a medieval stone engraving above them badly damaged.

"A bomb crater now marks the entrance and its walls are pockmarked with bullet holes," the report said.

"A stump is all that remains of the minaret of the 14th century Al Kiltawiya school. A rocket has crashed into el-Mihmandar Mosque, also built some 700 years ago."

On Sunday, after news that fire had destroyed hundreds of shops in Aleppo’s ancient souq, Unesco director general Irina Bokova described what was happening to the city as “deeply distressing”.

"The human suffering caused by this situation is already extreme," Ms Bokova said. "That the fighting is now destroying cultural heritage that bears witness to the country’s millenary history, valued and admired the world over, makes it even more tragic."

Aleppo’s souqs, she added, had been a part of the city’s economic and social life since its beginning: “They stand as testimony to Aleppo’s importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium BC.” (…)

Historians and archaeologists are growing increasingly worried that the true toll on Aleppo’s ancient fabric - both as a result of fighting and of heritage looting of the type that ravaged Iraq’s museums - will prove far greater than is currently known. (…)

Cairo University antiquities professor Mahmoud Al Banna said he could not believe what Syrians were doing to their own heritage in Aleppo.

"No different than what the Tatars or Mongols did," he said, referring to invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries that devastated the region. "We are talking about the history of all people, of humankind and not just of Islam."

Aleppo, and Arab history, is burning, The National, Oct 3, 2012.

'The most enchanting city in the Middle East’

"Aleppo is arguably the most enchanting city in the Middle East. Awash in mosques and minarets, the city is also stuffed with Armenian churches, Maronite cathedrals, and even a synagogue, a consequence of its unique position at the crossroads of Ottoman, French, and Jewish influences. Its maze-like souk and massive citadel on a hill are remarkable enough. But throw in hospitable people, trendy rooftop restaurants whose waiters sneak alcohol in teacups to Westerners with a wink and a nod, and the welcoming aroma of underground shops lined with tasty sweets and pistachio nuts, and Aleppo would seem to be custom-built for vacationers seeking a relaxing setting to kick back and nibble on mezze (appetizers). (…)

I remember the patio of the city’s famous, if slightly musty, Baron Hotel, where Agatha Christie once resided, was crammed with loud Europeans smoking late into the night. Across town in Al-Aziziah, Syrian students huddled in front of large screens to watch bad soap operas, smoke water pipes, and sing karaoke.

Like Prague in the early 1990s, Aleppo felt like it was on the verge of discovery, an idyllic (and safe) place for Westerners to sample the best of Arab culture and cuisine. Expatriates would revel in Al Jdeida, an Armenian district of quiet squares and quaint restaurants. This part of the Old City holds a kind of mythical draw for outsiders. Its tangle of narrow cobblestone streets and tucked-away courtyards full of jasmine and citrus trees are a pleasure to peruse; the inlaid wooden doors of its storefronts as ornately carved as the back of a backgammon board. (…)

Aleppo is surrounded by sweeping plains dotted with olive groves and “dead cities,” abandoned ruins from the Byzantine age. They serve as vivid reminders of what happens to once-prosperous trading centers left abandoned. The international community owes it to Syrians to defend UNESCO-protected sites like this one. Syria does not need any more dead cities.”

image
Men walk on a road amid wreckage after blasts ripped through Aleppo’s main Saadallah al-Jabari Square. (Stringer/Reuters)

Lionel Beehner, 'It Is Our Soul': The Destruction of Aleppo, Syria's Oldest City, The Atlantic, Oct 4, 2012

How cities become invisible

"Syria’s cities became embedded within the lines of the Invisible Cities. I listened, along with Kublai Khan, to Marco Polo’s narrations and tried to understand how cities become invisible.

Watching death has become a pastime of the revolution. (…) But the death of a city is different. It is slow — each neighborhood’s death is documented bomb by bomb, shell by shell, stone by fallen stone. Witnessing the deaths of your cities is unbearable. Unlike the news of dead people — which arrives too late, always after the fact — the death of a city seems as if it can be halted, that the city can be saved from the clutches of destruction. But it is an illusion: The once-vibrant cities cannot be saved, so you watch, helpless, as they become ruins.

Ruins are sold to us as romantic and poetic. As tourists wandering ancient sites, cameras dangling from our necks and guidebooks in hand, we seek beauty in the swirling dust over the remains of a dead civilization. We imagine what is was like then, before empires decayed and living objects became historical artifacts. But that kind of romanticism is only afforded with the distance of time and geography. In war, ruins-in-the-making are not beautiful, not vessels of meaningful lessons, not a fanciful setting for philosophical contemplations on the follies of men. When you witness it live, when it is real, and when it happens to your city, it becomes another story altogether. (…)

Being from Aleppo is unlike being from anywhere else in the world. We walked on history so deep, we did not understand it — we simply learned to call this place, older than all others, home. We grew up knowing that our insignificant existence was the thinnest layer of dust on the thick geological strata of empires, kingdoms, and generations, which lived within our stone walls. We knew without doubt, from an early age, that we were nothing but a blink of our city’s eye.

When you are from Aleppo, you are plagued with a predicament: Nothing here will ever change. For some people, living in the city that never changes becomes too difficult. The city’s permanence and your inability to make a mark on it push you to eventually leave Aleppo, trading comfort for change. After you leave, no matter where you are in the world, you know that Aleppo is there, waiting exactly as you left it. Instead, it is you who returns in a reinvented form each time you come home — a university graduate, a bride, a mother, each time proudly carrying your new ideas and identity to your patiently waiting city.

In Aleppo, you grow up worrying if your legacy will ever be worthy of your city’s. But you never worry about your city’s legacy — which we thoughtlessly leaned on — for how could we, ever, change Aleppo’s legacy?

Aleppo is Calvino’s city of Lalage, a city of minarets on which the moon “rest[s] now on one, now on another.” It is a city of churches, temples, relics, and graves of revered mystics. It is a city where the spices of Armenia meld with the tastes of Turkey. It is a city where Arabic, Kurdish, and Armenian tongues speak parallel to each other, with an occasional French word mixed in here or there. It is a city of trade and industry, where men are constantly bargaining and negotiating in the same souks as their fathers before them. It is a city where girls walking down the streets in tight jeans and high heels pass by women in long black coats and white veils pinned under their chins. And they know they all belong right here, to Aleppo.

A man who is not from Aleppo recently told me, “When you travel to Aleppo, you don’t see it until you arrive.” I had never noticed that. Perhaps, because I was always inside it, I never searched for it when we returned. I never doubted that it would always be there, exactly as I left it, untouched, unchanged. But he was right; Aleppo is an inward-looking city; it sees the world reflected in itself. And because we’ve lived here for generations, we became like that too. (…)

You learn about things when they are broken — friendships, love, people, and even cities. I learned from watching the revolution that when things are broken, they take up more space. (…) When things are destroyed, you realize, too late, how fragile it all once was: bones, stones, walls, buildings, cities. (…)

Comprehension of destruction and the change it brings comes in waves — like grasping that your family is in exile or understanding that places from your childhood have disappeared forever. The dark spaces of the city begin to match the dark places in your mind. (…) Our artifacts leave Syria to live in other homes, where people will tell their children tales about an ancient place that once was, before it was invisible. Before it died. (…)

Aleppo, like Calvino’s cities, is a woman. Her complete name, Halab al-Shahba, refers to the milk of the prophet Ibrahim’s ashen cow. It is no surprise that Aleppo’s name would hold meanings both holy and earthly, of sacredness and sustenance. It is a city of milk and marble — nothing nourishes Aleppo’s spirit more than its stone and cuisine. Now, Aleppo is a city of ash and blood.  (…)

Aleppo is Calvino’s Almema, the city of the dead, where “you reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living.” In Syria, we are living aberrations to life itself. We have seen what no one is supposed to see. (…) Tectonic shifts in a city like Aleppo simply do not happen in one’s lifetime. It is no longer a given that my city will outlive me. (…) We were supposed to live and die in an Aleppo unchanged, just as our grandfathers had before us, but instead we broke the laws of nature and pass on what we had inherited intact to the few survivors, in ruins. (…)

At some point, trust breaks between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Storyteller and listener separate into worlds independent of each other. Kublai Khan eventually doubts his narrator and accuses Marco Polo of weaving fantasies out of nothing. Do these cities even exist, he asks, or did you make them up?

Cities are both real and imagined. In peace, they are a backdrop, quietly absorbing your ego, waiting to be noticed when someone visits and sees her anew, while we drag our heels, unappreciative, along the pavements. You dream of leaving this place that never changes, leaving behind the burden of history where you will never amount to even a speck of dust in its never-ending tale. You dream of a place outside this place where the possibility to escape the past and become someone else seems easier. You never imagined that one day, the city will be the one that is exposed, unprotected, and vulnerable — you never imagined that one day, your city, not you, will be the one that needs to be saved. In war, the city becomes precious, each inch mourned, each stone remembered. The city’s sights, smells, and tastes haunt you. You cling to every memory of every place you had ever been to and remember that this is what it was like. Before.

But memories are deceptive. You weave them into images, and the images into a story to tell your child about a city you once knew, named Aleppo. A city of monuments and milk, of sweets and spices, a city so perfect and so beautiful it was named after a prophet’s ashen cow. Its minarets once changed shape from square to round to thin spindles, and every call to prayer was a symphony of voices across the neighborhoods echoing each other, as if in constant dialogue. You continue the tale, skipping certain details: the fleeing people, the smoke, the ashes, the fallen minarets and the silenced athans, the blood in the bread lines, and the relentless stench of death. Unlike Calvino, you gloss over the dark underbellies of society, overlooking the evils of men, the betrayals of people — in fact, you ignore the people altogether because you have become convinced that without the people, a city can remain innocent.

Never mind; those details don’t belong here; what matters is holding on to what once was. And you speak faster, describing the homes of grandparents and great-grandparents, pretending they are not empty. You speak of ancient neighborhoods of great-great-grandfathers, rebuilding them with your words in perfect form and not as they are now — the centuries-old gate a smoldering heap of crushed stone, the jasmine vines broken and dead, the tiled courtyard fountain dried up and covered with dirt. All of this you skip in the narrative, trying to keep the nightmare separate from the dream, for you have not completely learned from Calvino’s wisdom: Cities exist in their dualities.

And the child will ask you, because children always do, Mama, does it really exist? Or are you making it up? And you will not know what to say, for the story is both a falsehood and the truth. At once it is real and in the next moment it is intangible, even as you hold the photograph in your hand and the memories in your mind. Despite all your efforts, or perhaps in spite of them, it changed.

And with my words, both said and unsaid, I had finally rendered my city, invisible.”

Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian-American writer, The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls, Foreign Policy, December 11, 2012.

See also:

Aleppo city, Wikipedia
Brief History of Aleppo: A Great World City Now in the Grip of War, TIME, July 27, 2012
The Ancient Cities of the Middle East :: Aleppo
☞ Map: Syria archaeological and historical from Jean Hureau, Syria Today, editions j.a., Paris, 1977, p. 232-233.
☞ Alexander Russell, The natural history of Aleppo, G. G. and J. Robinson, 1794. (Google book)
☞ Patricia Cohen, Syrian Conflict Imperils Historical Treasures, The New York Times, Aug 15, 2012.
Syria conflict: Aleppo’s souk burns as battles rage, BBC News, Sept 29, 2012
Syrian fighting torches historic medieval market in Aleppo, Ottawa Citizen, Sept 29, 2012
Syria’s Looted Past: How Ancient Artifacts Are Being Traded for Guns, TIME, Sept 12, 2012
☞ Ronen Bergman, The Aleppo Codex Mystery, NYTimes, Jul 25, 2012

Sep
9th
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Philosophy vs science: which can answer the big questions of life?

 

"In the eighteenth century, philosophers considered the whole of human knowledge, including science, to be their field and discussed questions such as: did the universe have a beginning? However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists. Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.” (…)

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist.”

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Dell Publishing Group, 1988.

"Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know"
Bertrand Russell

"Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement."

Will Durant, American writer, historian, and philosopher (1885-1981), The Pleasures of Philosophy, 1929.

"Getting to your question of morality, for example, science provides the basis for moral decisions, which are sensible only if they are based on reason, which is itself based on empirical evidence. Without some knowledge of the consequences of actions, which must be based on empirical evidence, then I think “reason” alone is impotent. If I don’t know what my actions will produce, then I cannot make a sensible decision about whether they are moral or not. Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs. (…)

Take homosexuality, for example. Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is “wrong”, but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately “wrong”. In fact, I think you actually accede to this point about the impact of science when you argue that our research into non-human cognition has altered our view of ethics. (….)

"Why" questions

The [“why”] question is meaningless. (…) Not only has “why” become “how” but “why” no longer has any useful meaning, given that it presumes purpose for which there is no evidence. (…)

It is not a large leap of the imagination to expect that we will one day be able to break down those social actions, studied on a macro scale, to biological reactions at a micro scale.

In a purely practical sense, this may be computationally too difficult to do in the near future, and maybe it will always be so, but everything I know about the universe makes me timid to use the word always. What isn’t ruled out by the laws of physics is, in some sense, inevitable. So, right now, I cannot imagine that I could computationally determine the motion of all the particles in the room in which I am breathing air, so that I have to take average quantities and do statistics in order to compute physical behaviour. But, one day, who knows? (…)

We won’t really know the answer to whether science can yield a complete picture of reality, good at all levels, unless we try. (…) I continue to be surprised by the progress that is possible by continuing to ask questions of nature and let her answer through experiment. Stars are easier to understand than people, I expect, but that is what makes the enterprise so exciting.

The mysteries are what make life worth living and I would be sad if the day comes when we can no longer find answerable questions that have yet to be answered, and puzzles that can be solved. What surprises me is how we have become victims of our own success, at least in certain areas. When it comes to the universe as a whole, we may be frighteningly close to the limits of empirical inquiry as a guide to understanding. After that, we will have to rely on good ideas alone, and that is always much harder and less reliable.”

Lawrence Krauss, Canadian-American theoretical physicist who is a professor of physics, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?, The Observer, 9 Sept 2012

[This post will be gradually expanded…]

See also:

Science Is Not About Certainty. Science is about overcoming our own ideas and a continuous challenge of common sense
David Deutsch: A new way to explain explanation
Galileo and the relationship between the humanities and the sciences
Will Durant, The Pleasures of Philosophy

Aug
28th
Tue
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Found poetry


                                                            Click image to enlarge

unlock the moonlight,
forge a chain,
bring your candle to glitter again.

Found poetry is a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning. The resulting poem can be defined as either treated: changed in a profound and systematic manner; or untreated: virtually unchanged from the order, syntax and meaning of the original.

Franze Stenzel describes the Dadaism movement with its readymade philosophy as a predecessor for the practice that later became found poetry. Dadaists like Duchamp placed everyday practical objects in an environment that was aesthetic and in so doing called into question that object as art, the observer, the aesthetic environment and the definition of what is art.

Stylistically, found poetry is similar to the visual art of “appropriation” in which two- and three-dimensional art is created from recycled items, giving ordinary/commercial things new meaning when put within a new context in unexpected combinations or juxtapositions.” (Wiki)


                                                               Click image to enlarge

Silver sigh
and flames of dust:
you forget me.

I hesitate, pressed,
drumming answers of knives
into the night.

Illustrations above: Itti

            
                                                    Click image to enlarge Source: danidrastic

           
                                                                       source

      
                                                    Click image to enlarge Source

      
                             Illustration: Dog-Eared Poetry: Three Works by Erica Baum

Aug
22nd
Wed
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The Nature of Consciousness: How the Internet Could Learn to Feel

       

“The average human brain has a hundred billion neurons and synapses on the order of a hundred trillion or so. But it’s not just sheer numbers. It’s the incredibly complex and specific ways in which these things are wired up. That’s what makes it different from a gigantic sand dune, which might have a billion particles of sand, or from a galaxy. Our Milky Way, for example, contains a hundred billion suns, but the way these suns interact is very simple compared to the way neurons interact with each other. (…)

It doesn’t matter so much that you’re made out of neurons and bones and muscles. Obviously, if we lose neurons in a stroke or in a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s, we lose consciousness. But in principle, what matters for consciousness is the fact that you have these incredibly complicated little machines, these little switching devices called nerve cells and synapses, and they’re wired together in amazingly complicated ways.

The Internet now already has a couple of billion nodes. Each node is a computer. Each one of these computers contains a couple of billion transistors, so it is in principle possible that the complexity of the Internet is such that it feels like something to be conscious. I mean, that’s what it would be if the Internet as a whole has consciousness. Depending on the exact state of the transistors in the Internet, it might feel sad one day and happy another day, or whatever the equivalent is in Internet space. (…)

What I’m serious about is that the Internet, in principle, could have conscious states. Now, do these conscious states express happiness? Do they express pain? Pleasure? Anger? Red? Blue? That really depends on the exact kind of relationship between the transistors, the nodes, the computers. It’s more difficult to ascertain what exactly it feels. But there’s no question that in principle it could feel something. (…)

Q: Would humans recognize that certain parts of the Internet are conscious? Or is that beyond our understanding?

That’s an excellent question. If we had a theory of consciousness, we could analyze it and say yes, this entity, this simulacrum, is conscious. Or because it displays independent behavior. At some point, suddenly it develops some autonomous behavior that nobody programmed into it, right? Then, people would go, “Whoa! What just happened here?” It just sort of self-organized in some really weird way. It wasn’t a bug. It wasn’t a virus. It wasn’t a botnet that was paid for by some nefarious organization. It did it by itself. If this autonomous behavior happens on a regular basis, then I think many people would say, yeah, I guess it’s alive in some sense, and it may have conscious sensation. (…)

Q: How do you define consciousness?

Typically, it means having subjective states. You see something. You hear something. You’re aware of yourself. You’re angry. You’re sad. Those are all different conscious states. Now, that’s not a very precise definition. But if you think historically, almost every scientific field has a working definition and the definitions are subject to change. For example, my Caltech colleague Michael Brown has redefined planets. So Pluto is not a planet anymore, right? Because astronomers got together and decided that. And what’s a gene? A gene is very tricky to define. Over the last 50 years, people have had all sorts of changing definitions. Consciousness is not easy to define, but don’t worry too much about the definition. Otherwise, you get trapped in endless discussions about what exactly you mean. It’s much more important to have a working definition, run with it, do experiments, and then modify it as necessary. (…)

I see a universe that’s conducive to the formation of stable molecules and to life. And I do believe complexity is associated with consciousness. Therefore, we seem to live in a universe that’s particularly conducive to the emergence of consciousness. That’s why I call myself a “romantic reductionist.”

Christof Koch, American neuroscientist working on the neural basis of consciousness, Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at California Institute of Technology, The Nature of Consciousness: How the Internet Could Learn to Feel, The Atlantic, Aug 22, 2012. (Illustration: folkert: Noosphere)

See also:

Google and the Myceliation of Consciousness
Richard Doyle on Creativity, evolution of mind and the rhetorical membrane between humans and an informational universe
Consciousness tag on Lapidarium

Aug
20th
Mon
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The Human Condition by René Magritte (1933)

       

“If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but thinking of the question that has been raised. The mind sees in two different senses: (1) sees, as with the eyes; and (2) sees a question (no eyes).”

— René Magritte, cited in Humanist, Volume 84, Issues 1-6, Rationalist Press Association Ltd., Jan 1, 1969, p.176.

“I have found a new potential inherent in things — their ability to gradually become something else. This seems to me to be something quite different from a composite object, since there is no break between the two substances.”

— René Magritte, cited in Art History. About.com

“We are surrounded by curtains. We only perceive the world behind a curtain of semblance. At the same time, an object needs to be covered in order to be recognized at all.”

— René Magritte, cited in Art History. About.com

“An object is not so attached to its name that we cannot find another one that would suit it better.”

— René Magritte, cited in La Révolution surréaliste, 1927

René Magritte in his letter to A. Chavee (Sept. 30, 1960) said about the painting:

"In front of a window seen from inside a room, I placed a painting representing exactly that portion of the landscape covered by the painting. Thus, the tree in the picture hid the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room within the painting and outside in the real landscape.

Which is how we see the world, namely, outside of us; although having only one representation of it within us. Similarly we sometimes remember a past event as being in the present. Time and space lose meaning and our daily experience becomes paramount.

Questions such as ‘What does this picture mean, what does it represent?’ are possible only if one is incapable of seeing a picture in all its truth, only if one automaically understands that a very precise image does not show precisely what it is. It’s like believing that the implied meaning (if there is one?) is worth more than the overt meaning. (…)

How can anyone enjoy interpreting symbols? They are ‘substitutes’ that are only useful to a mind that is incapable of knowing the things themselves. A devotee of interpretation cannot see a bird; he only sees it as a symbol. Although this manner of knowing the ‘world’ may be useful in treating mental illness, it would be silly to confuse it with a mind that can be applied to any kind of thinking at all.”

***

"Magritte was heavily influenced by the writings of Immanuel Kant, who proposed that humans can rationalize situations but can not comprehend the “things-in-themselves.” As it applies to Magritte’s work, he is simply creating a variation upon his over-arching philosophy: A painting of a scene is not the same as a scene. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Magritte plays with this philosophy by exploiting the flatness of two-dimensional space in his painting by depicting three-dimensional space outside and a two-dimensional painting that have the same imagery. The title refers to the inherent grappling that all humans go through when viewing his mind-bending painting.”

René Magritte, Belgian surrealist artist (1890-1967), One Surrealist a Day. (Illustration: René Magritte, The Human Condition (1933), Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

See also:

Map–territory relation- a brief résumé, Lapidarium notes

Aug
11th
Sat
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Is there any redundancy in human memory?

            

Are there two physical copies of the same memory in the brain, such that if some cells storing a particular memory die, the memory is still not lost?

Yes. “Memories are stored using a “distributed representation,” which means that each memory is stored across thousands of synapses and neurons. And each neuron or synapses is involved in thousands of memories.

So if a single neuron fails, there are still 999 (for example) other neurons collaborating in the representation of that memory. With the failure of each neuron, thousands of memories get imperceptibly weaker, a property called “graceful degradation.”

Some people like to use the metaphor of a hologram. In a hologram, the 3D image is spread across the sheet of glass, and if the glass is broken, the full image can be seen in each separate shard. This is not exactly how memory works in the brain, but it is not a bad metaphor.

In some ways the brain is like a RAID array of disks, except instead of 3 hard disks, there are millions (or billions) of neurons sharing the representation of memories. (…)

Figure: Structural comparison of a RAID disk array and the type of hierarchical distributed memory network used by the brain.

Memory in the brain is resilient against catastrophic failure. Many memories get weaker with each neuron failure, but there is no point at which the failure of “one-too-many neurons” causes a memory to suddenly disappear. And the process of recalling a memory can strengthen it by recruiting more neurons and synapses to its representation. Also, memory in the brain is not perfect. Memory recall is more similar to reconstructing an earlier brain state than retrieving stored data. The recalled memory is never exactly the same as what was stored. And more typically, memories are not recalled but instead put to use. When you turn left at a familiar intersection, you are using knowledge, not recalling it.

One extreme example of the brain’s resiliency to catastrophic failure is stroke. A stroke is an event (often a burst blood vessel) that kills possibly hundreds of millions of brain cells within a very short time-frame (hours). Even the brain’s enormous redundancy cannot prevent memory loss under these circumstances. And yet the ability of stroke victims to recover language and skills shows that the brain can reorganize itself and somehow recover and quickly relearn knowledge that should have been destroyed.

In Alzheimers Disease, brain cells die at an accelerating rate. At some point, the reduction in brain cells overtakes the memory redundancy of the brain and memories do become permanently lost.

There is still a lot that is not known about how exactly memories are organized and represented in the brain. Neuron-level mechanisms have been figured out, and quite a lot of information has been gathered about the brain region specialized for coding and managing memory storage (the hippocampus). But the exact structure and coding scheme of memories has yet to be determined.”

Related on Quora:
Are forgotten life events still visible in the brain and if so how?
Why is forgetting different for driving and calculus?
How is it that a chip of a hologram still holds the entire image?
Neuroscience: Are there any connections (axons) in the brain that are redundant?


Paul King, Computational Neuroscientist, currently a visiting scholar at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at UC Berkeley, Is there any redundancy in human memory?, Quora, Aug 2012. (Illustration source)

See also:

Memory tag on Lapidarium notes

Aug
10th
Fri
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God and the Ivory Tower. What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us

                   
(Illustration: Medieval miniature painting of the Siege of Antioch (1490). The Crusades were a series of a military campaigns fought mainly between Christian Europe and Muslims. Shown here is a battle scene from the First Crusade.)

"The era of world struggle between the great secular ideological -isms that began with the French Revolution and lasted through the Cold War (republicanism, anarchism, socialism, fascism, communism, liberalism) is passing on to a religious stage. Across the Middle East and North Africa, religious movements are gaining social and political ground, with election victories by avowedly Islamic parties in Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. As Israel’s National Security Council chief, Gen. Yaakov Amidror (a religious man himself), told me on the eve of Tunisia’s elections last October, “We expect Islamist parties to soon dominate all governments in the region, from Afghanistan to Morocco, except for Israel.”

On a global scale, Protestant evangelical churches (together with Pentacostalists) continue to proliferate, especially in Latin America, but also keep pace with the expansion of fundamentalist Islam in southern Africa and eastern and southern Asia. In Russia, a clear majority of the population remains religious despite decades of forcibly imposed atheism. Even in China, where the government’s commission on atheism has the Sisyphean job of making that country religion-free, religious agitation is on the rise. And in the United States, a majority says it wants less religion in politics, but an equal majority still will not vote for an atheist as president.

But if reams of social scientific analysis have been produced on religion’s less celestial cousins — from the nature of perception and speech to how we rationalize and shop — faith is not a matter that rigorous science has taken seriously. To be sure, social scientists have long studied how religious practices correlate with a wide range of economic, social, and political issues. Yet, for nearly a century after Harvard University psychologist William James’s 1902 masterwork, The Varieties of Religious Experience, there was little serious investigation of the psychological structure or neurological and biological underpinnings of religious belief that determine how religion actually causes behavior. And that’s a problem if science aims to produce knowledge that improves the human condition, including a lessening of cultural conflict and war.

Religion molds a nation in which it thrives, sometimes producing solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for a common good (as when Judea’s Jews around the time of Christ persisted in rebellion unto political annihilation in the face of the Roman Empire’s overwhelmingly military might). But religion can also hinder a society’s ability to work out differences with others, especially if those others don’t understand what religion is all about. That’s the mess we find ourselves in today, not only among different groups of Americans in the so-called culture wars, but between secular and Judeo-Christian America and many Muslim countries.

Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn’t fly blindly into the storm.

Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed.

Fortunately, the last few years show progress in scientific studies of religion and the sacred, though headwinds remain strong. Across history and cultures, religion has often knit communities together under the rule of sentient, but immaterial deities — that is, spiritual beings whose description is logically contradictory and empirically unfalsifiable. Cross-cultural studies pioneered by anthropologist Pascal Boyer show that these miraculous features — talking bushes, horses that leap into the sky — make lasting impressions on people and thereby increase the likelihood that they will be passed down to the next generation. Implausibility also facilitates cultural transmission in a more subtle manner — fostering adaptability of religious beliefs by opening the door to multiple interpretations (as with metaphors or weekly sermons).

And the greater the investment in outlandishness, the better. This is because adherence to apparently absurd beliefs means incurring costs — surviving without electricity, for example, if you are Amish — which help identify members who are committed to the survival of a group and cannot be lured away. The ease of identifying true believers, in turn, builds trust and galvanizes group solidarity for common defense.

To test this hypothesis, anthropologist Richard Sosis and his colleagues studied 200 communes founded in the United States in the 19th century. If shared religious beliefs really did foster loyalty, they reasoned, then communes formed out of religious conviction should survive longer than those motivated by secular ideologies such as socialism. Their findings were striking: Just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning 20 years after their founding, compared with 39 percent of the religious communes.

It is not difficult to see why groups formed for purely rational reasons can be more vulnerable to collapse: Background conditions change, and it might make sense to abandon one group in favor of another. Interestingly, recent research echoes the findings of 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun, who argued that long-term differences among North African Muslim dynasties with comparable military might “have their origin in religion … [and] group feeling [wherein] mutual cooperation and support flourish.” The more religious societies, he argued, endured the longest.

For this reason, even ostensibly secular countries and transnational movements usually contain important quasi-religious rituals and beliefs. Think of sacred songs and ceremonies, or postulations that “providence” or “nature” bestows equality and inalienable rights (though, for about 99.9 percent of our species’ existence, slavery, and oppression of minorities were more standard fare). These sacred values act as moral imperatives that inspire nonrational sacrifices in cooperative endeavors such as war.

Insurgents, revolutionaries, and terrorists all make use of this logic, generating outsized commitment that allows them to resist and often prevail against materially stronger foes. Consider the American revolutionaries who defied the greatest empire of their age by pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” for the cause of “liberty or death.” Surely they were aware of how unlikely they were to succeed, given the vast disparities in material resources, manpower, and training. As Osama Hamdan, the ranking Hamas politburo member for external affairs, put it to me in Damascus, Syria, “George Washington was fighting the strongest military in the world, beyond all reason. That’s what we’re doing. Exactly.”

But the same logic that makes religious and sacred beliefs more likely to endure can make them impervious to compromise. Based on interviews, experiments, and surveys with Palestinians, Israelis, Indonesians, Indians, Afghans, and Iranians, my research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges, Douglas Medin, and others demonstrates that offering people material incentives (large amounts of money, guarantees for a life free of political violence) to compromise sacred values can backfire, increasing stated willingness to use violence. Such backfire effects occur both for convictions with clear religious investment (Jerusalem, sharia law) and for those that are at least initially nonreligious (Iran’s right to a nuclear capability, Palestinian refugees’ right of return).

According to a 2010 study, for example, most Iranians think there is nothing sacred about their government’s nuclear program. But for a sizable minority — 13 percent of the population — the quest for a nuclear capability (more focused on energy than weapons) had, through religious rhetoric, become a sacred subject. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with national identity and with Islam itself. As a result, offering material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases anger and support for it.

Although this sacralization of initially secular issues confounds standard “business-like” negotiation tactics, my work with political scientist Robert Axelrod interviewing political leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates that strong symbolic gestures (sincere apologies, demonstrating respect for the other’s values) generate surprising flexibility, even among militants, and may enable subsequent material negotiations. Thus, we find that Palestinian leaders and their supporting populations are generally willing to accept Israeli offers of economic improvement only after issues of recognition are addressed. Even purely symbolic statements accompanied by no material action, such as “we recognize your suffering” or “we respect your rights in Jerusalem,” diminish support for violence, including suicide terrorism. This is particularly promising because symbolic gestures tied to religious notions that are open to interpretation might potentially be reframed without compromising their absolute “truth.” For example, Jerusalem might be reconceived less as a place than portal to heaven, where earthly access to the portal suffices.

If these things are worth knowing, why do scientists still shun religion?

Part of the reason is that most scientists are staunchly nonreligious. If you look at the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences or Britain’s Royal Society, well over 90 percent of members are non-religious. That may help explain why some of the bestselling books by scientists about religion aren’t about the science of religion as much as the reasons that it’s no longer necessary to believe. “New Atheists” have aggressively sought to discredit religion as the chief cause of much human misery, militating for its demise. They contend that science has now answered questions about humans’ origins and place in the world that only religion sought to answer in the days before evolutionary science, and that humankind no longer needs the broken crutch of faith.

But the idea that we can simply argue away religion has little factual support. Although a recent study by psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan indicates that people are less prone to think religiously when they think analytically, other studies suggest that seemingly contrary evidence rarely undermines religious belief, especially among groups welded by ritualized sacrifice in the face of outside threats. Norenzayan and others also find that belief in gods and miracles intensifies when people are primed with awareness of death or when facing danger, as in wartime.

Moreover, the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War" audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as “humanity” arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire’s majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what’s going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments. In a multiyear study, our research group found that Palestinian adolescents who perceived strong threats to their communities and were highly involved in religious ritual were most likely to see political issues, like the right of refugees to return to homes in Israel, as absolute moral imperatives. These individuals were thus opposed to compromise, regardless of the costs. It turns out there may be a neurological component to such behavior: Our work with Gregory Berns and his neuroeconomics team suggests that such values are processed in the brain as duties rather than utilitarian calculations; neuroimaging reveals that violations of sacred values trigger emotional responses consistent with sentiments of moral outrage.

Historical and experimental studies suggest that the more antagonistic a group’s neighborhood, the more tightly that group will cling to its sacred values and rituals. The result is enhanced solidarity, but also increased potential for conflict toward other groups. Investigation of 60 small-scale societies reveals that groups that experience the highest rates of conflict (warfare) endure the costliest rites (genital mutilation, scarification, etc.). Likewise, research in India, Mexico, Britain, Russia, and Indonesia indicates that greater participation in religious ritual in large-scale societies is associated with greater parochial altruism — that is, willingness to sacrifice for one’s own group, such as Muslims or Christians, but not for outsiders — and, in relevant contexts, support for suicide attacks. This dynamic is behind the paradoxical reality that the world finds itself in today: Modern global multiculturalism is increasingly challenged by fundamentalist movements aimed at reviving group loyalty through greater ritual commitments to ideological purity.

So why does it matter that we have moved past the -isms and into an era of greater religiosity? In an age where religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort to understand them. Now that humankind has acquired through science the power to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, we cannot afford to let science ignore religion and the sacred, or let scientists simply try to reason them away. Policymakers should leverage scientific understanding of what makes religion so potent a force for both cooperation and conflict, to help increase the one and lessen the other.

Scott Atran, American and French anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan, John Jay College, and ARTIS Research who has studied violence and interviewed terrorists, God and the Ivory Tower, Foreign Policy, Aug 6, 2012.

See also:

Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational
‘We’ vs ‘Others’: Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers
The Psychology of Violence (a modern rethink of the psychology of shame and honour in preventing it), Lapidarium notes
Religion tag on Lapidarium notes