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The Skin of the World

A Philodendron climbs up the trunks of a Rubber tree, Ficus elastica.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

I am taking a step back from writing about contentious topics — authoritarian politics, climate change, approaching extinction and animal rights. Not for ever, but for a few weeks. It feels like every conversation about those topics increases the fear and anxiety of everyone in the room and tilts the scales in favor of those who traffic in fear and anxiety, i.e., the very people we should be opposing. Therefore silence until I learn how to talk about our common future with imagination.

That frees me to write about a much older problem:

Why does the tree look just so? What’s the nature of experience? Why does the world appear the way it does?

Thinking about such questions is a relief after disputations about democracy and capitalism, for they are purer questions, in both senses of that term, i.e.,

  1. Pure rather than applied in the sense of pure mathematics versus applied mathematics, so that one can consider it abstractly. A metaphysical problem.
  2. Pure rather than impure in the sense of being free of politics and therefore amenable to unbiased inquiry.

Unlike some other pure problems, this one is easy to understand. Some scientific questions take a lot of technical preparation — if you were to ask a layperson why gravity isn’t reconciled with quantum mechanics, they wouldn’t know where to begin. The nature of experience and the appearance of the world are at the other extreme of familiarity. Every single one of us has intimate acquaintance with the matter under discussion, and if you haven’t been corrupted by texts that question your basic instincts, your gut’s likely telling you:

There’s a world out there of which you’re a part; it exists whether you believe in it or not; sometimes it hits you on the head but mostly it helps you get what you want.

The world just is. We can take the world for granted. Even those who question the solidity of the world for a living — scientists, philosophers, priests and poets- still conduct their lives as if it’s just there. Even questioning the world assumes a stable reality, so we are left with this intriguing question:

How do we probe an entity that’s presupposed by the probe?

I don’t have an answer to that query and it’s not a question that can be addressed directly like a nutcracker approaching a nut. Instead, we need to circle the question like a mountain peak along a hundred different trails, picking up insights along the way and hoping that immersion in the problem enables a shift in perspective.

Which is what many have done over the centuries. In the Indic sphere, both Vedantic and Buddhist traditions pay a lot of attention to the nature of experience. Then there’s the modern philosophical school that calls itself Phenomenology with a capital P. I am inspired by bearded men East and West, but I also want to keep my distance. For one, these traditions tend to be anthropocentric while I want a method that works for Octopi as it does for people. The second is that I don’t want to be responsible for being “true” to these traditions — if a reading of some dead man is mistaken, so be it; what’s more important is whether that reading illuminates a problem we care about.

Photographer: K. Mitch Hodge | Source: Unsplash

The First Trail

Let’s start at the surface, the skin, which is both an organ and the organ. All of us have a skin. It’s the interface between the outside world and us, the spatial marker of things that are mostly me, even if some of those things are on the way out such as breath and excrement, and things that are mostly not me, even if some of those are on the way in — breath and food. Sensation also begins with the skin. Every sensory receptor we have is part of the skin. Some of these receptors are mechanical, others are photosensitive, but there’s nothing that comes into our minds that isn’t mediated by the skin.

But my skin isn’t alone in the world, for it is one surface among many. As you walk around a room, what do you perceive?

  • You see a view of the world that consists of surfaces arrayed in space.
  • You hear the vibrations of surfaces.
  • You touch the texture of surfaces.

And so on, I hope you get my point. We live in a layout of surfaces. The surfaces we perceive are not abstract geometric surfaces. These are physical surfaces, with texture and toughness. These surfaces also have solidity, which takes us towards their mass, but should be distinguished from it. From our organismic perspective, mass, temperature, shape etc don’t really exist. Those quantities are useful surrogates, but they are not really real.

The layout of the world is mediated by the skin. We don’t have access to the world except through the receptors in our skin. The topography of the world — its layout — is mapped on to the topography of the skin and then transformed.

Is the unity of the experience due to the continuity of the skin?

If so, without the skin, the world would be a bumbling buzzing confusion, but because the skin is continuous and because the different senses are naturally integrated in the skin and the registration on the skin proceeds naturally from one sense to another, we have a seed that helps integrate the world.

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Photographer: Mehendi Training Center | Source: Unsplash

Normally, we think of the brain as the mediator, the place where sensation is transformed into perception and cognition. That may be, though there are reasons to disbelieve such a simple story. But the point I am trying to make is that whatever the brain does, whether that’s information processing or just registration, is in the service of the skin. It’s the skin’s view of the world that’s important to us.

The most important consequence of the skin’s view of the world: we see the skin of the world, not its volume. It’s surfaces that matter, not the interior. No wonder we see and hear and touch surfaces while the volumes bounded by those surfaces are rather more mysterious entities. For example, looking at the person sitting across the table from me, I notice the succession of emotions fleeting across his face, but what is he really thinking? It seems as if my neighbor’s mind is hidden beneath the skin, his intentions opaque to the observer.

What if the most fundamental distinction of all was between skin and body?

Before heaven and earth, before idealism and materialism, is there a primordial distinction between skin and body? When I said earlier that our gut instinct is to trust the world out there, that trust is felt on the surface of our bodies. If I say the world is unreal and you take a stone and crack my head open with it to show how reality intrudes on my illusion, the demonstration assumes the bleeding skin is the boundary of the real interior.

Yet, all of virtual reality depends on that bleeding skin being successfully faked by the impact of a virtual stone. So what happens when that circle of trust is broken, where the skin is no longer an indicator of the underlying body? To put another way:

If “normal” reality assumes a tight link between the skin and the body, what happens when that link is severed?

And we come to a deep cut:

  1. Either the skin is separate from the body and one is no indicator of the other. I can transport myself from skin to skin without affecting the body. Or as the Buddhist might say, there’s no body at all and I am transported from one empty skin to another.
  2. Or, there’s a deep and intrinsic relationship between the skin and the body. I am trapped in one because I am trapped in the other.

Which one of the two is it?

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The Tyranny of Experience

Photographer: v2osk | Source: Unsplash

There’s no greater tyranny in my world than that of experience, by which I mean the ever more sophisticated versions of the claim “seeing is believing.” We are skeptical by nature, demanding evidence and proof and subjecting claims to all kinds of tests before we believe them. Experience produces facts, in principle if not in practice. Which is why even the alt-rightist has to adopt the experientalist’s strategy: he casts doubt on facts that bother him and produces alt-facts where there are none.

Sometimes those facts are more interesting than what we normally believe them to be. Consider the great fact that supposedly marks the transition from superstition to science: the denial of the claim that the earth is the center of the universe. We think the claim was refuted by Copernicus, who offered the counter claim that the earth goes around the sun. But there’s no direct experience of that fact is there? Certainly not in the 15th century. Copernicus had the better theory, but can’t say that he had a better fact.

Galileo

Instead, it was Galileo observing the moons of Jupiter and letting the pope view those moons that was the first experience of a heavenly body that revolved around something else besides the earth. Galileo’s observations make the Copernican theory more plausible — if the moon goes around the earth and Jupiter’s moons go around Jupiter, what’s preventing the Earth and Jupiter going around the sun?

Many years later when the pope was no longer a friend and the blind old man was facing the inquisition, Galileo recanted his belief in the Copernican view in public but supposedly said under his breath “and yet it moves.” Such is the power of experience. It generates both doubt (I need to see in order to believe) and faith (once you see you gotta believe).

Which is why skepticism is coupled with righteous anger when someone sees but doesn’t believe. For example: those climate deniers — how can they question the vast mounds of data collected by scientists from all over the world? They must be idiots right? Or worse, idiots manipulated by scheming tycoons who don’t want us to believe what we see and pay minions bucketloads of cash to replace facts with alt-facts.

Disgusting. Terrible. We are going back to the dark ages. Or so we think. I will come to the structural blindness of experience seeking in a moment; let’s first ask what lies beyond experience.

  1. God, divinity, the creator of the universe etc etc. If experience reveals beings, the stones and birds that appear in front of us, then what about the Being that underlies all beings? Is he completely transcendent? Some think so and claim that all of creation is evidence of his existence. Not a very convincing argument if you ask me. That’s why you need a Jesus who is a spectacular if singular piece of evidence that God can wormhole himself into creation. But how can J be evidence for G? What about J makes us believe that he could only be so and so through partaking the substance of God? In an anthropocentric culture it’s possible to believe that the spectacular qualities of a human being follows from their proximity to divinity, but in a world where humans aren’t that central, a gifted human being is only a gifted human being. Nothing more. Makes us doubt J, G and everything in between.
  2. Mathematics. Numbers aren’t experienced and yet some of us believe in their existence. How’s that possible? Experience only reveals objects with shape and form but numbers have neither. What form of existence can a shapeless formless entity have and how is such an entity revealed to us? Then there’s the fortunate circumstance that math seems to work. It helps us design satellites and nuclear bombs and other nice things that help us rule the earth and stalk the heavens. We can’t deny math in the way we can deny god(s), but mathematical entities aren’t experiencable. Or are they?

In Galileo’s time planetary experiences were rare and sensational. Today they are common but unequally distributed, which is a problem in a knowledge society. Who gets to go to Kenya for an internship in their junior year of college? Who has mentors telling them whether all eukaryotes are descended from a branch of archaea? When knowledge isn’t the preserve of the scholarly community but the engine of the economy as a whole (which is the underlying premise of a knowledge society), the scales of success are in favor of those who have easy access to experience. Even worse, since experiential elites are surrounded by others in the same class, marrying each other, starting companies with each other, the experiential hierarchy turns into a class hierarchy very quickly.

Then there are experiences we can’t acquire, however hard we might try. In his famous paper “What is it like to be a bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that whatever it’s like to be a bat is opaque to us. We can capture and preserve bats in jars for centuries, study their genes for millennia and yet have no clue as to what experiences accrue to a bat as it flies around a cave using sonar for echolocation. Why bats? It’s not clear if I can experience what you’re undergoing as you’re reading this essay. Experience seems simultaneously expansive — capable of producing facts that confirm the state of the universe just as it was being created — and incredibly narrow, potentially confined to our own consciousness and at best reaching out to beings a lot like us.

What’s the big deal? We are a finite creature with evolved capacities for understanding the world around us in certain ways. Of course there are limits to our experience and we should be humble enough not to claim knowledge we can’t possess.

There are many problems with that claim; let me stop with one. Let’s say birds, bats and octopi have experiences (if not stones and bacteria) but we believe we can’t access their ways of being. That isn’t stopping us from exploiting these creatures — farming them for food, caging them for entertainment and so on. In saying their experiences are opaque to us, we are denying any possibility for empathy across the species divide. How can I put myself in your shoes if they don’t fit? The objective sciences have greatly increased our technologies of control but that’s also brought us to the brink of killing off most life on this planet.

Knowing what it’s like to be a bat is the first step away from technologies of control towards technologies of care and for that to happen, we have to question the tyranny of experience, set aside the limits we have imposed upon ourselves, limits that are justified as humility but are really a mask for self-interest.

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Earth Trek

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Today is the 1st of February. Let’s just say I took January off and am now ready to take on a year long writing project. What’s it going to be?

No surprise, it’s the same project as last year. Way back at the beginning of last year, I said I wanted to investigate the concept of Samsara, the wheel of time and space in which we find ourselves. Some think Samsara is infused with suffering; others embrace our worldly condition and ask us to enjoy it while we can. Why are we finite? Why do we grow sick and die?

The Buddha left the comforts of home in pursuit of these questions. Did he answer those questions to everyone’s satisfaction? Is there anything new under the samsaric sun? Disease and sickness haven’t gone away, though we are better at curing some of them than we were back then. Death refuses to budge from its full stop at the end of the sentence.

Then there are new phrases like Anthropocene that hint at a new phase of our samsaric condition. While it’s always been true, it’s never been more apparent that our welfare seems inextricably bound to the welfare of other beings on this planet and the governance of our bodies has to incorporate the governance of both our interior and exterior landscape. From the bacteria in our guts to the whales on our beaches, we have to pay attention to the samsara of all creatures. Everything that shares a worldly destiny in fact.

But how?

That’s the question I want to explore this year. It’s a question about the nature of the world as seen from the inside, a cosmic earthworm’s (CW) point of view rather than a cosmic eagle’s. Pay attention to that cosmic earthworm for a moment as he hides from the cosmic eagle. The eagle is the eye of science, the view from so far above that it might as well be nowhere. The cw is the exact opposite — a being embedded deeply and firmly in the ground.

The universe belongs to the eagle. Samsara, to the earthworm. The eagle is Star Trek. CW is Earth Trek. Behind the cw is an even bigger conceit — that we can create a new field of knowledge by:

  1. setting aside the default assumptions of the current dominant framework,
  2. borrowing concepts from traditions that don’t adopt these default assumptions and reshaping these concepts to suit our needs
  3. inventing new concepts and tools as we go along while:
  4. making sure that all our moves are well motivated and feel “right.”

It may or may not work, but a journey that features bacterial minds and banana republics as stopovers promises to be interesting.

Ryan Hodnett [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

We want to be crawling along with the cw to the four corners of the earth, asking questions that chew at the boundaries of every scholarly discipline. Why? Because we can’t answer questions about how to govern this planet unless we also understand the needs of its inhabitants. The first requires us to expand our political sphere from nations to oceans. The second requires us to look at the minds of butterflies and banana trees. In other words, we will have to trace the connections that bind living beings to each other, to peer into their worlds and to create institutional structures that lets those worlds flourish.

I remember being awed by the voice over in Star Trek (“To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations”); I still the sentiment was right but the target of exploration was wrong. It’s terrestrial existence — Samsara in so many words — that’s ripe for exploration. The key to new knowledge is through the world of beings.

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The Adventures of Vatman

Aren’t straight lines boring? I have been zagging about climate change, animal rights and other planetary calamities for several months. It’s getting to be burdensome. Time to zig. Or rather, it’s time to zigback to a topic I continue to think about in a parallel universe, a world without care or worry, a topic that’s sent a few paychecks my way: the study of the mind.

Note: A zigback is like a flashback but in parallel instead of serial. Where a flashback takes you to an event in the past, a zigback takes you to a parallel world in the present. What’s zigzagging? For much of the twentieth century, language captured the attention of philosophers the world over, going so far to say that the problems of philosophy are nothing but the problems of language in disguise. While introducing Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Bertrand Russell says: “Starting from the principles of Symbolism and the relations which are necessary between words and things in any language, it applies the result of this inquiry to various departments of traditional philosophy, showing in each case how traditional philosophy and traditional solutions arise out of ignorance of the principles of Symbolism and out of misuse of language.”Wittgenstein reiterates the same point when he ends his book with: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

One can only be silent for so long. There’s a kind of speech that’s a finger pointing at the moon. I can never speak with certainty about another being’s feelings; even other human beings are opaque to literal alliances and other creatures are doubly resistant to literal speech. Mythical speech can correct some of these errors but in the process of doing so we realize that language isn’t everything.

That realization had a collective dawn towards the end of the millennium when the philosophy of mind replaced the philosophy of language as the dominant subfield, a dominance that continues to this day. It seems obvious to us now that the mind subsumes language. After all, linguistic phenomena are just one type of mental phenomena; philosophers of mind also study consciousness (arguably the coolest kid on the block), perception, emotion, attention and any number of other mind-laden entities.The party line is that the mind is going to reign for a while, that the key puzzles of consciousness are resistant to solution. I believe that’s true, but a time comes when resistant puzzles, however tantalizing, are set aside in favor of other questions and paradoxes. What’s considered important need not be the same as what’s considered challenging. The reign of the new king is almost over. Some of us think we have reached peak consciousness, that philosophical storms currently on the horizon will upend the mind’s position at the top when the winds blow landward.

What’s blowing?

Indulge me as I zigzag through an answer with thought experiments, arguments and stories. All I can say for now is the new regime will subsume our mental concerns just as language was swallowed by the ocean of mental activity.

Another Note: This being a zigzag course, I am not going to talk about the philosophy of mind alone — the zags through our planetary responsibilities will continue to race along on tracks three and four.

Brains in a Vat

Chances are, you have heard of brains in a vat. If not, here’s the basic idea: let’s say you’ve been troubled by a nagging cough for the last few weeks. Being the cautious kind, you get yourself tested. After one look at the test results, the GP passes you on to a pulmonologist who, in turn, invites an oncologist to the second meeting. The oncologist reveals you have incurable lung cancer. Only a few months to live. He wants you to undergo one final test just to be sure. You retire to the oncologist’s waiting room. While leafing through the latest issue of Mortality Now — conveniently stacked in large quantities in the waiting room — you notice a call for participants in a mind-blowing study. A silicon valley startup is prototyping its immortality as a service platform. You might just be the ideal participant.The startup’s promise: they will remove your brain from your body and give it a new house in a climate controlled underground chamber in Oregon with plenty of water and electricity to feed and clean your brain for eternity (i.e., until VC funding runs out); further, they promise your brain will receive the freshest, most nourishing sensory inputs every day — some days you will travel the Himalayas meeting yogis meditating in ancient caves, other days you will dive beneath the ocean on top of a sperm whale.

Organic eternity.

The only problem: the brain transfer is irreversible — they have to dispose of your body once the brain is removed (while omitting to mention that your brain is part of their IP and will be sold off when investors start looking for returns).Not a problem for you: your body is collapsing anyway. On the 4th of July 2020, you become Oregon’s newest resident, BR1701, better known as Vatman.

These are your stories.

The Weather Outside

Photo by Natalie Rhea Riggs on Unsplash

Having dealt with old-age homes recently, I know the key to successful retirement is routine garnished with variety. Vatman’s hosts have taken that adage to heart: every week is the same and every week is different.On Mondays they take their vats on a trip to the Grand Canyon, which is to say, they live-stream their proprietary drone’s passage through the gape in the ground and feed it to the vat’s sensory interfaces. This being a first world retirement home, you can also communicate with the drone operator and ask him to navigate the drone as you see fit. He’s just a kid sitting in a Palo Alto Starbucks; he will do what he’s told.

Except that this Monday (July 6th, 2020) is your unlucky day- Russian hackers have taken control of the drone’s operating system and have diverted it to Democratic party headquarters. Fortunately, the company has plenty of drone footage stored on AWS. Without revealing a thing, they start piping in last year’s trip taken on July 1st 2019. As the CEO texts the somewhat troubled drone operator: how would vatman know the difference? Duh. Make it so.

Meanwhile, you’re having a good time zooming through the canyon. When drone does one of its 360 degree spins, you notice storm clouds are brewing. Thunderclouds have always made you anxious. You want to get back to safety (what does that even mean when you’re stuck in a chemical bath in Oregon?) and you ask the drone operator to fly the drone back to its base. Meanwhile, in a lucky coincidence, another drone owned by the CIA has annihilated the errant Russian hackers. They were working out of the same building in Damascus (cheap rent, great food, lots of clients) as an ISIS handler.

With the hackers gone, your drone operator regains control of his vehicle and starts live streaming today’s trip once again. In a second lucky coincidence, while the clouds that made you uneasy were from last year’s trip, it turns out that thunderclouds are brewing at this very time in the Grand Canyon. They sure look ominous. You feel like vomiting and tell the operator to stop. The operator sympathizes with your unease and steers the drone out of the canyon before the rain starts.

All’s well with the world. You want to heave a sigh of relief, but you can’t since you don’t have nostrils or a chest. Damn. Instead, you thank your operator, close your mental eyes and wait for tomorrow’s snorkeling trip to the Bahamas.

Questions:

  1. Was your belief about the storm clouds over the canyon a true belief?
  2. Was it your belief that caused the drone operator to move the drone?
  3. Were his actions appropriate to the circumstances?
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Alien Minds: Newsletter #24

This week, I am going to talk about something I have puzzled about ever since I was a child but never really taken seriously: the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. SETI, like AI, is one of those elusive, almost dream like goals whose goalposts keep changing. What would count as a truly alien intelligence? When can we say we have discovered (or more likely, stumbled upon) an alien civilization?

I remember Carl Sagan talking about the Golden Record in the Voyager spacecraft, which was his view of the top ten hits of human existence. It has the usual suspects, starting with Mozart and going on to other peaks of civilization as conceived by white male nerds in 1977. OK, that was probably a little unfair, but in retrospect, Sagan’s idea of intelligence and civilization looks rather parochial to me. We are still saddled with a view of aliens as green eyed monsters who play the world of warcraft at a cosmic scale.

The search for intelligence remains the most anthropomorphic of quests; which means that asking whether robots will ever be intelligent is a little bit like asking whether planes fly or not. There’s no principled answer to that question: most of us intuitively think that planes fly, but that’s about it as far as science goes.

Certainly, planes don’t fly in the way birds and insects do and their capacity to fly isn’t based on a genetic endowment of the kind birds and insects have. On the other hand, both mechanical and biological flight are grounded in the principles of fluid dynamics. We can’t build aircraft without understanding how air flows around wings, though it goes without saying that a bird doesn’t understand the principles of aerodynamics in anything like the way an aerospace engineer does. These are different regimes of knowledge. 

In other words, flight is a believable abstraction; we are able to separate out the ability to be in the air for extended periods of time from its biological or mechanical implementation. It doesn’t depend on having feathers or landing gear. Flying doesn’t mean flying like a bird anymore. 

SETI is quite different. We are still focused on finding traces of advanced civilizations, i.e., beings who are like us, but better. I think that’s a major problem in AI as well. Take the Turing test for example: the goal is to create a machine whose answers to questions can’t be distinguished from a human’s answers to the same questions. How much more anthropomorphic can you get? 

SETI and AI pose a metaphysical quandary: on the one hand, we want to understand alien or robotic intelligence on it’s own terms (where the term “alien” encompasses terrestrial intelligence that’s very different from ours — gut bacteria, redwood trees etc) but the only tools and intuitions we have are our own minds and our cultural presuppositions about intelligence. 

Strangely, I think we should explore SETI for the same reason we sit down on a cushion and meditate, i.e., to explore ourselves but also to set aside and ultimately reject self-indulgent and parochial impressions of ourselves. It’s really a religious quest as much as a scientific one. Seen this way, it doesn’t surprise me that the techno-religious cults that have sprung up in the last fifty years (such as the “singularity”) and their manifestation in art (“The Matrix”) are all to do with AI and SETI. As religions go, these alien dreams are shallow spiritual systems, but they have unerringly identified a new direction for contemplation. 

The exploration of Mind and minds — our minds, the minds of other species, the minds of aliens, the minds of robots — and ultimately, the search for the origins of order and organization, is exactly the kind of exploration that brings science together with religion. It’s a search that would be as familiar to the Zen masters of China as the astronomer in her observatory. It is for that reason, not the preserve of scientists alone. Or in some crazy inversion of priorities, to be located in an imagined past of Vedic astronautics.

The adventure of the mind is a new adventure, pointing toward the future, not the past. It’s like Siva’s marriage procession, with room for gods and humans, beasts and demons. Inner space and outer space are deeply intertwined after all.

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The Sun Theory of Light

Neuroscience is a field for philistines. It’s based on the crudest form of physicalism: the mind is the brain, a hypothesis of a crudity that physics itself lost centuries ago, similar to saying “light is created in the sun.” At some level that’s true, for the sun is (locally) distal source of light, but one would learn almost nothing about physics by trying to do solar anatomy without knowing anything about chemistry or quantum physics. One simply doesn’t learn about matter by going about one’s business that way. Materialism of the neuroscientific kind is a poor theory of matter, let alone of mind. Materialism is a bad philosophy for practical purposes as well. There are some situations where crude localization helps: if someone suddenly starts slurring their speech, we know where they might have had a stroke.


However, even for a generally flourishing mental life, the brain = sun theory of the mind is a poor theory. Just as the sun theory of light doesn’t help us make artificial light sources, since the sun’s actions are somewhat hard to replicate, the brain theory of the mind doesn’t help us build intelligent devices. For all its faults, Artificial Intelligence with its focus on the abstract principles of intelligence is a much better theory of intelligence than anything in the neurosciences. The reason is simple: like in any other creative science, we need to abstract the problem before we can make real progress. There’s a reason why levers and pulleys helped us make progress in physics, and not a direct attempt to replicate the shape of clouds. The correct idealizations and abstractions are crucial.


At the same time, it’s clear that physics might have gone too far in the direction of abstraction as far as biology goes, and closer to home, AI might have gone too far in the direction of abstraction as far as intelligence goes. Intelligence is not pure information processing, and whatever principles there might be of information processing can lead to good mathematics and in controlled circumstances better engineering, but it’s not the right way to approach the problem of understanding the remarkably flexible characteristics of living creatures. We need new models and new artifacts. At the same time, paradoxically:

In order to make our ideas more complex, we might need to make our methods cruder. Our current capacities for probing neurons, neural systems and entire brains are remarkably sophisticated and the technology is getting better rapidly. However, it’s technology that’s rapidly outstripping our understanding of the mind and leaving us with a deluge of data that defies explanation.

Consider the following analogy: suppose we became an engineering civilization before we became a scientific one and we were able to probe the center of the earth well before we had a clue about atomic structure. At the same time, imagine that we had a theory that all heat was generated out of the earth’s core.

A plausible alternate history of technological progress and as it turns out, the core theory of heat has some truth to it. I am shifting from the sun to the earth since a civilization that can probe the sun’s core directly without any understanding of the underlying physics seems rather implausible

In that situation, by building ever more complex devices to collect ever more evidence about the different kinds of heat in different parts of the earth’s core
we are only taking ourselves further away from a real understanding of thermodynamics. Similarly, we are getting too far ahead of ourselves by building ever more powerful mechanical and genetic techniques for probing the brain. Not only does that not enhance our understanding of the mind, it also increases our capacity to torture other species in the pursuit of data.

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Digpan

Matter meets mind


Just as the railroad revolutionized life in the nineteenth century, the internet has created spaces increasingly revolutionized by new ways of communicating ideas and transporting goods. The progression of technology is the same in both cases:

  1. A new territory is discovered.
  2. Surveys are undertaken and maps are created.
  3. Communities are established in newly mapped out areas.
  4. Community services are created for the new immigrants.

The railroad clearly led to all four; the internet has just about reached the third stage. To put it crudely, the internet era started when the basic networking protocols were established and the first websites were created. Then came Yahoo and Google as surveyors, mapping out the newly created terrain, followed in the third stage by Facebook which started creating communities.

The next wave of the internet will involve creating community services: health, education, politics, entertainment located in the geography of the internet.

The demand for community services will spill over from the world of information into the world of of matter, from the digital to the analog. The merger of the two – digital + analog = digpan – will increasingly be the story of the web.

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M-Theories

I gave a talk at NIAS on M-Theories, which is my approach to the intersection of mind, metaphysics and mathematics. You can see the prezi of the talk here or on the prezi page.

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Synthesis

Science has mostly been an analytic pursuit; we try to break the universe into its constituent parts and analyze these parts for what they are. This method is also often called reductionism, but one can be analytic without being a reductionist. Engineering on the other hand is synthetic; while an engineer does analyze cars in terms of engines and carburetors, the analysis is in the service of building a car. The parts are there to create the whole, not the other way around. The irreducibility of the whole is crucial to engineering; people buy cars, not carburetors.

Seeing as technology is mostly tied to production for the market, engineering is driven by pragmatic concerns — “does it work?” or “will it sell?” A synthetic science that has the innocence of the pure pursuit of knowledge while keeping in mind the synthetic character of the systems it studies and the knowledge it creates might be better suited to the leading problems of our times such as understanding the mind and addressing climate change.

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