Saturday, June 17, 2017

I coulda been an astronomer

A long time ago I used to belong to the Royal Astronomical Society (amateur astronomers) in Ottawa (Canada). That's me on the right with some of my friends. We were testing our sun filters and getting ready to see Venus when the sun went down.

In spite of this promising beginning, I decided to go into biology because it was harder and more interesting.





36 comments :

  1. What would be a name of the blog we would be reading, if you had become an astronomer?

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  2. Now you can combine both. Well, sort of, at least according to the theory of biocentrism...

    http://www.robertlanza.com/biocentrism-how-life-and-consciousness-are-the-keys-to-understanding-the-true-nature-of-the-universe/

    BTW: Have you ever thought what science will be the closest to explaining consciousness?

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    1. The phenomenon referred to as "consciousness" is best explained by biology.

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    2. The phenomenon referred to as "consciousness" is best explained by biology.

      Regrettably, I'm yet to see a biological explanation not only how consciousness arose but more so why...

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    3. Just wondering: is your first name Hugh?

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    4. Regrettably, I'm yet to see a biological explanation not only how consciousness arose but more so why...

      That's because you're asking the wrong questions. The most important question is "what is consciousness"? I order to have a productive conversation you need to answer at least three questions.

      1. Are mice conscious? How about fruit flies?

      2. Can a robot, like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation be conscious?

      3. Do you believe that humans were created by god(s)?

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    5. #1. For me, yes, but I'm no expert on the mental processes of fruit flies. I'm more interested in what you wanted to find out by asking.

      #2. Yes. Roger Penrose wrote an interesting book about this in which he tried to derive a "No" answer mathematically, but it was ultimately unconvincing to me (quite possibly because there was much of it I didn't understand very well :-) ). Why should neurons be the only form of matter capable of sustaining consciousness?

      3. Lordy, no.

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    6. @judmarc

      I asked because there are many people who think humans acquired consciousness at some time in the past several hundred thousand years and other animals aren't conscious.

      If you accept that fruit flies are conscious then we can start to explore when and how this presumed phenomenon arose. This will help me understand what you mean by "consciousness."

      Are earthworms conscious? How about round worms? How about the earliest animals preserved in the Cambrian? Does the mere of a neuron imply consciousness of do you need to have several neurons working together?

      If we could build a simple nematode brain from scratch would that artificial organism be conscious?

      These kind of thought experiments often lead, in my experience, to a definition of "conscious" that's indistinguishable from "neuronal activity."

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    7. We have some possible bounds here on what "consciousness" means. If we're talking about "self-concept," then there's evidence of it in elephants; I'm assuming it exists in monkeys, porpoises, and whales; not sure about mice, and reasonably sure it doesn't include fruit flies.

      Of course we could say it's mere neuronal activity, but that (to me, anyway) isn't terribly interesting.

      I was thinking of consciousness as something that permits choice/action beyond an instinctual level. Perhaps fruit flies might have that, I don't really know. I would guess many folks here have a better idea than I do whether or not fruit flies are completely guided by instinct.

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    8. TBH, I think that only further confuses thing. It seems arbitrary to use "self-concept" as some sort of dividing line between consciousness and its absence. I'm not sure how you'd justify that. And by invoking "choice", which I take to mean "free will", you're opening up another can of worms that is just as messy as the first one.

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    9. Jass,

      Regrettably, I'm yet to see a biological explanation not only how consciousness arose but more so why...


      Laurence A. Moran

      That's because you're asking the wrong questions. The most important question is "what is consciousness"? I order to have a productive conversation you need to answer at least three questions.

      1. Are mice conscious? How about fruit flies?

      No But if you disagree, neither of us can prove it can't we?

      2. Can a robot, like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation be conscious?

      Robots are not conscious now and they will not be conscious in the near future...

      3. Do you believe that humans were created by god(s)?

      Which answer will satisfy you so that you can answer the question WHY consciousness arose?

      I don't think I should be expecting an answer from you as to how consciousness arose unless you can answer the first question first an well as what consciousness is...

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    10. Yes, he seems like a Hugh Jass to me.

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    11. "Regrettably, I'm yet to see a biological explanation not only how consciousness arose but more so why..."

      How consciousness works seems a challenging question of neuroscience. I have no idea. Why, though, seems simpler. In some species, the ability to contemplate outcomes of alternative actions leads to better choices* that result in better survival or reproduction.

      * "choices" used in the sense of what they feel like, because that's what our vocabulary fits, and not intended as a vote in free will argument.

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    12. * "choices" used in the sense of what they feel like, because that's what our vocabulary fits, and not intended as a vote in free will argument.

      Thank you. I don't think it will help to refer to another neverending philosophical argument. :-)

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    13. It seems arbitrary to use "self-concept" as some sort of dividing line between consciousness and its absence.

      Sure, it absolutely is arbitrary, just like our notion of "species" when the vast, vast majority of all life on Earth doesn't reproduce sexually and thus isn't subject to the biological species concept. Many (most?) of our categories and delineations are arbitrarily imposed on a more or less continuous natural spectrum (including the electromagnetic spectrum itself - when does a light frequency stop being red and start being orange?). The more interesting question is whether these more or less arbitrary notions help elucidate what's going on in the natural world.

      So what more or less arbitrary definition of "consciousness" is most helpful to us?

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  3. It’s unclear to me how biology explains qualia and subjective experience. Of course mental states are correlated with physical brain states, but no explanation is on offer for how and why, say, I experience redness — or have subjective experiences at all. This is called the Hard Problem of Consciousness and is taken fairly seriously by a number of philosopher and scientists, too.

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    1. This is one more reason why I'm skeptical of modern philosophy.

      Hard problem of consciousness

      "The existence of a 'hard problem' is controversial and has been disputed by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett[4] and cognitive neuroscientists such as Stanislas Dehaene.[5] Clinical neurologist and skeptic Steven Novella has dismissed it as 'the hard non-problem.'"

      When it comes to the intersection of philosophy and science, philosophers usually don't have any answers. Sometimes they don't even have the right questions.

      If you want to have a serious discussion about consciousness then answer my three questions and we can talk.

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    2. The Steve Novella article linked there is a pretty good discussion of some of the problems with the idea of a "hard problem". It also makes considerable mention of an occasional visitor here at Sandwalk:

      Michael Egnor, Cartesian Dualism, David Chalmers, and the Hard (non)Problem

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  4. To answer your questions:

    Are mice conscious? How about fruit flies?

    I think both are conscious.

    2. Can a robot, like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation be conscious?

    I don’t know. In fact, this question goes to the heart of the problem — the explanatory gap of the Hard Problem.

    Being only familiar with the Kirk-Spock version of Star Trek, I had to google up Data and discovered he was humanoid robot with a “positronic brain.” What’s a positronic brain? It’s something that Isaac Asimov dreamed up for a short story decades ago and the Stark Trek producers evidently “borrowed” it for Data. So, no, I’m pretty sure Data has no qualia because positronic brains do not exist!

    But I suppose your real question is whether qualia and subjective experience are substrate independent. I don't know, but speaking for myself, no matter how one answers this question, there is an explanatory gap and that's precisely the Hard Problem in a nutshell.

    Do you believe that any of our current crop of high-speed digital computers and other high-end devices experience qualia? Do they have subjective inner lives? I don’t think so, but suppose that they do. Recently a computer beat a champion Go player in China, and famously 20 years ago Deep Blue beat Kasparov at chess.

    Suppose we say that the Go computer has some rudimentary consciousness of playing Go, or that Deep Blue had some inner subjective experience of playing chess. If we agree to this, then we have the explanatory gap, the Hard Problem! How can it be the case that inner workings of a computer, no matter how sophisticated, could generate, in the machine, an inner life?

    But if we say these machines do not have an inner life (as I believe they do not) the answer is still unsatisfying. Why don’t they? What’s missing? This is the hard problem stated in a different way: If we knew why “intelligent” machines actually have no inner lives, then we would know why we do have such inner lives, and we could set about the task of building a machine that could actually experience qualia. The fact that we have no clue how to build such a machine is a testament to the obduracy of the explanatory gap.

    John Searle, of course, has his famous Chinese Room argument that purports to show that no digital (or presumably quantum) computer could ever be conscious. If he’s right this just underscores the problem: What’s the missing spark that lights up the interior of our minds that we have, but a machine lacks even in principle? On the Searle account we could build a computer that perfectly simulates a human brain and yet it would have no interior life at all; as a simulation it would always be to the actual brain as a map is to the territory.

    Notice that one doesn’t need to create a binary choice here where none exists: saying that, if naturalism is insufficient to explain the generation of consciousness, then supernaturalism must be true. There are other philosophical accounts on offer: metaphysical idealism, panpsychism, Chalmer's property (not Cartesian) dualism. None of these involve speck of supernaturalism, George Berkeley to the contrary notwithstanding.

    You ask the question, “What is consciousness?” What is your answer? The answer I hear most from scientists — that it is an emergent property of lower-level physical processes in the brain — is entirely unsatisfactory, IMO. It’s not because the answer is wrong — it may well be true. It’s unsatisfactory because at the current time, it’s entirely devoid of explanatory power. Contrast this with other forms of emergentism — for example, that water with its wetness is an emergent property of underlying molecular configurations (which themselves are not wet). But we have a perfect stepwise explanation of how we go from molecules to wet water. This is precisely what is lacking in the case of underlying physical brain processes ——> qualia. That arrow is the explanatory gap.

    3. Do you believe that humans were created by god(s)?

    No.

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    1. Thank-you for answering the questions. Unfortunately, your answers invoke something called "qualia" and that's going to make it impossible to have a serious discussion.

      I draw your attention to the statement on the Wikipedia site ....

      "Much of the debate over their importance hinges on the definition of the term, and various philosophers emphasize or deny the existence of certain features of qualia. Consequently, the nature and existence of various definitions of qualia remain controversial in light of the fact that the existence of qualia has never been independently and scientifically proven as fact."

      As far as I can tell from previous discussions about "qualia," they don't exist.

      In fact the whole idea of "consciousness" is questionable from my point of view. You ask, "What’s the missing spark that lights up the interior of our minds that we have, but a machine lacks even in principle?" You are making an assumption that I do not share - what evidence do you have that such a spark actually exists?

      I don't have a problem believing that an advanced machine could believe itself to be "conscious" in the same way that we do. You are the one that has a problem if you believe that fruit flies are conscious because the onus is on you to explain why the functioning of their neurons creates some sort of "spark" that distinguishes them from an advanced robot like Data in TNG.

      You don't get to put the burden of proof on me, and other scientists, just because you demand an explanation for something that may not exist.

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    2. It’s not because the answer is wrong — it may well be true. It’s unsatisfactory because at the current time, it’s entirely devoid of explanatory power. Contrast this with other forms of emergentism — for example, that water with its wetness is an emergent property of underlying molecular configurations (which themselves are not wet). But we have a perfect stepwise explanation of how we go from molecules to wet water.

      It's interesting you would bring that up, because it's exactly the example I was going to raise, but to support the opposite position.

      I don't see how you distinguish between the emergence of "wetness" from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, and the emergence of "consciousness" from brain processes. It seems to me that, to the same degree, both are complete accounts that leave no gaps for some additional type of physical (or even non-physical) process that we do not as yet understand.

      Can you clarify what you see as the difference between the two examples?

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  5. I’m rather surprised at your response, Larry. It seems an attempt to deflect having a serious discussion, rather than actually have one. I notice that you did not answer your own question, which you asked of me and others: “What is consciousness?” Or perhaps you did answer it when you said “qualia do not exist.”

    Really? Qualia do not exist? (quoting Wikipedia isn’t very productive).

    So — my visual experience of the sensation of redness does not exist? Or my being stirred by the swelling aria of brilliant opera — these things do not exist?

    What are you talking about?

    Of course they exist. The question is what accounts for them?

    I don’t understand your comment about fruit flies. Do you believe fruit flies are not conscious? I believe all animals are conscious. Do you have evidence to the contrary? Or are you saying that humans are conscious but fruit flies are not? Do you think humans were blessed by God with consciousness but other animals were not?

    I hold that all animals are conscious but that my laptop computer is not. Agree? Disagree?

    You say: “I don't have a problem believing that an advanced machine could believe itself to be ‘conscious’ in the same way that we do.” What does that even mean? If a machine believes that it is conscious, then of course it IS conscious — a non-conscious entity cannot entertain beliefs!

    The question goes right back to — how does the underlying physical processes of the brain/computer account for subjective experience? You give no answer. I appreciate your implicitly admitting you have no answer, because there IS no answer — at least not at the current time. That is the whole point of the Hard Problem! I understand that this explanatory gap is an uncomfortable fact for some scientists, which is why they hand wave it away.

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    1. Do you think humans were blessed by God with consciousness but other animals were not?

      Your response confirms my impression that debating you is a waste of time.

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  6. @lutestuite: I can give a stepwise account of how water emerges from molecules. I cannot give a comparable stepwise account of how consciousness arises from physical processes in the brain.

    Notice that Larry disagrees with you. He is saying, in effect, that there is H2O, but that there is no such thing as water!


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    1. I can give a stepwise account of how water emerges from molecules. I cannot give a comparable stepwise account of how consciousness arises from physical processes in the brain.

      I'm not talking about water. I'm talking about "wetness", which is something you brought up yourself. As I see it, wetness is to water as consciousness is to brain. And neither is any more nor less problematic for our understanding of the material universe than the other. The only differences are those categorized by Chalmers as parts of the "easy problem."

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  7. Larry, of course I know that you don't believe in God. Nor do I. My response was intended to be ironical. You know this perfectly well. It’s not that you think debating with me is a waste of time. It's that you have nothing to offer on this subject, and this is your easy way out. You won't even answer your own question: "What is consciousness?" You ask the question of others, but you won't answer it yourself. Moreover you tell me that unless I answer your three questions, then you can't have a "serious discussion" with me. When I answer your three questions, lo and behold, you STILL can't have a serious discussion with me! Why? Because qualia! So you move the goalposts. I ask why you say qualia do not exist. You have no answer. If you wanted to have a serious discussion with me, then you would first defend the extraordinary claim that there are no qualia. But you don’t. Instead you cherrypick an obviously ironical statement that I made and in so doing you blockade further discussion.

    You’ve answered none of my questions. You’ve defended none of your claims. You’ve engaged in no discussion at all beyond mere assertion. You’re free to do that — it’s your blog and your time — but don’t tell me that the reason we can’t have a “serious discussion” is because of me. It’s because of you. I’ve written nothing unreasonable or not well-thought out. I may be wrong. But you have not shown why I’m wrong. You choose to personally attack me rather than engage in debate.

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    1. I can't answer your question ("What is consciousness?") because I'm not sure there's really such a thing as consciousness. It could be an epiphenomenon or it could just be a sensation we have when our neurons fire to produce something we perceive as a thought.

      I'm not the one who is attributing some profound meaning to consciousness so I'm not obliged to define or defend it. That onus is on you.

      Your initial attempt to defend consciousness made an assumption about the existence of qualia. I've been there before. Qualia seem to be some pseudo-scientific things designed primarily to develop philosophical paradoxes that seem very profound. I used to enjoy those mind games when I was much younger but I don't have time for nonsense any more.

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  8. @lutesuite, I think your analogy is off. I think the proper analogy is, "water is to its underlying molecules, as mind is to its underlying physical brain states." My point is that we can provide a stepwise account of molecules to water, but not a comparable stepwise account of physical brain states to consciousness. As I noted earlier, I believe that it is possible to provide such an account; it is even likely to be true that there is such an account. But the account has not yet been provided. If you think there is such an account, go ahead and give it.

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    1. As I said, you yourself brought up "wetness", and I believe it is apt. The brain is also made up of molecules, so in this analogy brain = water. Consciousness, then equals wetness. Or are you suggesting that wetness does not exist?

      We actually know in quite extensive detail how the brain produces consciousness. You can research that on your own. "Qualia" remains a mystery to some, but to others it's just a cool story, so that issue needs to be settled first before we task neuroscientists with explaining the origin of something we don't even know exists.

      Just as a taste of how far our understanding of neuroscience has advanced, in case you missed it:

      https://www.newscientist.com/article/2133343-photos-of-human-faces-reassembled-from-monkeys-brain-signals/

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    2. "Wetness" is not really an extra property of water.

      Wetness is a property of human perception. It's the sensation we feel and interpret when something like water touches our skin. If we lacked that perception, as plants probably do, then water wouldn't be wet.

      There may be such things as emergent properties but that's a bad example.

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    3. Hmm. I'll have to think about that. While the "wetness" is a quality perceived by humans or other beings possessed of a nervous system, it is not purely a product of those beings' nervous systems, but requires the molecular structure of water as well. So maybe it would be best to say wetness emerges from the interaction of the two. If so, then, would there not be as strong an argument to say that the properties of water (such as wetness) do not arise from it's physical structure?

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    4. Actually, as I understand it, "wetness" is not perceived by humans. It's inferred based on temperature and pressure receptors. Of course we could now have a long discussion about what "perceived" means.

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    5. If so, then, would there not be as strong an argument to say that the properties of water (such as wetness) do not arise from it's physical structure?

      I'm hoping not to overcomplicate things. A property like color arises from the interaction of our sensory system, including the portion of the brain devoted to vision, with characteristics of light, i.e., frequency(ies). Same with the feeling of wetness - interaction between our senses and physical property(ies) of the object, not either/or.

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  9. I've spent years reading this blog, but i think I learned a good lesson today that i should have learned long ago: Don't meet your heroes!

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