Human Brain Project Dies

I’ve been sceptical since I first heard of the project, indeed considered it laughable that anyone would seriously set out to build or replicate a human brain on any human timescale. Of course ten years on the project has failed.

And that’s not because I don’t believe the brain is a computer. It is.

It’s just a very specially evolved one. Indeed all evolution from physics to sentient and intelligent life is computation. And whilst the machine metaphor is grossly misleading in terms of what a computer – a Turing machine – can be, it is nevertheless digital, fundamentally operating on information bit by bit.

But it does so in many layers upon layers that have evolved over multi-generational evolutionary timescales. Life needs to evolve before sentience, before self-awareness, before higher intelligence.

Like all the big sexy (expensive) projects that need support for public funding – particle colliders anyone? – they’re 99% politics and memetics, 1% credible science. Criminal.

Simplistic, easy to believe, but basically crap.

Inside Out Appearances?

Although Lee Smolin (realism) and Bernardo Kastrup (idealism) have quite different views of the cosmos, so much so that I’m pretty sure they’d reject each other outright, they share a common view of the problem they’re solving.

I’ve been struck by several parallels in the last couple of years, but was particularly impressed with Amanda Gefter’s summary of Smolin in the tag line of her review in Quanta Magazine.

How to Understand the Universe
When You’re Stuck Inside of It

How do you understand an object
with no exterior?

Imagine it built bit-by-bit
from relationships between events?

That’s very much my summary of Smolin too.

Both talk about the reality of everything being an inside view, their is no view from outside the mind of a knower or from outside the known universe. The internal-reality <> outward-appearances dilemma must always be resolved from the inside. The inside is the whole of reality.

For Smolin, the “atoms” are events and everything else evolves from these relationships and patterns of relationships. The event points are themselves defined by the extended “view” of the relationship network from “here” – the points have no intrinsic properties, dimensions or composition. Time and causation are precedence dependency relationships. Laws are meta-patterns of relationship patterns, the physical and psychical are simply more evolved patterns. Smolin is a realist in the sense that this is what’s real. Physical properties and laws are something evolved. The distinction between physical and psychical stuff he “tiptoes around” for now, he’s concerned with the more fundamentally real.

Kastrup calls these views or identifiable, bounded, networked collections (graphs), “alters” and calls all such patterns “mind” (implicitly knowing) rather than simply information (knowable). His conclusion is panpsychism (or idealism he would say). For me his choice of “mind” is wordplay to emphasise the non-physical, to not give the physical any privilege. He calls realism “baloney”but when he does so, he’s referring to a physical realism.

The physical and the psychical are both real, but neither are fundamental. The resolution is that all beable and knowable are the same fundamental stuff – information, atomically bit by bit. The conceivable and the possible are the same (Deutsch & Marletto).

It can’t be long before this is accepted science and metaphysics? It all seems so blindingly obvious – and very old.

Written Constitution as Rules for Guidance of the Wise?

I’ve been pretty clear that I’m against a written constitution and for greater emphasis on building trust in our politicians, political systems and institutions. (Sumption explained at length his recommendation against.)

Listening to Rory Stewart interviewed last night, he makes precisely the opposite recommendation – that we should be concerned about lost trust and should look to a written constitution to protect ourselves. I should say I’m am big fan of his practical wisdom and the fact that he is single-handedly raising the bar on common sense, trust and decency, so I’m interested in this difference of opinion.

[Aside: Some great stuff in there on the rhetorical value of less than objective truth. Also love his stick-and-string bow-and-arrow metaphor to explain middle-ground politics. See also – Smaller parliament (both houses), more local / specific people’s assemblies, attention, engagement, fatuous “foreign” promises based on little real local knowledge or skin in the game, etc ….]

Perhaps I should restate my problem with a written constitution and recommendations of how to address the trust issue.

Initially I’ll digress to the Labour Party and it’s recent “educational” materials on how members and staff should recognise and avoid anti-semitic racism. It is truly excellent that this move acknowledges the problem and the need to address it – admits existing / previous error – BUT I’m terrified it will be massaged and interpreted to become a set of rules of linguistic behaviour, and will therefore be gamed by those with inherent racist motives. (Look at the ancient BBC Radio example on offensive language to see the absurdity.)

My position here is that less is more. Rules should be framed as guidance of the wise (rather than the enslavement of fools). A few high-level principles, a few key do’s and don’ts and existential rules for institutions and roles, but any attempt to legislate entirely objectively for every eventuality, is doomed to failure, and gaming exceptions will simply become the norm. Even with rules, we need trust in wise interpretation by those with our skin in the game. We must give and receive, create and conserve, trust too.

[Rhetorical Rules of Engagement.]

“Where are the strong?
And, who are the trusted?
What’s so funny ’bout
Peace, love and understanding.”


Invoking Godwin’s Law Too Soon? Maybe.

Last week, on BBC This Week, Jonathan Powell ex PM Blair’s Chief of Staff did the round up of the week (intro from about 7 mins in) and was thoroughly bludgeoned for his efforts by Andrew Neil in his own inimitable and entirely effective way.

Several people re-tweeted Neil’s performance approvingly. I’m a big fan. He is by far the best political interviewer we have in the UK, always thoroughly prepared, unbiased in his targeting, and skilled at the critical questioning and the unflinching, holding-to-account style of interview.

In this particular case, I’m not sure it’s what the response to the round-up really needed. Powell’s was a warning about the potential impending rise of fascism. Sure, as Neil pointed out he didn’t have actual examples of actual fascism in actual political positions in UK politics, and certainly not in the sense of actual Nazism deeds in practice. To suggest so would be to demean the real suffering of those 20th century examples. Neil used Godwin’s Law at the outset in fact, to point out the absurdity of jumping to comparisons with Hitler, too soon, too casually.

Sadly Powell didn’t immediately defend his actual warning effectively. He clearly wasn’t prepared for being thoroughly “roughed-up”. In Brexit and Leadership, Labour and Conservative, pro and con examples, the rhetoric of individuals and party responses are starting to parallel the simplistic populism and mealy-mouthed denials of inappropriate language we’re seeing even more starkly the other side of the Atlantic. These are very relevant warnings. Especially at a time, as Neil’s introduction made clear, our democratic institutions appear to be floundering,  the warning and the need for an active response against the populist and demagogic language. Even if comparing individuals and situations to Hitler and Stalin are fatuous. Even if laying the misguided blame at our unwritten constitution. Who is the Hitler figure? We’ll only know that with hindsight.

Particularly scary given Neil’s demolition of Powell was #Choochoo’s dismissive “It’ll never happen here” commentary. As Powell said, the danger is complacency. Sure we have to be optimistic at our ability to respond, but to do that we have to face the issue.

To be fair, listening a second time, there is a good deal of intelligent dialogue after the piece, and the issues are fairly covered in the time available. Hard to shake off the impression for the Twitter sound-bite generation that Powell’s warning was demolished by Neil (?)The warning remains there to be heeded and responses agreed.


[Post Notes. First item in today’s Politics Live with Andrew Neil, Trump and the latest “send her back” #4Squad #SolidarityWoC story. Agreement that it’s base, nasty, ugly, racist politics, designed to divide approvingly and appeal only to populist core, not that far off here in the UK. To be condemned by all.]

By comparison:

[Several others posting the Colin Powell interview as another exemplar of high profile politician addressing casual racism happening on his watch.]

Embedded video

And to bring it back to the current UK (Conservative Leadership) topic, Neil does a great job nailing a Boris aide over the not-UK-and-non-EU Manx fish troubled by the not-EU-but-UK trading rules, with which Boris doubly self-owned in his final hustings speech for the sake of a “kipper” gag. Shameless. (In the last few minutes of the Politics Live linked above. Brexit is based entirely on shameless lies about the EU, where Boris has taken a professional rhetorical interest for decades of media entertainment – but all shameless lies non-the-less, his stock-in trade, for laughs.

Talking of shameless lies. It’s the (lack of) shame, not the (lack of) facts that is the problem. Interesting piece also on BBC R4 this morning. Mariella Frostrup conducting a debate with experts about children’s education about (not) lying. Mariella more enlightened than most of the naive experts (bar one) in my view. Same as “truth” in more fundamental / abstract metaphysical circles, it’s ultimately about virtues (like Trustworthiness) not about factual objectivity. Even kids learn the value in factual lies with a rhetorical purpose, and a more enlightened idea than being shamed into some logical absolutism that “it’s wrong to lie”. The latter would suggest the answer to our problem is somehow controlling “fact-checking” when nothing could be further from the reality of virtue. Virtuous reality is more real and true than objective reality.]

Kastrup’s Mind & Body Revisited

From the Horgan / Katstrup “Meaning of Life” TV podcast, this is Katsrup’s elevator pitch, or breakfast TV interview response, to the request to explain his thesis in one minute:

(1) There isn’t really a mind-body problem and the hard problem of consciousness doesn’t exist. The problem is we corner ourselves in a impossible situation conceptually. The problem(s) exists only conceptually in our intellect.

(2) The origin of the problem is when we conceptualise the ontological category we call matter (body) which is supposed to be outside and independent of mind (consciousness). Matter is an explanatory abstraction of mind. We postulate it to explain the regularities of experience. The fact that I can change the universe by an act of volition. The fact that “we” seem to be separate minds inhabiting the same planet – we come up with this explanatory abstraction in mind as an attempt to reduce mind to an abstraction of mind. This cannot work, we are chasing our tails.

(3) What nature is telling us is that from the inside I experience who I am, what it’s like to be me. From the outside that thing that I am looks like a body. So, what we call a body is the extrinsic appearance of our conscious inner experience, and since my body is made of matter, I think that all matter is the outer appearance of inner experience.This doesn’t mean my inanimate (mobile phone) object is conscious in and of itself. The inanimate universe as a whole IS conscious and every living (sentient?) being is conscious. Living beings are disassociated complexes, disassociated outers of the universal mind. So, then there is only mind …

(4) … there is no “hard problem” of consciousness and there is no combinatorial problem of panpsychism … because (3) [the stuff of] consciousness is fundamentally unitary to begin with.

(1), (2) and (4) I agree with.
(3) I don’t, as I said when I reviewed the book.

Let’s unpick what I find wrong with (3). Basically two things.

Firstly, he is clearer that inanimate objects are not conscious in and of themselves, but that “living” things are. This places emphasis on life rather than sentience? This seems arbitrary and leaves some definitional questions?  In  the book he elaborates at length on independent alters – identifiable patterns of alterity, of inner experience. Here he’s distinguishing between those that are and are not conscious of their inner experience using life rather than sentience? The idea of unconscious inner experience sounds more like Smolin’s “views” from “here”.

Secondly, if the universe is conscious and living things are conscious, we seem to be using consciousness if different ways? And it seems the difference depends on the arbitrary boundaries we call self, that is me and not me? There are many “things” with nested and overlapping “outer” boundaries. Ontologies are arbitrary, but pragmatic.

[Aside – as well as the pan-psychic combinatorial problem he is using the hard problem two-ways – the subjective view of the inner experience and outer appearance – and the problem of how consciousness can interact with the outers in ways that are volitional and affecting physical outcomes.]

I still think he is missing a basic trick. That the fundamental patterns – the inner experience of objects – need not be consciousness, not being conscious of that knowledge, but the knowledge itself – the knowable pattern  of information that makes up me, the independent alter, the object. (Smolin’s beable views [and beable is so close to Deutsch / Marletto]).

And given this one additional conceptual slip, we are free to see consciousness itself in the aware, knowing sense as an evolved property from inanimate to living, sentient and highly evolved intelligence. An evolved property of information patterns, just like the material “model” (ie physics) is a conceived and  evolved pattern of information.

As I said in my earlier review if he’s using the word conscious – That Which Experiences – without awareness of that experience, it seems like word-play. I call those information patterns.


[Post Note: I keep forgetting that this early post on the disagreement between Kastrup and Pigliucci resulted in a very interesting discussion thread, with several older sources to follow-up.]

[Post Note: Also, Katsrup’s “chasing our tails” problem of self-reference, whereby psychological understanding of physical (and psychological) is necessarily flawed or incomplete, put me in mind of Smolin’s point about understanding the universe from the inside, whilst being part of, the universe. Particularly like this terse summary:

Imagine [the universe] built bit-by-bit
from relationships between events.

It’s where I’ve been for two decades now.]

Playlist of listening & reading

Stocking up a few links I need to follow up:

This letter-based “friendly disagreement”  between Massimo Pigliucci and David Sloan (DS) Wilson on group / individual, bio / cultural evolution. I am more with the latter on a first skim, but I need to read more thoroughly.

This video interview of Bernardo Kastrup by John Horgan. I was ultimately not convinced by Kastrup’s Idealism, but Horgan is usually pretty good at getting into what his subjects subjects are.
[Viewed this one, and reported here: “Kastrup’s Mind & Body Revisited”]

This Guardian review by Philip Ball of Angela Saini’s latest. I get why it’s such a dangerous topic, but the dismissal of “race science” as meaningless always seems such a PC / orthodox science cop-out for not being as simple as most people would once have had it.

Terry Eagleton “Taking Humour Seriously” from IAI / HTLGI
(also Samira Ahmed / David Baddiel interview?)

Rachel Suggs in Quanta on Symmetry in physics after Emmy Noether.
Strange? Several different quanta versions of this. This one by KC Cole. This one by Natalie Wolchover.

Amanda Getter in Quanta on “How to Understand the Universe When You’re Stuck Inside of It” – Review of Smolin’s latest.

Enforcement is Central to the Evolution of Cooperation” paper in Nature.


Serious Research?

Mentioned a couple of posts ago I was planning to read some Michael Gazzaniga after reading a couple of reviews that rang bells because he was one of the contributors to Iain McGilchrist’s Divided Brain film.

Wasn’t sure if I was ordering the right Gazzaniga book in his latest, so I’ve been digging. Basically, I wasn’t sure of he was worth reading from the philosophy of mind perspective, even though he’s clearly an eminent cognitive / brain / neuroscientist, philosophy being harder than either brain-surgery or rocket-science. There was already the suggestion in one of the reviews he was a more practical kind than one for abstractions. He’s written quite a few books in fact, as well of course, as many papers in the course of his scientific life. This from the front of his 2015 autobiography / memoir “Tales from Both Sides of the Brain”:

Still not sure, in fact, which to read. The autobiography already seems to cover much good ground – on brain and mind, on left and right brains – do I really want to read a later book by him on “Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind“? However, the earlier book being biographical, it also covers much of the politics of science. The latter being the main problem in most cutting edge science and/or philosophy as people protect convenient orthodoxies whilst promoting their own book sales under their pet “unraveling the mysteries of x” banner. Cynical, moi? Book sales confirm the basic memetic rule, they rarely equate to the quality of the content, more the fit with “what sells”.

Anyway, I digress. No sign of this with Gazzaniga yet, I haven’t actually read any other than the sub-title of his latest. Is that him or his publisher’s PR cashing-in?

Decisions, decisions.

Anyway, whilst deliberating, I went back to McGilchrist’s original book “The Master and his Emissary”. I’m always telling people that as well as being a convincing read on an unfashionable (ie non-PC) topic for a lay audience, it is based on decades of proper scientific research. Now, I’m the last to use numbers to support an argument (see memetics above) but I checked to see that McGilchrists book has 67 pages of bibliography on top of 55 pages of end-notes. Gazzaniga has 3 solo and 2 joint authored entries. That’s 5 amongst some 4000 individual references, only one of which is a book, the rest papers. I recall at the time being impressed with how well referenced Master and Emissary was, but I probably only skimmed the index looking for familiar sources, after reading the main text. Gazzaniga wasn’t familiar then. (No sign of Gazzaniga in Dennett so far as I can see, no reference in B2BnB for example.)

So is it

2017 – “The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind”

2015 – “Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience”

2011 – “Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain”

That earliest title has the Master & Emissary allusion already in “who’s in charge?” and it dives straight into the instrumental reality of free-will. Blimey, I fancy all three.

No Possibility is Inconceivable

Been distracted by other housekeeping tasks for several days but reacted to this on Twitter last week, and now bring it forward here:

As a fan and regular attender at the IAI’s “How The Light Gets In” festivals, I’ve met and talked with Chiara Marletto, but I’m not sure if this course and outline of Constructor Theory is from May this year or from a couple of years ago. However the summary reflects exactly what I’ve picked-up along he way, especially Deutsch’s original focus on the conceivable (*) in my more recent fundamental information-based metaphysics.

“… information, they say, is missing in the modern conception of science, but it is essential to a proper understanding of our universe and the laws of nature … and … the benefits of understanding physics in terms of the possible and the impossible … [the need for] information needs to be a part of the laws of physics …

The Limits of Possibility – Is information fundamental to reality? How do bits, evolution and life fit with the laws of fundamental physics?”

Reconstructing Reality – How does abstract information take hold of the physical world?

This is exactly the point I was making in an epistemological ontology in the Huw Price piece. It’s not a matter of taking an epistemological or an ontological view, it’s a matter of ensuring knowledge is part of your ontology of the real world modelled by physics – a very fundamental part it turns out.

(*) (2005) “Didn’t I also recall something in both Chalmers and Deutsch (quite separate work in separate fields) about nothing being possible in a “virtual” world that wasn’t also possible (ie didn’t violate fundamental physics / metaphysics) in the real world ? As if impossible and inconceivable were really the same thing. Am I digressing ?”

Seems I wasn’t.

No possibility is inconceivable.
Fundamental reality is conceivable possibility.
Nothing in physics without information – the knowable.