Tales from Both Sides

Mentioned last month I was planning to read some Michael Gazzaniga, but struggling to decide where to start. Rather than his latest, I obtained second-hand two earlier works:

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”

I actually started the latter first, imagining the “who” was which side of the brain (a la Iain McGilchrist) but it fact its more generally about the I of me and my free-will. I didn’t immediately get the feeling he had much new to say from the philosophical side on the mind-brain problem, so I put it down and picked-up the other. (Though I did get the impression he sees free-will as real and is at least a compatibilist when it comes to scientific determinism.)

I’m well into Tales from Both Sides, practically half-way and it is an excellent read, so much so that, whatever, I will return to his earlier work on free-will.

As expected, as an autobiography, Tales is very good on the politics of science as well as the particular content of split-brain and  naturally asymmetric brain defects and lesions.

The latter is well documented as supporting the one-brain / two-minds short-hand, and the relationship between these, elaborated on most recently by McGilchrist.

Also especially interesting is the “cueing” – how not only the one-half of the brain passes cues to the other-half, but how subtle somatic and propriocentric movements, feelings and senses contribute to that cueing. Without saying so in so many words, so far, there is also the strong sense of “gaming” going on as different physical parts contribute to the integrated mind as parts of mind work out their response strategies to imperfect inputs. With the perspective of hindsight – like all good science – none of this looks in the least surprising – already common sense. But of course the book is about the journey building on earlier misconceptions about the linearity of mechanisms. (Getting the feeling cueing may be a major part of the second half of the book.)

Damasio is an erstwhile collaborator that gets mentioned – and he was my main previous source of the somatic & propriocentric content. Dennett too is mentioned as a long-standing friend from earlier encounters. Again, questions of where each cross-reference the other become interesting. Sperry is mentioned by everyone of course, and took the credit for the Nobel prize from his team, including Gazzaniga. As I say, the politics is as interesting as the content when it comes to science.

Reading on.

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. There 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.

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[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.

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[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. I posted this follow-up to articulate this after thought.]

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 Gefter in Quanta on “How to Understand the Universe When You’re Stuck Inside of It” – Review of Smolin’s latest. [Since reviewed here.]

Enforcement is Central to the Evolution of Cooperation” paper in Nature.
(Conservatism?)

 

“Cosmicity”

I’m coining a new word for the abstract noun “humanity” but with a definition simply broadened to the whole environment with humans as a part. Cosmicity – concern for and on behalf of the whole and every part of the whole.

Places humans in it in our rightful place but without any artificial privilege in the term. Satisfies the latest fashion in green politics for eco-sustainability (even though it has always been the point of human activity).

Could call it “god” in the sense of being that most sacred to us along with the humility that despite being natural, we have our necessarily limited perspective in understanding the whole. And could call it “religion” in the original sense that it can be the thing which binds us culturally. That doesn’t suggest anything supernatural. It needn’t suggest anything ideological according to any existing rules written in tablets of stone or non-secular in how we organise ourselves naturally. “Our” rules and arrangements evolve as does our understanding of natural laws beyond humans.

How hard can it be? I believe in cosmicity.

Thoughts prompted by Liz Oldfield thread re Martin Buber, itself as a response to thoughts prompted by Julian Baggini: [Thread]

“if you hallow this life you meet the living God”

If you hold the living cosmos sacred you’ve done all you can and in doing so you experience (meet) the subjective knowledge that you can never objectively know the whole – maybe.

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[Post Note: Having coined the term, I realise it may just be a restatement of Spinoza’s sub specie aeternitatus ?]