Sunday, February 28, 2021

What is the Mind, what is Consciousness?


 

Introduction:
1. What is Consciousness? Nagel
2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology
3. The Hard problem of Consciousness
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
5. Zombies6. The Self
7. Free Will and Agency
8. Humanity’s Future

PART THREE: THE SELF, FREE WILL AND OUR FUTURE 

6. The Self
As I just mentioned, a discussion of consciousness also requires us to delve into the concepts of Self and Free Will or Agency.

In Chapter 4 (“The Nature of Consciousness”), Sam Harris and Thomas Metzinger discuss the Self. In a 700-page long book titled Being No One, Metzinger explains that there is no such thing as a “self.”

It is a common misconception to conflate self-consciousness and consciousness. Metzinger explains that the self is an illusion or a hallucination. It is the sense we all have “that there is a subject in our head, a thinker of thoughts, an experiencer of experience.... We have this robust misrepresentation of trans-temporal identity” (pp.170-171). There is no such thing as a self, any more than there is a soul. There is, in our brain, no thinker behind our thoughts.

How this sense of selfhood emerges is a question for another day. Metzinger mentions all sorts of factors at work in this regard, for example gut feelings, perceptions, heart beat, breath, etc. (p. 171). Also, this human “self-model” is a product of evolution” p179).

Harris notes that believing and experiencing the absence or dissolution of the self can be achieved via psychedelics, meditation, and other Buddhist practices. The two scholars contrast the Western and Eastern scientific and cultural perspectives regarding the self: The Western scientific approach is third-person empiricism that objectifies the world. The great Asian contribution is its first-person, subjective point of view (p. 179).

Furthermore, these two authors note that the Western self model contains some “nasty inventions, such as this (odd) sense of self-worth...” Certainly wiser cultural values are conceivable and desirable.
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Monday, February 15, 2021

What is the Mind, What is Consciousness?

 

Introduction: 
1. What is Consciousness? Nagel 
2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology 
3. The Hard problem of Consciousness 
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) 
5. Zombies 
6. The Self 
7. Free Will and Agency 
8. Humanity’s Future 

PAR TWO: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND ZOMBIES 

4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Consciousness Chapter 10 in Harris’ book “Complexity and Stupidity,” is an interview with David Krakauer, a mathematical biologist. Harris and his guest stress that intelligence must not be confused with consciousness. 
Humans have managed to build highly intelligent machines. However, throughout the book, Harris repeatedly warns against the potential danger of creating machines that are more intelligent than us, and then they get out of control - sort of a Frankenstein monster. 
In chapter two, titled “Finding Our Way,” where Harris interviews David Deutsch, the Oxford University quantum physicist, he expresses his misgivings about this possibility (misgivings which Deutsch does not share). 
For one thing, Harris argues, once machines become more intelligent than humans, they may take over even if they do not have consciousness. This might then be the end of consciousness. These future machines could be incredibly intelligent, they would be able to do just about everything, but without consciousness they would be zombies. “The lights would not be on.” They would not have experiences. 
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Saturday, February 13, 2021

What is the Mind, What is Consciousness?

by Tom Kando

 This three -part article is a “magnum opus.” I struggled writing it, and you will probably struggle reading it, but it is well worth it. 

Introduction: 1. What is Consciousness? Nagel 2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology 3. The Hard problem of Consciousness 4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) 
5. Zombies 
6. The Self 
7. Free Will and Agency 
8. Humanity’s Future 
PART ONE: WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS? 
I just read a fascinating book: Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity by Sam Harris (2020). 
 
Harris is a widely published neuroscientist and philosopher. In his podcast and this book, he interviews eleven eminent scientific experts. Most of the interviews are about consciousness, the mind, the self and morality. His guests are high-powered neuroscientists and philosophers (David Chalmers, Anil Seth, Thomas Metzinger and Robert Sapolsky), quantum and theoretical physicists (David Deutsch, Nick Bostrom, and Max Tegmark), and biological and behavioral scientists (Timothy Snyder, Glenn Loury, Daniel Kahneman and David Krakauer). The group includes Nobel laureates. All these people have rich interdisciplinary backgrounds and experiences. So you are in a select company when you read this book. 

The main themes of the book are: (1) What is consciousness, what is the mind, is there something unique about us humans? (2) Artificial Intelligence; (3) Morality, politics and history; (4) Humanity’s future; (5) Knowledge; (6) Racism and the criminal justice system. 
My focus in this article will be primarily on the first one of these topics. I want to share with you some of the fascinating insights provided by Harris and his luminary guests regarding Consciousness - with forays into topics #2 (Artificial Intelligence) and #4 (Humanity’s Future). . 
1. What is Consciousness? Nagel Harris’ first chapter is a conversation with David Chalmers, an Australian-born cognitive scientist/philosopher. It is titled “The Light of the Mind.” The central question which the two scholars address is: What is consciousness? They agree that the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous formulation is still the most “attractive.” Nagel first offered it in 1974 in a now widely quoted paper titled “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?”  Read more...

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

My Vaccine Adventure

By Madeleine Kando

I got my first Covid19 vaccine yesterday at Gilette Stadium in Foxboro, home of the New England Patriots. It is an enormous structure visible from the highway, long before the turn-off. Impressive as it is, Gilette is one of the smaller stadiums in the country. There are 30 of them, all ideal candidates to be converted into mass vaccination sites.

The huge parking lot was half empty that day, since it was after one of those Nor’easters that dump vast amounts of snow on New England. A gigantic electronic board showed which appointments were being admitted. Masked and with my appointment confirmation in hand, I was led to a booth where they checked my ID, gave me a fresh mask and asked me to answer a bunch of questions. I was told to follow a blue line to an escalator, at the top of which a nice uniformed and masked gentleman made sure I didn’t deviate from the footprints on the carpet. After a mere 5 minutes at a large ‘wait here’ sign, a vaccinator waved me over. Another brief ID verification, a short chit chat while I got unobtrusively jabbed in the shoulder and boom, done. 20 minutes total.

Outside, in the cold air, it struck me how much organizational skill is required to pull off such a mass vaccination effort. And this is just one location in one state in just one country. Who put the footmarks on the floor? Who placed the guard rails up? Who made the signs? Why this entrance and not another one? Is there a vaccination God somewhere that said ‘let there be vaccination sites: and there were vaccination sites’?

It’s easy for you to be impressed, I hear you say. You get first dibs. What about the rest of us? What about the slow roll-out, the lack of staff to get the vaccine into people’s arms? What about all the vaccine batches sitting on shelves going bad?

True, the US, the giant that it is, is slow to wake up, but once it had its first cup of coffee, it rapidly gains speed. As of this writing, 11% of Americans have been vaccinated. The EU is at 3.9%. Still, at this speed it will take a hell of a long time to get to herd immunity. So why not use every available large structure as a mass vaccination site? Why not use military barracks, large box stores, churches, airplane hangars and warehouse storage facilities? Gilette stadium could rev up its vaccination capacity 10 fold within weeks. Read more...

Monday, February 1, 2021

Confessions of a Grizzly Groupie

By Madeleine Kando

It all started with an innocent article about France’s efforts to repopulate the Pyrenees with brown bears. After the last female, Cannelle, was shot dead by hunters in 2004, an attempt was made to atone for hundreds of years of bear genocide. In 1994, the French authorities decided to introduce four female brown bears and a powerhouse of a male called Piros from Slovenia into the Pyrenees. This quickly resulted in many little bears, but since there was only one papa bear in the harem, there were concerns about inbreeding.

There was talk of catching Piros and snipping off the family jewels, but since Piros was already a geriatric bear, a new male was introduced in the area to create a more varied gene pool. This new bear’s name was Goiat, which means bachelor in Catalan.

All these efforts to bring back the rightful inhabitants of the Pyrenees didn’t go without a fight. The local sheep farmers didn’t see kindly to these large, furry immigrants that liked to eat their sheep for lunch, but there are now 50 bears in the Pyrenees, thanks mostly to Piros’ virility.

My fascination with bears didn’t end there, I am afraid. Since the closest I can get to anything resembling wildness in my daily life are the squirrels and rabbits in my backyard, I got completely addicted to watching the largest carnivore in the northern hemisphere amble across my screen at the touch of a key. We do have black bears here in New England, but they look like pretend bears compared to ‘ursus arctos horribilis’, which is the real name for brown bears a.k.a. grizzlies.

Instead of spending my time mopping the floor or cleaning the toilet, I have turned in to a virtual grizzly groupie. It actually goes beyond voyeurism. I am learning that for many large carnivores, the only thing that will save them from extinction is our willingness to share our space with them. We took most of what was theirs from them, basically telling them that their life is not worth living. Now it is our responsibility to become their stewards.

The bear was once considered the king of the animal world. It was and still is the largest and strongest animal in Europe and was feared to the point where even his real name ‘Arctos’ became taboo. If you mention the "true" name of a ferocious animal, you are likely to call it forth. So, they called it ‘the brown one’. (Norse ‘björn’, Dutch ‘beer’, German ‘Bär’). The original word completely disappeared from our language. This kind of linguistic tour de force is called ‘taboo deformation’.**

In its effort to combat paganism, the Catholic Church began demonizing the bear. It portrayed it as an oversexed animal and turned it into a symbol for gluttony, anger and lust (Ursus Diabolus). This most feared and respected creature of the wild, emblazoned on coats of arms and emulated by warriors and kings, was used for entertainment at town fairs, chained and muzzled. It was made to ‘dance’ over burning ambers, torn to shreds by dogs in ‘bear baiting’ and underwent its final transformation as A.A. Milne's lovable idiot, Winnie the Pooh, a bear so dumb, that it needs to be set straight by a donkey. (See: The History of a Fallen King)

Bears have been on our planet for around 33 million years. They had a great time until we came on the scene, about 7 million years ago. Here in North America, Grizzlies once lived across much of West, until the Europeans arrived and soon shot and killed most of them. In the past 100 years, 91 humans have been killed by grizzlies and more than 200,000 grizzly bears have been killed by man. There are now approximately 200,000 bears worldwide, most of them in Russia.

On my groupie adventure, I met several fascinating ‘naturalists’, who have dedicated their life to learn about bears by living in the wild. I call them bear whisperers. Some are well known, like Timothy Treadwell, made famous by film maker Werner Herzog in his ‘Grizzly Man’. With its tragic and gruesome ending, Timothy’s story has added to the perception that grizzly’s are ferocious, dangerous and unpredictable creatures.*

But there are others who show another side of these magnificent creatures. My favorite and most admirable bear whisperer is Charlie Russell. He lived amongst bears for 30 years on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, about as far east and as close to Alaska as you can get. The beauty of the scenery in the Documentary The Bear Man of Kamchatka is breath taking and so is the footage of the furry brown subjects.

Charlie, who died recently, was not only a bear whisperer, he was also a surrogate mama bear. He rehabilitated many orphaned cubs over the years, teaching them how to fish, how to find the right plants to eat and protected them from predator males who are known to kill cubs. If you have some spare time, I highly recommend you watch The Bear Man of Kamchatka,


in which you see Charlie stand between the cubs and an enormous alpha bear. Armed with a camera, his voice and a pepper spray (which he only uses at the very last minute), he convinces the male to move out of the way.
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