## Main Blog Page

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## Thoughts on Probability

May 6th, 2013

Matt Briggs is discusing Subjective Versus Objective Bayes Versus Frequentism.But he clearly has a preference and I am reluctant to accept without question the labeling and characterization of a position by one who does not hold it. Apparently, the objectivist (at least as represented by Briggs) does not claim the existence of a unique consistent assignment of probabilities to all propositions. Perhaps the freedom claimed by a subjectivist does not really include assigning arbitrary values to the probability of a specific event about which we have a body of relevant information to consider. It may only be to set some assumed underlying (prior?) probabilities within a range of possibilities that can be shown not to significantly affect the conditional probabilities that are deduced from an extended sequence of observations. (Nothing to do with statsig here, just the idea of a limit). Similarly the frequentist may not be constrained to imagine the repetition of a specific event over time, but rather the (Gibbs?) ensemble of possible scenarios consistent with some agreed on collection of past observations (cf Briggs’ “official” premises). Are these really all that different?

At the same time, John Carlos Baez has posted on Probability Theory and the Undefinability of Truth
A much more limited goal than that of assigning objective probabilities to all propositions is that of doing so just for the subset of propositions that make arithmetic statements.

The possibility of making a self-consistent assignment of probabilities to arithmetic propositions has apparently been recently established (by Christiano, Yudkowsky, Herreshoff and Mihaly in a preprint at http://intelligence.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Christiano-et-al-Naturalistic-reflection-early-draft.pdf).But it also appears that there may in fact be many such assignments.

How would such non-uniqueness get reconciled with the idea of objective Bayesian probability?

## Learning Theory Revisited

April 29th, 2013

Jenny Mackness has an interesting report on the Learning Theory component of the recently concluded Pedagogy First programme (an online course to learn how to teach online).

## Why Should I Write ?

April 28th, 2013

I kind of share Stephen Downes’ response to Why You Should Write Daily : zenhabits.

I don’t know that everyone “should” do it, but I do think that formulating and expressing opinions regularly (on topics that may not be part of one’s working life) is a useful exercise for most of us. Not having an audience, I don’t really have the option to persuade anyone, so for me it’s more about clarification and reinforcement of my own thoughts and ideas – and protection against the fear that I will forget them.

## Introduction to Mathematical Thinking

April 28th, 2013

Prompted I think by Downes, I decided to look into Keith Devlin’s MOOC on Introduction to Mathematical Thinking.

It was nice to see some acknowledgement of the origin of the ‘MOOC’ term with Downes and Siemens, but not so much to see that brief acknowledgement followed by a claim that a concept only attains respectability when adopted by the likes of Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.

I will be interested in seeing how the peer evaluation system works out and in the effectiveness of the discussion forum software. Unfortunately I joined the course too late to really check out the latter although it does seem to have facilitated a number of effective collaborative learning groups.

I do have some comments with regard to the actual course content:
…more »

## pro-life lefty learns about the internet

April 25th, 2013

Mehdi Hassan’s claim that “being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty“ is plausible enough, but his attempt to make the case on Twitter (of all places!) was certainly misguided, and while some of the lessons he has learned are good ones his descriptions of others demonstrate the opposite of what he should have learned[1]. I won’t respond (beyond that extensive footnote) to the fact that his argument is less “reasoned and measured”  than he claims as that has already been done, but rather will boringly restrict myself to the technical issue itself.

## Dr Jekyl retracts

April 24th, 2013

This is actually a pretty smarmy retraction by Dr Jeckyl Dawkins of an honest but nasty tweet by Mr Hyde Dick.

Mr Dick tweeted (perhaps in response to a recent re-tweet reminding him of his frustration at a three month old exchange) that “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.” And in response to the predictable (but in my opinion unreasonable) blowback, Dr Dawkins claims that Mr Dick’s “ill judged words” were just “a rather confused mixture of the following three – admittedly not wholly compatible – spellings-out:”

• Isn’t it an odd paradox that a journalist good enough to be employed by no less a journal than New Statesman is capable of simultaneously holding a belief at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies?
• Given that he believes something at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies, is it possible that I’ve over-estimated Mehdi Hasan? Could it be that he’s not such a good journalist as I had thought?
• Conversely, it seems so odd that a good and intelligent journalist should believe obvious nonsense, that I can’t help wondering whether he really does believe it, or whether he only pretends to out of loyalty to a loved tradition.

But let’s see now. It’s no denial of free speech to argue that anyone with experience of the modern world who claims to believe the literal truth of a story about flying around on a winged “horse” (or for that matter about the virgin birth of a male child) is either lying or nuts, and that allowing such a person to express their views does not extend to giving them a platform in a magazine that people rely on for accurate information and analysis. Yes, such a person may have well-founded views on many issues and may be capable of opening my eyes to issues I had overlooked, but I cannot avoid the fact that he is also capable of believing complete nonsense and so his judgement is not to be fully “trusted” (not that anyone ever should be fully trusted of course, but there are different levels of trustability required in different contexts and being published regularly in a major magazine is one of the more demanding I think). Perhaps Hasan has merits which override his evident credulity and it would have been fine for the nice Dr Dawkins to identify such. But the fawning over-compensation with which he does so turns my stomach a bit.

On the other hand he ends well with:

There is a distinction between the Doyle/Dowding belief in fairies and Hasan’s belief in a winged horse. Hasan’s absurdity stems from a major religious creed and is for this reason treated with an over-generous portion of respect. Doyle’s belief in fairies was an individual eccentricity, fit only for mirth. People would blithely write off Doyle among the fairies as a comic nutter while agreeing that he was a very good storyteller; or laugh behind Dowding’s back while agreeing that he was handy with an Air Force. But if you describe a religious believer as a nutter because he believes in a winged horse (or a follower of another tradition because he believes water miraculously turned into wine) you will be in for trouble.

It was an additional intention of my tweet (spelled out in subsequent ones) to emphasise, yet again, this remarkably widespread double standard. It is a double standard that is applied, with peculiar vitriol, by some who call themselves atheists but bend over backwards to “accommodate” religious faith. If you were to suggest that Conan Doyle was a gullible fool among the Cottingley Fairies, I doubt that anyone would call you a “vile racist bigot”; or say to you, as a British Member of Parliament tweeted to me,  “You really are a gratuitously unpleasant man.” The difference, of course, is that Doyle’s ridiculous belief was not protected by the shield of religious privilege. And perhaps that is the most important take-home message of this whole affair.

## Sustainable Economy Panel of Provincial Election Candidates

April 23rd, 2013

Two thoughts

1. The NDP’s Shane Simpson (called in at the last minute to replace Matt Toner) was sitting between Andrew Wilkinson representing the Liberal party which implemented BC’s carbon tax and the Conservative Duane Nickull who denied that it has been effective in reducing emissions and also echoed much of what the NDP said when campaigning it in 2005. But Simpson never took the opportunity to use Nickull’s arguments to support and explain the NDP’s 2005 position as not against the principle but just the specific implementation of the tax – eg by saying something like “Yes it is unfair and ineffective as the Liberals have implemented it, but once we are in office we can fix it and here’s how…”

2. Wilkinson’s argument that extending the tax to cover big industrial process emitters would just drive those industries out of the province without reducing emissions as we’d still have to get our cement from somewhere could be answered by taxing all products on the basis of emissions resulting from their production. This may be the only real way to make such a tax effective but would require more accounting to record the emissions from each stage of production. That’s something which looks a bit like the incremental accounting of a value added tax such as the federal GST and so argues for doing something similar with the PST to create what might be called a ‘Harmonized Sales and Carbon Tax’.  But perhaps we should call it something else…

## Environmentalism Behind Unabomber Rampage

April 23rd, 2013

In his latest post at Discover, Keith Kloor responds to Jerry Coyne’s tweeted blog post headline “Islam Apparently behind Boston bombing” with the complaint that it is an “Islamophobic” response of  ”intolerant atheists” who “apparently would blame environmentalism for Ted Kaczynski”. He has a point of course in that the headline is potentially misleading and may encourage unfair prejudice against Moslems in general, but that is not the only way to read it.

The headline “Environmentalism Behind Unabomber Rampage” may also be misleading, but both are within the bounds of current journalistic practice (which arguably do go well outside the bounds of common decency).

There is indeed a sense in which both are quite accurate.  Namely that (presumably invalid) arguments based on (possibly invalid) concerns about the environment (or Islam) lay behind the actions of Kaczynski (or the Tsarnaevs).

Both of course unfairly encourage the alternate more sensational interpretations that an entire movement (be it Environmentalism or Islam) stands behind the nefarious actions of the deluded. But, hey, that’s how we sell papers (and build blog readership)!

With regard to Islam right now I think there are at least two points worth making.

First I have to admit that, despite the appeal some aspects of it have for me including the existence of many peaceful teachings and of adherents who live by those, there is no doubt in my mind that the pro-violence teachings of Islam do exceed those of Christianity and Buddhism (which are still quite plenty enough to provide extremists of even the most peace-loving faiths with excuses for lots of horrific violence).

And secondly, as alluded to in my previous post, it is the excuse of the moment for those who want something to kill and die for. It is not just the religious who find it difficult to properly condemn those who use violence in support of a cause we support, but right now it is indeed Muslims who are most called upon to meet that challenge. And we should be thankful for those who are doing so.

## Yes, But..

April 22nd, 2013

Olivier Roy has been a consultant to the French Foreign Ministry and United Nations, is currently a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, and noted early that al Qaeda was drawing many of its recruits from Western Europe rather than from Saudi Arabia or Palestine or Pakistan. And he is probably right that the motives of people like the Tsarnaevs and Nidal Malik Hasan are less religious than personal. But when he tells New Republic that “They may have gone to mosques, but they were never an integral part of a congregation, they have no real life, social life. Their social life is through the Internet,” he misleads us in two important ways.

One is by overlooking the fact that the use of mass violence and terrorism by relatively isolated people and groups long predates the internet.

And although they may not have been “an integral part” of the congregation of a mainstream mosque, it is not true that the members and imams of mainstream who want to help prevent such things “can’t comply because they guys are not part of these communities (so) they have no access to these guys.” They may not have direct access to the perps themselves, but they certainly have the capacity to more effectively denounce the preachers whose ravings sustain and drive them on.

And we should not forget the cases where mainstream Muslims can and do detect and deflect those who may be on the path to violence.

## The Enemy of My Enemy

April 20th, 2013

This discussion in USA Today seems to me more on the mark than earlier speculation that the Chechen connection might make it more difficult to reach consensus on Syria.

## Facing Horror with Humour

April 20th, 2013

I’m sorry, but even though it’s tasteless, disgusting and anti-science I actually find it funny. (And I don’t even feel too guilty about laughing because it doesn’t really belittle the tragedy.)

## Quivering the Arrow and Missing the Point

April 19th, 2013

Part of the appeal of the flaneur is his seediness. The worn but well-starched collar,  the thinning elbows and slightly threadbare lapels of his clean and well-pressed suit, and the carefully polished shine on his ancient shoes. All these speak of a genuine love of style in one who has lost (or never had) the resources to support it.

But the lovable flaneur should not be confused with the charlatan that he becomes when he asks you to invest your intellectual capital.

Raymond Tallis’s Reflections of a Metaphysical Flaneur  may turn out to be charming, but I’m afraid that his recent foray into physics smells more of the charlatan.

I quivered with anticipation of being drawn into the issue of time, but when the bow was released I found that Tallis’s talk of “Missing the Point” is itself quite off the mark. The argument that time-symmetric physical laws cannot in principle produce time-asymmetric consequences is countered by the existence of broken symmetry in many familiar physical contexts (such as the formation of magnetic crystals for example), so even if the arguments provided so far for broken symmetry in time “fail to deliver” (in Tallis’ attribution to Huw Price) that does not mean that no such argument is possible. And when Tallis says “finding directionality in time requires us to establish in advance that states of the universe are ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ before we could notice that, say, the universe has a temporal trend” then he is subject to a more valid accusation of point-missing than the one he presents. The point is that finding directionality does not actually require finding direction. Although asymmetry does not specify a specific sense of direction it does provide an axis of directionality with the identification of which is “forward” and which is back being just a matter of convention.

Tallis’s ponderings on the flow analogy are less offensive because they remain in the realm of flaneury and make no real demand for acceptance. That the various versions and uses of that analogy are certainly mutually and often internally inconsistent does not preclude the existence of  consistent versions – but he is right that talk of our moving *with* time is one of the weaker versions. Whether we are dragged forward towards the future through a sea of time or cling to a present past which it flows (from future to past as in the sense of “tomorrow is coming”) is just a matter of choosing one of two relativistically equivalent points of view.  Similarly with the river of time flowing by us on the ever present shore of now, or alternatively our being carried forward floating on the river of now past the shores of time, are both ok.  He’s right though when it comes to describing us as ourselves floating on the moving river of time – which does seem to be a less felicitous version from the physical correctness point of view (but whether or not that makes it bad poetry may be another matter).

## Moral Enhancement and Designer Babies

April 11th, 2013

It is in the nature of academic ethicists to test their arguments by pushing to the boundaries of what we consider acceptable (often with an open mind as to whether it is their own arguments or our intuitive limits which are at fault when they go “too far for comfort”).

A case in point: Moral enhancement, freedom, and what we (should) value in moral behaviour — DeGrazia — Journal of Medical Ethics argues that parents already engage in various methods of moral enhancement of offspring (eg via both explicit education and implicit learning from manipulated experience and examples) and so, since they also use various biomedical interventions for physical enhancement, then if there is a possibility for comparable interventions of “moral bioenhancement” perhaps “we should open-mindedly consider this non-traditional means of moral enhancement.

This arguably happens already with certain kinds of mental health treatment which could be considered as moral bioenhancement, but it could perhaps also include the use of empathy enhancing drugs on those who are perceived to “need” them and extends also to the use of genetic selection (for those who are prepared to use it for physical features) if  any of the suggestive correlations that have been observed ever actually turn out to be reliable predictors of aberrant behaviour.

Biomedical enhancement of any feature is disapproved of by some if the need for improvement is not sufficiently pressing, but it is generally accepted for life threatening conditions and widely accepted even for purely cosmetic purposes.  Perhaps tinkering with the “personality” itself might be more widely rejected, but there will inevitably be disagreements and I am pretty sure that the academic philosophers will not actually resolve them (though if they avoid over-claiming their own expertise they might well be able to help people see where one another are “coming from”).

A completely separate issue is whether or not the specific method of genetic selection is acceptable for *any* purpose.  Of course, those who consider every stage of embryo to be a “person” cannot accept the selection process at all,  but others such as Julian Savulescu insist that “It’s Our Duty to Have Designer Babies”.

Any such discussion inevitably gets labelled as “Eugenics”,  but regardless of whether or not it’s acceptable, allowing or even encouraging the selection of “designer babies”  is *not* the same as forcibly restricting the right to breed, and recommending the consideration of  ”moral bioenhancement” per se does *not* necessarily entail the use of genetic selection.

But those who have no respect for the truth and no interest in understanding the positions of others will happily use those two papers to just claim that it’s all some kind of left-liberal-academic-facist conspiracy to “kill babies”.

## Sinister=WellRounded?

April 10th, 2013

My brother is left handed and I am averse to unwarranted levels of numerical precision, so perhaps there really is something to this.

The extension of the effect to “the familial sinistral group” with the hypothesis that “their language and number systems tend to be more distributed over both hemispheres of the brain” is interesting.

But I would attribute my own rounding behaviour less to the greater “cognitive effort of using exact numbers” than to understanding the stupidity of wasting any effort beyond what is actually useful.

Indeed the hypothesis of cross hemispheric distribution of the linguistic-computational system may be considered to imply a possibly better integration of the digital and analog systems and so a better overall level of numeracy. Which may explain the ‘left handed nerds’ aspect of this other article (although a simpler explanation may be just that many sports are based on interacting with dexterity and only the particularly talented subset of the non-dextrous are capable of employing that deficit with sufficient success to be dangerously sinister).

## What is “Islamophobia”?

April 5th, 2013

In a comment at 3quarksdaily (on the posting by Robin Varghese  about Jerry Coyne’s response to Glen Greenwald’s criticism of Sam Harris’ attitude to Islam), Abbas Raza objects to Coyne’s and Harris’ claim that those who complain of Islamophobia never define it, and he points to the following (from Greenwald):

It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one’s own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs.

Well that may look “like a definition” to Raza, but in fact it is not one.

(Or at least it is not a plausible definition of Islamophobia)

Because the definition following “it signifies” makes no reference to Islam or Muslims. It is plausibly a definition of a general class of predjudicial attitudes but is not a definition of Islamophobia per se.

Perhaps Greenwald (and Raza) mean to say that “Islamophobia” means one of these predjudicial attitudes applied willy-nilly to all Muslims. But then it would be a poorly chosen word because irrational fear and hatred of Muslims should be called Muslimophobia and one can (in my opinion quite rationally[1]) fear and hate Islam (or any other religion) without attaching the same fear and hatred to all of its nominal adherents. (And even an irrational fear of the religion is not the same as prejudice against its adherents)

Certainly the anti-Muslim prejudice that  Greenwald, Raza and others identify as “Islamophobia” does exist and is a problem, and it is also true that criticism of Islam is sometimes a cover for such antimuslim prejudice just as anti-zionism is sometimes a cover for antisemitism. But it is no more true that every criticism of Islam is antimuslim prejudice than that every criticism of Israel is antisemitic, and seeing the Islamophobia card played against every criticism of Islam is just as tiresome as seeing the antisemitism card played against every criticism of Israel.

[1] The sacred texts of most religions include passages whose naive interpretation is offensive and even if that interpretation is rarely put into practice it is quite rational to fear institutions whose lack of offense depends on sophisticated re-interpretations of what they actually say. (It may also be rational to overcome that fear in the light of other putative values of these religions, but I have never been of the opinion that one cannot rationally support opposite positions.)

## An Eye for an Eye – Wrong in Both Directions

March 28th, 2013

Wow! A high school essay by a law professor (with a book published by UChicPress).

The reason “rule of law” works is of course because the harm done in a crime is vastly more than the reward to the criminal and so the punishment needed to deter it need not match the harm of the crime itself (even when the actual conviction and punishment are not certain outcomes).
A vengeance-based system of self-protection on the other hand requires being known for the capacity and willingness to provide a disproportionate response so as to deter through expectation of harm even thought the actual achievement of deterrent harm can never be certain. And because an individual does not have the profile of a state it is important to be extreme in the examples in order to gain a reputation as one who will and can respond forcefully.
We probably evolved in a context where self-protection was more important than it is now, so the pain I instinctively desire to inflict on those who offend me may well exceed that which I receive and there is no rational reason for it to be restricted be either equal or less, but in the higher interest of minimizing overall unnecessary suffering I accept that my immediate desires shall not be met and that the pain inflicted on offenders shall not exceed that necessary to deter the offense.
On the other hand, in some cases the probability of meeting justice is so low and the rewards of crime so high that there may be good reason for the penalty to be especially severe. So I have no objection on purely “justice” grounds to the death penalty (or even death by torture) for economic crimes committed in cold calculation of the expected outcome. (I do suspect though that there is a point at which the imposition of such harsh penalties may be undesirable as a result of the “heart-hardening” effect it would have on community as a whole.)

## My Genome and My Children’s Privacy

March 28th, 2013

The immortal cancer cells that were harvested without permission from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 continue to provide valuable lessons – not just for biology and the practice of medicine, but also in medical ethics and even at a more general level.

The issue of consent by family proxy is not unique but the question of its retroactivity and the impossibility of respecting its denial (due to the already widespread distribution of cells from the culture by the time they found out) made it especially problematic, and now there is a new wrinkle.

Some family members who agreed to the use of the cells for research purposes are now concerned that when such research includes publication of the full genome it impinges unacceptably on the privacy of those who share large known fractions of that genome.

It is quite reasonable to argue that the previous consent did not cover the genome publication, since at the time that was not a known possibility so the consent cannot be said to have been fully informed; but again the horse is already out of the barn as the data have already been circulated, and although the number of known copies is small there is no way of tracing them all and guaranteeing that no further copies will ever be made.

But aside from the issues of retroactivity, proxy, and informedness of consent, we now have also that of third party privacy – which actually applies to the publication of any genome, and indeed the question of whether one has the right to publish one’s own genome in the face of privacy concerns from (present and future?) relatives is itself an ongoing topic of discussion.

Do I, or you, have the right to publish our own genomes without the consent of the unborn descendants about whom those genomes might provide partial information on matters that they might wish not to have revealed?

Rebecca Skloot raises the HeLa issue in an essay in the NYTimes Sunday Review but a response by Michael Eisen points out that she appears to confound “how to retroactively get Henrietta’s permission to experiment with and publish about her cells” and “the seemingly related  issue of whether publication of the HeLa cell genome is an invasion of the privacy of Lacks’ living relatives”. The first involves  consent (retroactively by proxy) on behalf of Ms Lacks for the removal and study of tissue, and the second the second is on behalf of her relatives for publication of information which might invade their privacy (and would arise even if Ms Lacks had in fact given fully informed consent back in 1951). The latter question of third party privacy is also the clear focus of  a subsequent article in ThinkProgress.

The issue is not just a sub-case of the basic proxy consent issue, with the donor (or in this case her proxy) giving consent by proxy for release of information about the relatives, because in this case the relatives in question may be available (or about to become available) to give their own consent, whereas for a deceased person the most affected people going forward are the immediate present family members, so in matters of what happens to the body obtaining their consent might well be seen as sufficient.

Nor is it trivially resolved by arguing that the individual herself, or if she is deceased her closest living relatives, have the right to give consent because of being the one(s) most directly affected by release of genomic information.

There might be some argument that the closest relatives (siblings and children) are most likely to suffer privacy invasion because they share the most genes, but it may be that combined with other information the smaller shared genome fraction of a further descendant might be particularly revealing  (eg if HeLa had the red headed axe murderer gene then a grandchild with red hair might have greater privacy concerns than the brown haired child who was his parent – or even than HeLa herself had she been the one giving consent).

If red headed axe murderer correlations are rare though, then perhaps we can apply the probable information idea slightly differently – not just to the chance of having a particular gene, but (in advance of the sequencing) to the chance of having any potentially embarrassing information revealed. If we take that view then the closest surviving relatives can give consent for a deceased person and the individual’s consent can override the privacy concerns of his or her relatives.

But it is not obvious that this is really fair. Just because I am most at risk, does that entitle me to cause a lesser risk for others? It may seem not, but we commonly allow the individual to elect a risky surgery without giving a veto to dependents who may be at financial risk if it goes wrong.

Some people think that professional Philosophers have  special skills for actually answering such questions.  I don’t.

## Crowdsourcing Philosophy

March 13th, 2013

In his latest ‘The Stone’ column at NYTimes.com, Mary and the Zombies: Can Science Explain Consciousness?, Gary Gutting admits that non-Philosophers might conceivably have something useful to say (even though he has to add the usual BS  ”Of course, professional philosophers have technical resources that non-philosophers lack“).

Frankly I doubt that anything useful will be said though, because I suspect that no-one has anything useful (and new) to say on this particularly ill-posed question.

But since I am a no-one,  I’ll have a go anyhow.

I “liked”  the comment by ‘Jason’ who said

The other comments (thank goodness!) have already outlined all the reasons that these thought experiments don’t hold any argumentative force. I once spent two weeks reading into this literature convinced I had missed something critical about zombies and Mary and Chinese rooms and bats. How else could all these people take seriously such manifestly flimsy arguments? It turns out there is nothing more here than some philosophers incorrectly assuming that their intuitions mean something interesting. Let’s stop talking about bad question-begging thought experiments.

But despite my frustration with the presumptions of (many) professional Philosophers, I do feel that this is a bit too harsh. If the focus was not on “explaining consciousness” but rather on exploring what we mean when we talk about it, then Philosophers, while not uniquely qualified, might have a useful job to do by way of helping to clarify when people are talking at cross-purposes and perhaps seeming to disagree when they really do not. (At least they should be good at it since I see almost the entire history of philosophical argument as being exactly of that nature.)

Commenter ‘Paul M’ says

Both thought experiments assume their conclusions in their premises.

In Experiment One, what is the “fact” that Mary learns when she sees red? If the answer is that the “fact” is her subjective experience of the color red, then all this thought experiment has done is define subjective experience as a “fact.” It hasn’t demonstrated that it is, and it certainly does not demonstrate that this “fact” is not physical. By saying, in the premises, that Mary knows all physical facts about red, but has not experienced seeing red, an implicit assumption is made that experiencing red is not a physical phenomena. But that is what the experiment is supposed to demonstrate. So the conclusion is assumed in the premises, and the experiment doesn’t demonstrate anything.

Experiment Two has the same problem. By postulating a physically identical zombie without any of the same subjective experiences, a separation between physical and subjective is simply assumed. If you don’t’ believe that such a zombie is possible, then this experiment does nothing to establish that there is a separation between subjective experience and the physical world. Again, by assuming the possibility of such a zombie, the conclusion is simply assumed in the premises.

Most importantly, what is “physical”? As Chomsky points out in his talk “The Machine, the Ghost, and the Limits of Understanding,” we presently have no coherent answer. So the physical/subjective dichotomy is incoherent.

Here I almost decided not to quote the last paragraph because I don’t actually think the dichotomy is “incoherent” although perhaps most expressions of it have been.

The essence of the issue of “qualia” and the experience (as opposed to the phenomenon) of consciousness is that the experience is entirely and essentially subjective. It cannot be communicated by description or even by direct neuronal stimulation since even if I create in zombie you the exact same pattern of neuronal stimulation and hormonal responses that occur in person me there is no way for me to tell whether the resulting experience in you is the same as in me.  We can agree on what red “looks like” because we will agree on what things look red,  and we can understand what it “feels like” on the basis of emotional connections we make with the fact of seeing red (on the basis of either experience or instinct). But we seem unable to imagine that there is not some aspect of the redness we experience which is more than the sum of its associations. The pattern of uncomfortable confusion we feel when we try to imagine a different version of “redness” can probably be dismissed as identifiable with some kind of biochemical response to the “churning” of our neuronic computational circuits, and in that sense  ”our” private version of “redness”  may even be explainable, but to explain something is not necessarily to explain it away and even when “explained” that sense may be hard (or even impossible) to eliminate.

Commenter ‘Graham Anderson’ says

When Mary awakens from her operation and sees the red roses, she has then become a red-seeing mind. Previously, she understood everything there is to know about red-seeing minds, but was not one herself. When the phenomenon that Mary *is* changes, it does not give her a new fact. She simply has new experiences, the products of the change in state of her mind.

. . .

I believe we are talking about two distinct concepts: knowing about something, and being that thing. The two concepts are easily confused when we’re talking about a human mind, for which knowing and being are eerily similar.

Similarly, even if consciousness is explained as the process of laying down recoverable memories this does not undo my feeling of consciousness – or even prove that that feeling is not actually unique to me alone.

Ultimately, the “resolution” to this issue may have to be that there is no way I can ever tell whether or not the rest of you are zombies, but the prospect that you are entails such a terrifying sense of godlike loneliness that I have no choice but to credit you with the same consciousness as I feel myself. (And then it’s a normative question – why should I not also credit zombie Mary with consciousness as well? and to a lesser extent my cat? or even this computer?)

## Was Wittgenstein Right?

March 7th, 2013

It’s an interesting coincidence that just a few days after my posting on the discussion at ‘Butterflies and Wheels‘, the topic of Philosophy’s relevance was taken up by Paul Horwich in ‘the Stone’  at NYTimes.com (though fortunately with less dismissive rudeness in Michael Lynch’s response).

According to Horwich

Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.

(If)Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. . . .(then) we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues. Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate. But in that case, he asks, “[w]here does [our] investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble)” — and answers that “(w)hat we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.”

further

We might boil (Wittgenstein’s position) down to four related claims.

— The first is that traditional philosophy is scientistic: its primary goals, which are to arrive at simple, general principles, to uncover profound explanations, and to correct naïve opinions, are taken from the sciences. And this is undoubtedly the case.

—The second is that the non-empirical (“armchair”) character of philosophical investigation — its focus on conceptual truth — is in tension with those goals.  That’s because our concepts exhibit a highly theory-resistant complexity and variability. They evolved, not for the sake of science and its objectives, but rather in order to cater to the interacting contingencies of our nature, our culture, our environment, our communicative needs and our other purposes.  As a consequence the commitments defining individual concepts are rarely simple or determinate, and differ dramatically from one concept to another. Moreover, it is not possible (as it is within empirical domains) to accommodate superficial complexity by means of simple principles at a more basic (e.g. microscopic) level.

— The third main claim of Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy — an immediate consequence of the first two — is that traditional philosophy is necessarily pervaded with oversimplification; analogies are unreasonably inflated; exceptions to simple regularities are wrongly dismissed.

— Therefore — the fourth claim — a decent approach to the subject must avoid theory-construction and instead be merely “therapeutic,” confined to exposing the irrational assumptions on which theory-oriented investigations are based and the irrational conclusions to which they lead.

and

Philosophical problems typically arise from the clash between the inevitably idiosyncratic features of special-purpose concepts —true, good, object, person, now, necessary — and the scientistically driven insistence upon uniformity. Moreover, the various kinds of theoretical move designed to resolve such conflicts (forms of skepticism, revisionism, mysterianism and conservative systematization) are not only irrational, but unmotivated.The paradoxes to which they respond should instead be resolved merely by coming to appreciate the mistakes of perverse overgeneralization from which they arose. And the fundamental source of this irrationality is scientism.

As Wittgenstein put it in the “The Blue Book”:

Our craving for generality has [as one] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.

These radical ideas are not obviously correct, and may on close scrutiny turn out to be wrong. But they deserve to receive that scrutiny — to be taken much more seriously than they are. Yes, most of us have been interested in philosophy only because of its promise to deliver precisely the sort of theoretical insights that Wittgenstein argues are illusory. But such hopes are no defense against his critique. Besides, if he turns out to be right, satisfaction enough may surely be found in what we still can get — clarity, demystification and truth.

Horwich presents (this view of ) Witgenstein’s position as worthy of consideration (but without wholeheartedly endorsing it)

Lynch responds

According to HW (Horwich’s Wittgenstein), we get trapped in our glass cages because we philosophers fetishize science’s success in giving reductive explanations. A reductive explanation of X is one that tells us the underlying essence of X – that says what all and only X’s have in common. As HW points out, the concepts philosophers are interested in seem highly resistant to this sort of analysis. And this is something we could appreciate if we just paid attention to the role such concepts really play in our thought and language. Once we do so, we’ll see that traditional philosophical answers to its traditional questions are “mistakes of perverse overgeneralization.”

But

First, just because we can’t reductively (“scientifically”) define something doesn’t mean we can’t say something illuminating about it. Go back to HW’s account of truth. He assumes that there is either a single nature of truth (and we can reductively define it) or that truth has no nature at all. But why think these are the only two choices?

and

So no uniform reductive explanation perhaps, but illumination just the same.

This brings me to the second way that I think HW’s metaphilosophy overgeneralizes. According to HW, philosophy is purely descriptive; it should “leave the world as it is” — only describe how we think and talk, and stop at that.

I think philosophy can play a more radical role. Return to our fly. Wittgenstein was not the first to compare the philosopher to one, nor the most famous. That award goes to Socrates, who claimed that the role of the philosopher was to act as a gadfly to the state. This is a very different metaphor. Leaving the world as it is isn’t what gadflies do. They bite. As I see it, so can philosophers: they not only describe how we think, they get us to change our way of thinking — and sometimes our ways of acting. Philosophy is not just descriptive: it is normative.

This is most obvious with ethical questions. Locke’s view that there are human rights, for example, didn’t leave the world as it was, nor was it intended to. Or consider the question of what we ought to believe – the central question of epistemology. As I’ve argued here at The Stone before, questions about the proper extent and efficacy of reasons aren’t just about what is, they are about what should be. In getting more people to adopt new evidence-based standards of rationality — as the great enlightenment philosophers arguably did —philosophers aren’t just leaving the world as they found it. And that is a good thing.

Lynch ends with

Philosophy is not science. Knowing how we ordinarily use our concepts of truth, or personhood or causation is important. Wittgenstein was certainly right that philosophers get into muddles by ignoring these facts. Yet even when it comes to the abstract concerns of metaphysics, philosophy can and should aspire to be more than just a description of the ordinary. That is because sometimes the ordinary is mistaken. Sometimes it is the familiar from which we need liberating — in part because our ordinary concepts themselves have a history, a history that is shaped in part by certain metaphysical assumptions.

Consider the idea that the real essence of truth is Authority — that is, what is true is whatever God, or the King or The Party commands or accepts. This is a reductive definition, one that still lurks in the background of many people’s worldviews. It has also been used over the centuries to stifle dissent and change. In order to free us from these sorts of thoughts, the philosopher must not only show the error in such definitions. She must also take conceptual leaps. She must aim at revision as much as description, and sketch new metaphysical theories, replacing old explanations with new. She must risk the fly bottle.

Perhaps it’s an annual event there since it’s almost exactly a year since Gary Gutting addressed the same question in the same place.

If you think that the only possible “use” of philosophy would be to provide a foundation for beliefs that need no foundation, then the conclusion that philosophy is of little importance for everyday life follows immediately.  But there are other ways that philosophy can be of practical significance.

Even though basic beliefs on ethics, politics and religion do not require prior philosophical justification, they do need what we might call “intellectual maintenance,” which itself typically involves philosophical thinking.  Religious believers, for example, are frequently troubled by the existence of horrendous evils in a world they hold was created by an all-good God.  Some of their trouble may be emotional, requiring pastoral guidance.  But religious commitment need not exclude a commitment to coherent thought. For instance, often enough believers want to know if their belief in God makes sense given the reality of evil.  The philosophy of religion is full of discussions relevant to this question.  Similarly, you may be an atheist because you think all arguments for God’s existence are obviously fallacious. But if you encounter, say, a sophisticated version of the cosmological argument, or the design argument from fine-tuning, you may well need a clever philosopher to see if there’s anything wrong with it.

and

The perennial objection to any appeal to philosophy is that philosophers themselves disagree among themselves about everything, so that there is no body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can rely.  It’s true that philosophers do not agree on answers to the “big questions” like God’s existence, free will, the nature of moral obligation and so on.  But they do agree about many logical interconnections and conceptual distinctions that are essential for thinking clearly about the big questions.   Some examples: thinking about God and evil requires the key distinction between evil that is gratuitous (not necessary for some greater good) and evil that is not gratuitous; thinking about free will requires the distinction between a choice’s being caused and its being compelled; and thinking about morality requires the distinction between an action that is intrinsically wrong (regardless of its consequences) and one that is wrong simply because of its consequences.  Such distinctions arise from philosophical thinking, and philosophers know a great deal about how to understand and employ them.  In this important sense, there is body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can and should rely.

In an interview a month earlier (for 3am magazine), Gutting had said something similar.

Over its history, philosophy has accumulated an immense store of conceptual distinctions, theoretical formulations, and logical arguments that are essential for this intellectual maintenance of our defining convictions. This constitutes a body of knowledge achieved by philosophers that they can present with confidence to meet the intellectual needs of non-philosophers. Consider, for example, discussions of free will. Even neuroscientists studying freedom in their labs are likely to offer confused interpretations of their results if they aren’t aware of the distinction between caused and compelled, the various meanings of “could have done otherwise”, or the issues about causality raised by van Inwagen’s consequence argument. Parallel points apply for religious people thinking about the problem of evil or atheists challenged to explain why they aren’t just agnostics. Philosophers can’t show what our fundamental convictions should be, but their knowledge is essential to our ongoing intellectual engagement with these convictions.

Now it’s my turn.

## Telepathic Rats

March 7th, 2013

From what I can gather,  the experiment referred to in this discussion may have just involved transmitting the excitation pattern of motor neurons associated with pressing the (say) left button rather than transmitting any “conceptual” association of that button with the subsequent reward. The receiving rat would then reflexively press the left button and after getting the reward might then be reinforced and so have “learned” the association on the basis of its own experience. What would be needed to demonstrate the transmission of anything close to learning would be for stimulation of the receiving rat prior to exposure to the apparatus to have the effect of increasing its likelihood of making  a subsequent correct choice while NOT stimulated.