Is the human brain still in beta?

Or is it society that’s not yet fully debugged?

I’m supposed to be working hard at the moment, which is, of course, why I’m spending far too much time on Facebook. Anyway, yesterday and today a series of disparate Facebook threads seemed to come together as if to raise a single question, so I thought I’d ask for opinions.

1. There was this obscenely stupid video by Rick Barber, a Republican congressional candidate. The message of the video is that a) social welfare requires working people to pay taxes; b) being required to do something is tantamount to being enslaved; c) slavery is a bad thing; therefore d) social welfare is a bad thing and e) people (who look, in the video, remarkably like mindless zombies) should rise up like an army against it. Brilliant! The man is a syllogistic genius! My question is, what possible circumstances would conspire to make someone, who’s presumably at least capable of tying his own shoelaces unaided, think that this was a reasonable and defensible position on which to base a political campaign? Where was he and what was he doing at the moment when this pathetic, absurd and infantile idea actually started to seem like a good one? Did someone put him up to it or was the stupidity all his own? Did he fall foul of circumstances or was he pushed?

2. The British enquiry into the Iraq war has been told by a diplomat that he believes the government deliberately exaggerated claims about weapons of mass destruction. We kind of knew that already, after the famous “dossier” was released a few years ago. Understandably, some of my friends are thus calling for justice against Blair and Bush for deliberately starting a war. I’ve heard a number of explanations for why our leaders are supposed to have done this, generally focused around oil and international economics. In the abstract I can accept that the modern military/industrial complex might be what ’caused’ the war in Iraq, but I find it very hard to believe that two intelligent (well, let me rephrase that: one intelligent), educated, family men, and their entire governments, would sit down one day and say to themselves “Hey, if only we declared war on Iraq we might get what we want.” Do reasonable people REALLY decide to cause the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents, just to further their own sinister aims, or even the legitimate aims of the country they represent? Politicians do seem to tend towards having psycopathic or at least narcissistic personalities, but are they really that dysfunctional? I doubt it. I’m sure Blair and even Bush felt they had little choice, under the circumstances. They problem is, they lied about the circumstances, so we can’t imagine where they were and what they were doing when this pathetic, absurd and infantile idea actually started to seem like a good one.

3. The oh so inappropriately named English Defence League is apparently on the march, stirring up racial hatred. Racial strife in a multicultural country is a genuine issue, but to what extent, on both sides, is this the result of deliberate decisions? In a largely Muslim neighborhood, people will, quite naturally, tend to behave like Muslims. I don’t suppose they do it to offend – they’re just responding to their context. Meanwhile, during a late night pub crawl, stupid white youths will, quite naturally, tend to behave like jerks. Under those circumstances of mutually-reinforcing opinion, it’s easy enough to see how anti-Muslim (or indeed anti-anything) rhetoric can escalate into the conviction that violence and abuse are somehow “good” responses. Did they do this of their own accord or were they “encouraged”? If the latter, by whom and why? And what in turn caused these shadowy figures to hold their views?

4. Oh, and I might as well include a couple of nice ladies who just knocked on my door and tried to tell me that they’ve based their entire emotional and intellectual (not to mention moral and ethical) lives on the belief that their book – the Book of Mormon – is the fount of all wisdom, because it was transcribed in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr. from golden plates given him by an angel, incorporating the 3,000-year history of a tribe of Native Americans who were, as if any of this sounds even remotely plausible, followers of Jesus Christ. To be honest it would be easier and far more reasonable to found a religion on the works of J.R.R. Tolkein. They were sweet girls who didn’t really seem to know much about the details that underlay this belief. All they knew was that it was true and they should believe it, whatever the actual facts might be. In fact they reminded me of the Electric Monk from my favorite book, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective agency. So in this instance I feel more comfortable drawing the conclusion that they believe what they believe, simply because they grew up in circumstances where, well, that’s what you believe, isn’t it? It’s not that they’re particularly dim, just victims of circumstance. And I don’t suppose they do much harm.

But my general question is this: how BAD are people, really? I honestly don’t know. My own faith in human nature has been shaken somewhat, these past few years. Not that I believe people are inherently bad, just that they don’t always act rationally. You knew that, of course, but I guess I didn’t really believe it. I’m so naive. But what actually happens to make a politician decide that looking after his fellow man is somehow a crime? What happens to make an educated, intelligent, socialist leader decide to ally with his political opposite and sentence thousands to death? What actual circumstances convince a bunch of louts that they’re crusading for a noble cause by throwing bricks at people in turbans? What, in turn, overcomes the masterminds that surely lie behind this (and behind Bush, etc.), such that they come to believe in their own cause? Or do they?

It’s easy to be glib, lean on the bar and simply say that politicians, etc. are greedy psychopaths, but surely the truth is that they either find themselves trapped in a position where they have no option, or they believe they’re trapped in a position where they have no option, because somehow things have conspired to distort their perspective? Is evil intent really a property of social systems, not individuals? Did Saddam genuinely believe he was good for his people, for instance? After all, he was holding an artificial and rebellious collection of tribes together in some sort of productive unity, albeit with an iron grip. Was it the construction of Iraq that created Saddam? Was it the military/industrial complex as an entity in its own right (as opposed to individual people within it) that forced Bush and Blair into a situation where war became inevitable? Bush and Blair were the hub of the situation: they alone had the power to start or stop the war, in theory, so they have to take much of the responsibility for it. But did they actually have the opportunity to prevent conflict? We just don’t know, because they lied about it so much that we can’t yet see the sequence of events which might have made them feel they were taking the right action. Perhaps they were just as hoodwinked by circumstances as the girls from the Church of Latter Day Saints, who I doubt would have believed a single word Joseph Smith said, if they’d ever been given a chance to look at the evidence without first being brainwashed by the environment in which they grew up.

Or are politicians really immoral, amoral or indeed mentally ill? Most people I’ve talked to are firmly of the opinion that politicians and businessmen are, in general, motivated purely and knowingly by greed. Certainly narcissism is a perfect qualification for anyone who wants to succeed in politics. Most people think Hitler was a psychopath, and the evidence is supportive. In fact most people seem to think most leaders are psychopaths, or at least greedy and narcissistic. And yet we still vote for them – is that because the only other candidates are just as bad?

Another thread I wanted to bring into this was a documentary I watched last night, about fetishes and sadomasochism. Apart from the two women, who had their own reasons, all the clients interviewed at this S&M brothel were bankers or CEOs. There were probably politicians, too, but they presumably had more sense than to go on camera stark naked, on all fours, wearing bondage gear. All of them had serious issues about control, stretching back into childhood. In general they seemed desperately to need severe doses of submissiveness in order somehow to balance the domination that they exert in their day jobs. They craved the chance to be slaves and paid good money to be humiliated. If their evening activities were any guide at all to their daytime ones then nothing they do should be regarded as rational or moderate, poor devils.

So is the truth a composite of my two hypotheses? Are people in power genuinely corrupt and self-serving, but only because the System itself conspires to make this happen? Have we got ourselves into a situation in which corruption is self-sustaining and successful? If so, perhaps we are doing the wrong thing by holding the individuals responsible. Perhaps that just distracts us from the real culprit and satisfies our innate need to embody something that’s really incorporate. People who are three feet tall tend to end up in the movie business more often than basketball. Similarly, some poor suckers are the victims of childhood abuse, domineering fathers or whatever, and end up as politicians and bankers, because that’s what their neuroses and psychoses best suit them for.  They happen to be deranged in just the right way to make them ruthless and hence successful businessmen, or self-centered, corruptible politicians. And then we vote them in, or buy their products, or lend them our money, because we, too, feel we have no choice. I guess that makes us just as culpable as them, or them just as innocent as us.

Let me finish with one last Facebook post. This one was a link to a robotics project that is clearly funded by, and heavily tailored towards, the Military. The research team is developing robot helicopters that can fly through windows and latch onto a target. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what military applications this might have, and those applications are potentially very destabilizing, because they provide the opportunity to blow people up at zero risk to the person who chooses to do it. Warfare evolved under fairer circumstances than these and we really don’t know what will happen when wars can be fought from an armchair. Now, quite a large proportion of robotics research is actually funded by the Military – without that funding the field of intelligent robotics probably wouldn’t exist. Do the researchers have qualms about the intended applications of their work or where their money comes from? I sincerely hope and assume so. Are they going to stop? I doubt it. They have good motives, and this is the only way they feel they can make progress with them. They justify it to themselves. I’ve been there – I know how easy it is to turn a blind eye to your own misgivings, or assume it’s someone else’s problem. I don’t do that kind of work, but then I don’t have a job either. That may well be the price people would have to pay. And so it goes: Innocent, well-meaning people do things that could have terrible consequences, because, well, because if they don’t do it someone else is going to, aren’t they, and that will be worse. The system conspires to make swords instead of plowshares, and yet everyone’s just doing their best under the circumstances.

It’s a problem.

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About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

59 Responses to Is the human brain still in beta?

  1. Ben Turner says:

    Hey Steve – interesting post, albeit at several organizational levels higher than usual. There’s a lot here to address, and I have certain… biases that prevent me from responding as coolly as I’d like when I see things like the political ad you linked. However, a lot of what you write reminds me of a conversation I had recently about game theory of national self-interest, which is something I’ve been curious about for quite awhile. The person with whom I was conversing, who has degrees in philosophy and international relations, made a point that I think bears on your question, which is that states essentially operate in an environment similar to that of organisms, meaning they are subject to something like Darwin’s laws.
    I think that this concept might explain much of the (dysfunctional) group-level behavior you describe. I’m frankly not especially well-versed in memetic theory, but given the range of absolutely idiotic things people do/believe (climate change denial, Holocaust denial, evolution denial, Obama=Hitler=socialist, lower-taxes-but-fix-my-damn-potholes, etc), it gives me some comfort that perhaps the problem isn’t that 60% of humanity is completely insane, but rather under the grip of these nasty memes… in fact, perhaps this 60% just happen to be particularly susceptible to these icky strains. This could also address your question of whether “…the System itself conspires to make this happen…”, in that, if you view “the System” as being an entity that “wants” to be perpetuated, then it is not entirely insane to see that as being potentially part of the problem.
    Anyhow, I think I’m preaching to the choir, and moreover, I’m certain that you have probably articulated the things I’m trying to express more clearly before than I have here (you have a knack for doing that), so maybe I should say that I’m choiring to the preacher…

  2. Ben Turner says:

    I guess I should have said 40% rather than 60%, because that’s about the vote share that Rick Barber received in tonight’s election in Alabama… yay humanity!

    • stevegrand says:

      Hi Ben, thanks for that!

      Good to know the fine people of Alabama have some sense!

      Natural selection among states is an interesting topic. Maybe it would be better to talk about selection among social systems, given that any nation state can undergo a revolution and change to a new system. I guess it’s not classically Darwinian either, but that’s irrelevant.

      So the hypothesis would presumably be that the most successful social systems (where success is measured in the ability to stay around and/or become adopted elsewhere) aren’t always those that most benefit their members? That could make sense, particularly if the ecological strategy of system A was measured relative to strategy B, with which it’s competing. Nettles and briars can be highly successful in the short term after a forest fire, by out-competing other plants, but they do it at a cost that they can’t sustain. A country run by warlords can be highly successful in a similar way, beating the alternatives by extinguishing them, but it’s not sustainable in its own right – it has relative fitness but not absolute.

      The US system isn’t far from this – rampant capitalism is a nettle-like strategy, I think. And bullying behavior can be pretty successful in the short term. But it has a rot both within and without. America’s present unpopularity and problems may be symptoms of that.

      But let’s suppose that the cause of the Iraq war was a fight between one meme (or two symbiotic memes) and others. That would support my feeling that Bush and Blair were essentially pawns, not queens. The system itself, in a fit of self-preservation, made it likely that B & B would go to war.

      That’s a pretty teleological perspective, I admit! But non-teleological explanations won’t work – we can’t just say that the US and UK systems survived because they happened to contain causal sequences that led to war, while other competing systems didn’t. The population is way too small, the jury is still out on whether going to war was a good result for the system, and there weren’t really any competing systems, unless France refusing to take part might, in future decades, prove to have been a pivotal decision.

      So we’d have to assume that the meme shows purposive behavior, wouldn’t we? That it is adaptive and able to conspire to create circumstances it “believes” will lead to a better outcome. Or am I going off in the wrong direction?

      There’s got to be some truth in the idea that a system of government, along with its historical actions, only really “cares” about its ability to survive as a system, and the welfare of its human parts only matters to it to the extent that they have an influence on its fitness.

      The British Liberal party’s longstanding struggle to change the voting system to proportional representation comes to mind. It’s probably a fairer system, and possibly would be popular. It would certainly favor the liberals, and my own impression is that most people in the UK are liberal in their views, even though very few of us vote for them (essentially we vote strategically, to prevent the party we like least from getting in). But the other two parties are usually in power, BECAUSE the present voting system favors them, so they have no incentive to change it. The system is locked in and it will require a crisis to alter it.

      Interesting stuff! But what could possibly have “manipulated” B & B into declaring war? Whatever it was, it had to appeal to them in a lot of different ways (or the alternative had to concern them in a lot of different ways). All we know so far is that WMD wasn’t the reason, and the real reason was not something they wanted to admit to.

  3. Terren says:

    Hey Steve,

    you said:

    “So we’d have to assume that the meme shows purposive behavior, wouldn’t we? That it is adaptive and able to conspire to create circumstances it “believes” will lead to a better outcome. Or am I going off in the wrong direction?”

    There’s a great line that says “Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers rather than as fitness-maximizers.” That is, individual organisms do not try to “maximize their fitness”, they simply live or die by the adaptations they were born with. Fitness maximization is a property of the collective, not the individual.

    That would apply to “memetic organisms” such as nation states. No individual nation state or culture can be said to be maximizing its fitness. To the extent that cultures can be thought of as organisms, they are self-perpetuating systems that live or die by the adaptions they were created with.

    What seems evident to me is that the adaptations that serve these memetic organisms best are ones that confer stability. There is no right or wrong – brutal dictatorships can be very stable.

    It is my view that morality is simply an adaptation at that cultural level that confers stability. A population that avoids stealing, raping, and killing, will be more stable than a population that indulges in those behaviors.

    (As a hopefully obvious aside, even if I think they are in some sense artificial, I believe morals are very important. I strive to live with character and do right by others. The meaning of morality varies with the “level” of reality under consideration.)

    When you look at the behavior of these cultures as a whole, through moral filters, it is often challenging or repulsive. But that is really a form of level-confusion, I believe. Morals weren’t created for guiding the behavior of the group-organism, they were created for guiding the behavior of the individuals within it.

    Individual humans who come to embody aspects of the “cultural will” do act morally – but are constantly put in positions that balance groups vs. individuals or one group vs. another group. On the whole, morality favors the group over the individual, so leaders usually put the group first. This appears from the outside as selfishness at the cultural level.

    Of course, the US president and the UK prime minister want to project the illusion that these countries as a whole behave in moral terms, but that is simply propaganda. Now, obviously both countries (and every other) do good and bad things, as interpreted through moral filters, but I’m suggesting that cultures as a whole are basically amoral.

    So while I’m not defending the war in Iraq, I think it is reasonable to see the US as acting to perpetuate itself. You have to assume the decision-makers ran through many scenarios about what would happen if we didn’t go to war in Iraq. Obviously they judged that going to war was the best policy for US interests. What is not clear was what criteria were important in deciding how to judge those outcomes… detractors say that continued American military and economic dominance were the most important considerations. Those who approve of the war say that security, stability, and the furtherance of democratic principles (witness the still-stable Iraqi government) were the most important considerations.

    The important thing to realize is that both ways of seeing the war emphasize self-perpetuation of the US as a meme. The only difference is the moral interpretation, the idea that other groups’ interests were either considered important or unimportant. But moral interpretations of cultures as a whole are a form of confusion.

    It’s kind of a bleak view in the sense that we cannot expect cultural organisms to ever behave in a morally satisfactory way.

    • stevegrand says:

      > Fitness maximization is a property of the collective, not the individual.

      Yes, and here the Darwinian analogy breaks down somewhat. The total population of states is pretty small, they don’t really reproduce in a consistent way, and the notion of species is very blurred, if it exists at all. We can categorize social systems in various ways (banana republics, religion-dominated states, communist states, or whatever), but these are more like ecological niches than species.

      But as you say, the systems may have a tendency to act in their own interests (if only because any government will shy away from actions that cause the breakdown of society) and are fundamentally amoral.

      I’m not so sure we can never expect them to behave morally though (i.e. be allied with our own morals as individuals). Grass-roots pressure works in that direction, both internally (unionization, consumer activism) and externally (war protests, ecological pressure groups). These do tend to create an immune response from the state. In some systems this will squash them while in others it will incorporate them.

      To a degree, states that listen to the wishes of their people are at a disadvantage against the “nettles” of, say, religious dictatorships or communist states (despite the name). A country that curbs its industrial production to counter global warming will be disadvantaged compared to one that goes all-out to grab market share.

      But in the forest, nettles don’t last long. Symbiotic relationships between slow-growing species tend to develop and the climax vegetation is far more “moral”. That’s not always the case, I admit. There are two attractors, and overgrown scrub leading to desert is an valid alternative to a lush, stable forest. Which way the system goes depends on scale, starting conditions and other subtle factors, but in a large-enough space, forest usually wins.

      The snag is, the space of human social systems is very small, so we can’t guarantee that a stable symbiosis will be the outcome. We’re very subject to contingency. But even so, I think it’s fair to say that a peaceful, cooperative, tolerant world is at least a possibility, and represents a stable attractor.

      Thanks to networking and a growing understanding of dynamics we have the chance to make this happen, but we have to guard against polarization. A sea of networked individuals can either act stably, according to the law of averages, or it can become unstable, like a Turing Wave. Instabilities lead to new stabilities, but this emergence can be good or bad. Some things in the new networked world work that way while others work the other. It seems to depend a lot on whether certain “hubs” act in order to enable or foment. Creating Facebook would be an example of enabling a sea change, while deliberate political agitation by the Far Right is fomenting polarization (in a similar way to the tit-for-tat Cold War – it’s making liberals more extreme too).

      I think there are signs of a moral awakening, on the whole, and a rise in the influence of altruistic people. It’s no longer necessary to have psychopathic traits and fight your way up through the political system in order to gain national or international influence. In fact our leaders are becoming slaves to influences beyond their control.

      I don’t know – I’m still optimistic. But I do recognize that contingency is a major factor in what’s essentially a small population. It could easily be that China overruns the world, communism wipes out all other systems and the loss of external pressures on communist practice leads to a black hole of repressive uniformity that eventually explodes into every man for himself. Or we could descend into a volatile system of weak alliances and religious conflict, like the first Dark Age. The more we’re connected to each other, the less likely these things are to happen, I think.

  4. Terren says:

    Hey Steve,

    My point about morals being internal to a culture still applies, even if there are ways for members of a culture to influence how that culture interacts with other cultures. Obviously, behaving “ethically” towards a reactively violent culture is a non-starter. I put “ethically” in quotes because whatever actions the US takes, for example, against radical Islam will be perceived by that culture as either evil or weak… nothing we could do would ever impress them as behaving ethically. Cultures must protect themselves, and security trumps fairness towards a violent aggressor.

    To the extent that a peaceful and tolerant world is a stable attractor, that is only possible if all the constituent cultures agreed to arbitrate disputes via some kind of global authority or court, rather than resort to violence. In essence, the existence of such an authority (with the actual power to quell violence) would signify a single global culture. There would be a single morality (codified in whatever legal documents were used to arbitrate disputes) that everyone adhered to, more or less.

    I read your point about connectedness as signifying the emergence of the possibility of such a culture. I am optimistic that it is possible, but I honestly think that reactively violent religious cultures need to be somehow transformed, hopefully non-violently, for that to occur. Violent but secular cultures I think can be brought in line once the benefits of such a system became apparent.

    Finally, I think our culture is mostly a forest. It’s so easy to lose sight of how amazing our system really is, in terms of empowering and protecting people, distributing resources, and creating the means for people to pursue happiness. We tend to overemphasize the imperfections of the system, which are myriad, but rarely do we pay homage to how incredible it all really is.

    • stevegrand says:

      Yeah, I don’t disagree with you. At the moment we’re in danger of being swamped out by the nettles of these “reactively violent religious cultures”. With luck they’re the last dying throes of an anachronism, though, and will look increasingly absurd and laughable. I’m hoping we can all stand firm and not get our immune systems in a twist (post 9/11 America was a very BAD example of how to react). I’m not sure how well a global court could work – look at the in-fighting at the UN – but it’s a possibility, I guess.

      > Finally, I think our culture is mostly a forest.

      Well said, sir! Good point.

  5. Creatura says:

    “In fact they reminded me of the Electric Monk from my favorite book, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective agency”
    Best novel ever written, isn’t it?

    I like to think human intelligence is following the same pattern as the individual growth of a human. We learned to walk, talk, write, and we are now just ceasing to believe in fairy-tales and Santa. Here’s hoping we outgrow our teenage crisis before we “destroy civilization”.

    • stevegrand says:

      > Best novel ever written, isn’t it?

      Yep. It’s rare for me to come across anyone who’s even read it! What a pleasure! Admittedly I’m biased, because Douglas wrote it about a world that I knew well (not time machines and electric monks, I admit, but programmers and Cambridge and emergence. I could just about have played the part of Richard, and I certainly knew some of the other characters). The first time I went to Douglas’s house I had to laugh, because Dirk’s “big flappy coats” and “absurd hats” were just hanging there by the door. Anyway, it’s a lovely, comforting book. I wish he’d made that into a movie instead of Hitchhiker.

      > I like to think human intelligence is following the same pattern as the individual growth of a human.

      Haha! You have a very good point there! Humanity has reached the age of fourteen and our frontal lobes will soon begin to kick in! That gives me hope.

      • Creatura says:

        I was stunned and charmed by the concept of the… well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it. the moment with the music, at the end. Hmm, yes, you could be Richard!

        “The first time I went to Douglas’s house”
        Wat! Oh you are so blessed… next you’ll be telling us you’re best friends with Richard Dawkings as well.

  6. Chani says:

    it’s a hell of a grey area, isn’t it?

    we need some *feeling* of personal responsibility, because it encourages us to make good choices instead of rationalizing bad ones.
    that in itself is a meme, I suppose. there are good memes out there as well as bad ones, ones that may not benefit the individual in the short term but do benefit the society in the long term.

    memes that persist, persist. 🙂
    states that persist, persist.

    steve’s comments about forests give me hope that the “good” memes will keep persisting. 🙂 forests don’t need a global court or dictator, do they?

    also, I guess I need to reread Dirk Gently’s, because I can’t remember anything but the barest outline of the plot 😦

  7. To focus just on your initial question (which happens to be a pet issue of mine) and without making any statements about the specific cases you mention:

    The human brain is not even beta (in the software sense). It is, to tune the analogy, a dos box who thinks it self a super computer—or, in the analogy I tend to use, humans are monkeys with delusions of grandeur.

    As for society, it is a continually and explosively developing organism (not necessarily in the literal sense) where the concept of beta is not relevant. (Skimming through the comments, I would also second the importance of thinking in terms of memes and similar concepts to understand the issues involved; however, going into the details of the comments is far beyond my interests and time on this particular day.)

    • stevegrand says:

      > humans are monkeys with delusions of grandeur.

      Haha! I like that! 🙂

      Occasionally I used to give a talk in which I showed a picture of a sectioned brain and a sectioned kidney, and would ask people which is which. It’s not immediately obvious – they both have a medulla and cortex, and a general branching structure. It’s easy to forget sometimes that the human brain is just a lump of fatty tissue. The signals leak, it gets deformed, the chemistry gets messed up. It’s amazing it works at all. And yet, as you say, a lot of the time it doesn’t work very well.

      • Ben Turner says:

        I think you’re conflating the software with the hardware a bit here, Steve and Michael… it’s true that our brains are little more than trumped up kidneys, but it’s not obvious that that has anything to do with the susceptibility of our cognitive systems to all the bugs that plague them. I guess I’d prefer to say that the mind is in beta.

        Of course, I’m also a reductionist, so I guess we could debate whether the mind is an inevitable consequence of the design of the brain, or whether one could “run” a different OS using the brain, one that would not suffer from the logical fallacies and openness to emotional persuasion, etc. I would say that the brain can run a lot of different sorts of programs, probably including minds that don’t have these flaws. For instance, there are examples of pathology that seem to be quite different systems (e.g., autism), and there is also evidence that environmental factors can have a fairly large impact on the shape the mind ultimately takes.

        Anyway, I think this is the point you were going for, but I don’t think the brain is necessarily totally to blame… after all, if you could precisely reproduce B&B’s brains in computers, I don’t think those robo-leaders would act any more rationally, despite their shinier hardware.

      • stevegrand says:

        Well personally I can’t differentiate between the two. If the software of the brain lies in its configuration (and I don’t see how it can be anything else) then that configuration is subject to and dependent upon the particular messy properties of cytology and histology. There are some hints that even autism has physiological causes, or at least physiological correlates. I’m quite convinced that the brain isn’t a general-purpose computer in the von Neumann sense.

        But I know what you’re saying. There are unquestionably plenty of “pure” software bugs as well, and there’s no reason to suppose that these are particularly *directly* influenced by physical factors like crosstalk or reuptake factors.

        I would place bets that the relationship between hardware, software and pathology is pretty tangled, though. Take the personality disorders, for instance – some of these seem to correlate with poor control of prefrontal dopamine, allowing the release of anteriorly-generated behaviors that ought to be suppressed. It’s most probably true that psychological conditions in childhood have a big impact on this and dopamine behavior is therefore the neurological consequence of psychological trauma. But equally it looks like physiological factors are important too (e.g. I have some tantalizing hints that lacking the allele for a certain cytochrome P enzyme has an impact in one of the personality disorders). I don’t think software and hardware can easily be separated in the brain.

        Precisely reproducing Bush’s brain in a computer would, as far as I can see, also require that you reproduce these physiological factors. The hardware of the computer is irrelevant – it exists in a different universe. The “hardware” that you’d need to reproduce is a simulation of Bush’s brain itself. I’d be willing to argue that whilst computational functionalism permits any Turing machine to implement Bush’s mind, the software would inevitably end up looking more-or-less like a simulation of Bush’s brain. Wanna debate that? I don’t know how to prove my conjecture but it’s kind of important to my philosophy of AI and maybe I need to pin it down a bit more.

      • @ben

        Actually, hardware and software are basically computationally equivalent (under some minor additional assumptions): Everything that can be done i software can be done in hardware and vice versa. From that POV, it does not matter whether we are conflating anything. (Indeed, in my non-neurologist opinion, the human brain is a good example of this, because the limits between hardware and software are very blurred compared to those of e.g. a PC.)

        However, I did have my focus solely on the “intellectual” aspects and “the human mind” (rather than brain), and it is quite possible that the brain deserves a better treatment when we look at the more basics functions that have had far more time to develop.

  8. Ben Turner says:

    I agree with what both of you said, more or less. Steve, I think it’s a very interesting question to what degree one would need to literally simulate leaky neurons, etc in silico in order to simulate Bush’s brain, as opposed to simply creating something that captures the functional properties of these leaky neurons, etc. As someone who does heavily-biologically-inspired computational modeling of systems-level neuroscience, it’s a question I ask myself frequently — how important is it to my model, for instance, to actually use something like Hodgkin-Huxley in instantiating a neuron, as opposed to just reducing it down to something like Izhekevich’s models? Or as another example, our reading group this week is looking at a paper modeling dopamine synthesis and release, because DA is something that plays a very important role in many of our models; however, it isn’t obvious that we need the set of 9 DEs the authors propose to capture the molecular behavior of tyrosine hydroxylase, vesicular monoamine transporter, etc, if we can capture the behavior of that entire system one level up with a single equation.

    Anyway, as I said, I’m a reductionist, so of course I do ultimately think that the brain is obviously responsible for the mind; however, my niggling has to do with the question of precisely which bit of the brain is responsible for the sorts of cognitive fallacies you talked about in your post. It might well be that if you did brain scans of every person you could find who committed logical error X you would find that brain region Y was abnormal, or by genotyping them, that they had mutation Z. But more likely, the correspondence between the mind–with all its flaws–and the brain is somewhat mushier than that, and so it could well be that it’s impossible to point to some bug (or feature… who knows, leakiness and deformity might be integral to the brain’s function) in the brain’s hardware and say “Aha! This is what got us into the Iraq war”.

    • stevegrand says:

      Ah, yes, I completely agree that these, let’s say, compromises, that biology has to contend with don’t lead 1:1 to stupid behaviors. If they did then clinical psychology would be so much easier! After all, the DSM generally defines conditions as “the subject must show at least five of the following nine characteristics”, and if you perm any 5 from those 9 you can come up with some startlingly different personalities. There’s clearly some kind of attractor in, say, psychopathic personality disorder, which justifies giving it a name, but there are clearly many reasons why someone’s brain falls into that attractor and many ways that this can show itself.

      I think you’re right to say “feature”, too. At the very least, anything biology is obliged to contend with will have some impact on the kinds of computation that were able to evolve, and evolutions is bound to take advantage of any useful features. That’s the thing that worries me most about computational neuroscience: As you know, neurons are weak, unreliable, leaky and noisy, so it’s inevitable that the brain will have developed population-based computational mechanisms. It would be great if that just meant they tend to use a bunch of neurons where one transistor or whatever would have done. That’s nice and reducible. But I keep seeing hints that the computations are often deeply convolved and not at all discrete. If a single stimulus alters the activity of most or all cells in a region, and each cell is affected by all stimuli, it’s going to be a bugger to develop models. We find it hard to think in convolution space. Or I do, anyway. But that’s a different topic.

      I agree about the difficulty of deciding which biological facts are fundamental and which are just contingent. I personally think this is an argument for thinking like an engineer – starting with a blank sheet of paper and analyzing the problem the brain is trying to solve. Then you come up with a model and compare it to biology to see how well it fits. If it contradicts a fact then it’s wrong, but if it fails to include a fact then that’s forgivable. But of course there are huge dangers in this approach too – look at the complete waste of effort spent on silly three-layer perceptrons.

      • Ben Turner says:

        Couldn’t agree more. I absolutely think that approaching the problem as an engineer is valuable. Then again, that part about accepting a model is wrong if it contradicts facts doesn’t always work so well in practice… I mean, Cybenko kind of handled those multi-layer perceptrons, and yet there are still researchers in the field who use them, or at least their barely-evolved progeny, to make arguments about what the brain is doing…

      • That the human brain is highly unlikely (again, in my non-neurologist opinion) to have the kind of simple mapping between hardware and functionality that e.g. micro-chip has, follows from the character of its development: If a human deliberately constructs something there is mapping; if an “evolution style” process constructs something, the mapping will be non-existent, very weak, and/or ambiguous. Other examples can be found e.g. in the mapping of DNA-strings to functionality or even some experiments with simulations to develop electric circuits through a simulated evolution. Even where a clear mapping appears to be present on a casual glance, there is usually something more complex to be found: An arm (with attached hand) may seem like an instrument to manipulate objects; however, it also serves e.g. as a help when walking (easier balance, likely some amount of conservation of momentum); conversely, using the arm to manipulate something usually draws on other parts of the body, including the back-muscles (and that is looking only at the mechanics).

  9. Bob Mottram says:

    On the topic of why politicians often behave badly, I think main issues are the following.

    1. Human intelligence scales badly beyond a small tribal scale.
    2. We have imagination, and are always seeking explanations. These explanations aren’t always good ones.
    3. Most people also suffer from confirmation bias.
    4. Fear amplifies and adds noise to 2 and 3.

    Combining these four you can rapidly find yourself in an unholy escalation of ignorance. Due to the very nature of how social hierarchies form there’s usually a dirth of good advisers willing to be brave enough to provide brutally honest feedback, and an increasing regiment of yes men as you get higher up the pyramid. Indeed people at the top often seek to protect themselves from honest opinions or real data, preferring to follow a narrative of their own making.

    This is why democracy is a good idea, because even if all of the political ideologies are arrant nonsense, and voting is more or less random or subject to a certain degree of fraud, the occasional resetting of the ruling administration disrupts and prevents the unchecked amplification of poorly synchronized fantasies. Like aging pop stars, out of power administrations usually have to re-invent themselves and ditch some of their less plausible fantasies in order to become electable once more.

  10. Bob Mottram says:

    Also on the topic of robotics and its military connections, if you havn’t seen it before I’d recommend this video on ethics in robotics:

  11. Gerjan says:

    Hi Steve,

    I just found an article about a language that’s been especially developed to make communication with robots easy or easier. It’s called ROILA and you can find more about it here: http://roila.org/about/

    I’d be interested to hear your opinion on this.

    • stevegrand says:

      Haha! Is that an admission of defeat or what? 🙂

      I think it may have some uses but basically it’s missing the point. Communicating with robots is not a big problem. Getting them to genuinely UNDERSTAND what we mean, not merely linguistically but in general, and getting them to do even the simplest things in response, like turning on a faucet and pouring a glass of water – THOSE are the tricky bits. Top-down attempts to fix these peoblems are about as doomed as the Roman Catholic Church, but neither of them seem ready to admit it yet, sadly. IMHO, of course! 😉

      Thanks for the link.

  12. Margo says:

    Wow. I mean, really, mind-boggling wow-ness. I’ve spent a few hours today reading through some of the basic concepts of AI and artificial life and so forth, and coming at it from the PoV of someone with absolutely ZERO knowledge of computers (how they work, why they work, how to get them to work better) it’s all a little hard to assimilate. Seriously, I’m still at the stage of marvelling that you can cut and paste text from a website into a Word document with such ease. Amazing. So if you’re thinking I’m probably in absolutely no position to form an opinion on the subject (AI etc.), you’d be absolutely right. But, there are so many tangential topics that have been touched upon such, as conciousness, psychology, biology, intelligence, ethics, philosophy, evolution and so forth, of which I do have a basic grasp, that I’m compelled to dip a toe into the discussion. So please forgive and obtuse questions I may ask – at this stage I’m struggling with the over-all relevance of AI or artificial life. So Steve, if you don’t mind me asking, what is it exactly that drives your seemingly tireless quest for progress in this area?

    As a biologist of sorts, I consider the ‘personality’ of an individual to be determined more by genetic component than by environmental conditioning. That’s not to say that environmental stimuli are not important in determining the behaviour of an individual, only that the responses in general are dependent on the relative composition of the brain – leakiness of neurones, ratios of pre- and post- synaptic receptors (and types of receptor), relative amounts of the various different neurotransmitters etc etc etc. Which, as I understand it, are dictated by the genetic composition of that same said individual. But I know I’m referring to an individual and there are differences between how an individual would respond to a certain stimuli, and how a group would respond, and even how that individual might respond if they were in a group, rather than on their own.

    Whenever I’ve considered AI in the past, I’ve always regarded it as an impossible goal for the very reason that I consider ‘conciousness’ to be a product of the zillions of minuscule interactions that go on within our brains and contribute to the generation of our sense of self. Because I couldn’t see how these interactions could possibly conform to a set of rules, I didn’t see how they could possibly be replicated in a computer program. But then as I alluded to earlier, my grasp of computer programming is less-than-basic and in my mind consists of writing a long list of rules to get the computer to behave/process data in a certain way.

    Your approach, again from what little I understand, seems to be that instead of…. nope, I’ve lost it again 🙂 – it’s either start from the top and go down, or start from the ground up. Sorry. It could well be that I’m a hopeless case and probably not worth investing the considerable amount of time it would take to get me to understand it. I’m generally terribly lazy. But if there are any other Blog readers who may be able to spell out the basics, I’d be most appreciative 🙂

    • Bob Mottram says:

      In general computer programs are just a long list of rules, and most of the software you use is written like this. But there’s a larger class of computer programs which also includes such things as programs which modify themselves or write their own code. Such programs aren’t common, because they’re not easy to engineer in a traditional way.

      The master stroke, discovered by Alan Turing, is that computers can simulate any other kind of machine or system if it can be described in algorithmic/mathematical terms. So for example you can use a computer to simulate turbulent air flow in a wind tunnel, or molecular interactions, or the motions of planets around the sun, or blood flow in the body. Even though none of those systems are literally computers, processing logical instructions one at a time, they can nevertheless be simulated by a computer, and in principle the same might be said for the workings of the brain.

      Also AI people and psychologists often forget that intelligence transcends merely the contents of your own cranium. Almost none of the thoughts you’ve had throughout your entire life are completely original to you, but have instead been generated painstakingly by cultural interaction. If you’re lucky you may have a few original thoughts, which are then spread around, cannibalised, remixed, mutated and sometimes even written down to be added to the sum of human knowledge. Humans and their intellectual skills (or lack thereof) are very much creatures of the cultures they inhabit.

      • Margo says:

        Thanks Bob, yes, I think it’s fair to say I can’t lay claim to any useful original thoughts. But I do enjoy reading other peoples and, if they tickle me in just the right way, embracing those ideas and propagating them. As my own if I think I can get away with it… 😉 “very much creatures of the cultures they inhabit” – I would agree with that, but to what extent are creatures responsible for creating those respective cultures? Are changes in culture driven by ‘the few’ with some sort of vested interest in the outcome, and the majority just go with the flow? And what if you don’t just go with the flow? That probably wouldn’t impact much on the end result if someone was actively trying to establish a certain ‘culture’ – for example the celebrity gossip culture, or the culture of striving for materialistic gain. Oh dear, already I’m sort of confusing myself as to where I was going with this. More ponderings required on my part I feel. Thanks again for your input.

    • stevegrand says:

      Hey Margo. Wow! A sudden flurry of activity! I’m on the road right now and that’s too complex to answer on an iPhone, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m back at a keyboard.

      – Steve.

      • Margo says:

        Thanks 🙂 Like I said before, it really is kinda cool to find someone so terribly knowledgeable about a subject – and a less-than-mainstream subject at that, who’s willing to spend a bit of time explaining the concepts to the interested yet woefully uninformed (actually, most of the blog contributors seem more than adequately informed which I would imagine makes their conversations much more interesting – so I’m absolutely referring to myself as the ‘woeful’). Your name cropped up in some discussions recently and as I find the general subject matter infinitely intriguing, I thought I’d see what else I could find out.

        Enjoy the road trip! Arizona? I’ve spent many months over the past few years just outside Prescott – been to Flagstaff a few times – it’s glorious country.

    • stevegrand says:

      > Your approach, again from what little I understand, seems to be that instead of…. nope, I’ve lost it again – it’s either start from the top and go down, or start from the ground up.

      Haha! Ok, I’m back at a proper keyboard again, so I’m at your service. Where to start, though…

      The topic of what a computer is came up, so maybe I can start with that. As Bob says, a computer is a machine for carrying out sequences of simple operations on data: Copy a number from one place to another, add something to it, compare the result to zero, jump to a different instruction according to the result. Basically that’s ALL a computer can do. But of course that turns out to be more than enough to do some pretty startling things.

      For our purposes, something QUALITATIVELY DIFFERENT occurs (IMHO) when you start to think of a computer, not as a device for following a recipe of actions, but as a PLACE in which to build things. This is what Terren (mmmbacon) was referring to (and Michael was cautioning about, although as a technical point I’d argue that Church-Turing doesn’t really apply in these circumstances because these are not algorithms).

      Suppose we program a computer to “understand” the rules of atomic physics (at some level of abstraction – say we encode the rules for how the forces between protons and electrons alter their behaviour, such that we can simulate valency, van der waals forces and stuff. If we feed such a simulation the necessary data about the properties of, say, a pair of hydrogen molecules colliding with an oxygen molecule at speed, and apply our equations to the data, we’d expect to get a pair of water molecules as a result. In other words, the numbers reflecting the positions and properties of the atoms will alter in such a way that the oxygens appear now to be stuck to the hydrogens. Nothing has altered other than the NUMBERS reflecting position, momentum and force – the outputs of a bunch of fixed differential equations. Nevertheless, the future behavior of the simulation will be different and the numbers will, all other things being equal, now begin to emulate the properties of water molecules, rather than H2 and O2 molecules. Note that the program knows nothing of water or even hydrogen – it only knows about atomic forces.

      Nothing contentious so far. But philosophically speaking, what has happened here? Have we made real water? I think the answer is “yes and no”. Obviously it wasn’t real hydrogen or oxygen – they were just numbers being acted upon by equations in a computer program. So it’s not real water either – just numbers, right? Well yes and no. The bahaviour of ATOMS was certainly “programmed in”, but the behavior of the specific molecules, especially the water molecules, which we didn’t even put in there ourselves, wasn’t. It emerged all by itself.

      Suppose we put in the numbers representing trillions of such H2 and O2 molecules’ positions and trajectories, and the simulation then created a virtual explosion in which trillions of “water molecules” were formed. They’d (appear to, in terms of the numbers) rush around like crazy – like steam. But after a while the numbers representing their velocities would decrease and they’d start to act like they were stuck together – they’d condense into a liquid. If our simulation contains gravity, they’ll now tumble around each other and flow downhill in something remarkably like a river, forming a lake at the lowest point. If they encounter some other molecules with hydrophilic properties, they’ll stick to those molecules in much the same way that water wets our skin.

      Are they real hydrogen atoms? No. Are they real water molecules? Hmm, probably not. But is it a real river? Are they really wet? That’s a MUCH harder question. For reasons I don’t have space to go into here, I think the virtual river has just as much right to be called a real thing as one made from “real” molecules. Both are emergent entities. Both arise spontaneously in the VERY SAME WAY. The fact that one is made from so-called real molecules while those in the other are just a sham makes no difference, in my view. Both rivers are ontologically equivalent.

      I’m sure you (and others) will protest at this, but I have a much longer tale to tell about the nature of reality that I think deals with this. I think our discomfort comes from a failure to understand the true nature of reality, not from the nature of the simulation. I can come back to that if you want, but it’s way too long for now (I covered it to some extent in my first book and I’d like to write another book specifically about this, because I think it’s quite profound in its implications).

      Anyway, now apply that same concept to life. If you write a computer simulation of the behavior of atoms, you haven’t made real atoms. But if higher-level phenomena emerge in fundamentally the same way from your simulation as they do from “reality” then I think they’re just as real. Real rivers, really flowing into waterfalls and really wetting things (albeit virtual things). Likewise, suppose you write a DIRECT computer simulation of living behavior: you write equations and loops of instructions that make the simulation appear to respond to events in the ways that living creatures do. Have you made real creatures? No – they’re just a sham, like the atoms. In fact there are good reasons to suppose that no such direct simulation of behavior is even feasible (as you suspected). For one thing the number of different “if this occurs then do that” rules you’ll need explodes so rapidly that to emulate the behaviour of even an insect might take more computer power than would fit in the universe, IF you do it in such a naive manner.

      That’s the way top-down AI tries to work (as a gross over-simplification). But now consider the bottom-up approach: Don’t simulate animal behavior, simulate lower-level behavior in such a way that animal behavior emerges.

      For instance, you might implement the equations of atomic behavior and then feed in huge arrays of numbers that represent the precise molecular configurations of billions of cell-like vesicles. This (hypothetical) simulation ought to create chemistry. Proteins ought to fold up and adopt charge distributions that cause them to act like enzymes. These enzymes should cause anabolic and catabolic reactions as in nature. The products ought to accumulate as structural proteins or react further with each other to create reaction networks. Homeostatic regulation should occur. Molecules should act as signal carriers and transducers – receptors, hormones, etc. Energy should be transported. The virtual cells should metabolise and divide. All of this should occur spontaneously as emergent behavior – none of it is programmed into the simulation in terms of the lists of rules.

      If your simulation of basic atomic physics is good enough, and if your data is accurate enough (imagine for example that you could copy the exact atomic configuration of a real living body and its local environment, atom by atom into the computer) then the emergent result ought to act like a living thing too. Up to and including acting like an INTELLIGENT, FEELING living thing.

      Is the result alive? Yes, I think so. If it then turns round and proclaims itself to be conscious, who are we to dispute it? That proclamation arose spontaneously, in exactly the same way that it would arise in nature. The simulated atoms have developed an emergent mind, just as physical atoms do.

      The snag, of course, is that such a simulation would be vast, and is currently beyond our ability. We don’t know quite enough about atomic physics and we certainly don’t know enough about the detailed chemistry of living things. Nor is it possible to build a computer big enough and fast enough to handle the interactions between quadrillions of atoms. But IN PRINCIPLE I think it is hard to deny that artificial life and artificial consciousness are possible, UNLESS you take the position of a vitalist or a Cartesian dualist and insist that real life requires a magical vital spark, and/or real consciousness involves a supernatural factor.

      Part of our task is to answer those questions by showing whether a simulation really can account for all the properties of life/consciousness. But it’s a huge task and it depends on how much we can “cheat without cheating”. If we can’t get lifelike behavior to emerge from a detailed simulation of atomic behavior purely because of practical and knowledge limitations, can we move up a few levels of abstraction and get the requisite behavior to emerge from larger components – say simplified rules that emulate the behavior of individual neurons, enzymes, genes and receptors?

      Yes we can – I’ve done it. I created some creatures that learned about their world and responded in very lifelike ways. None of their behavior was programmed into the simulation – it emerged from the interactions of networks of simulated chemicals and cells. But of course I had to cheat a lot to make this possible, especially since it was a commercial computer game, running on a personal computer. And I’m quite sure my virtual creatures are not conscious, because important structures were missing from their brains (that’s the topic of my present research). Nevertheless, the creatures’ behavior was very simple but it WAS emergently lifelike. To some extent I was able to show that whole, somewhat intelligent organisms can emerge, grow and evolve in a bottom-up manner. It still remains to be seen how far we can go with this.

      > As a biologist of sorts, I consider the ‘personality’ of an individual to be determined more by genetic component than by environmental conditioning.

      Interestingly, I consider myself a biologist of sorts, too! I’m a computer programmer when I’m constructing the bottom level code – the simulation of chemical or neuronal properties. But thereafter I’m a biologist, because it’s my job to put together networks of these simulated components in such a way that I can reasonably expect lifelike properties (regulation, metabolism, reproduction, evolution) to emerge. That’s not programming – it’s chemistry (and sometimes alchemy!)

      I find it hard to isolate nature from nurture. I agree that genes are the predominant arbiter of “personality”, but genes only act as they do because of environmental factors. One of my favorite examples is Stryker and Strickland’s work on the formation of primary visual cortex: As you probably know, V1 has a strikingly regular and complex arrangement of monocular and binocular layers, and this develops because of a neat interaction between genes and environment, involving spontaneous neural activity in the blind foetus (which is correlated across adjacent portions of a single retina but uncorrelated between homologous points on the two retinas) and the effects of seeing the world once the baby is born (after which time, retinal stimuli tend to be correlated across homologous points on the two retinas but uncorrelated between adjecent points on a single retina). These two facts (neurons tend to fire spontaneously and become synchronized in the absence of input, and the visual world is noisy) combine to create elegant and functional structure in the brain. Genes make this possible but in a most indirect and fascinating way. Most babies develop in similar environments, so the genes tend to produce roughly the same result, but not all environments are identical and so people’s brains wire up in slightly different ways. That makes personality a result of both nature and nurture. I think this is important from a bottom-up AI perspective, because it suggests that biology is ROBUST. Every human tends to end up with binocular vision, despite minor differences in both genetics and environment. There seem to be “attractors” in nature, and these give me hope that we don’t need to simulate precise quantum-mechanical behavior in order for life and intelligence to emerge – these states are likely to emerge from a fairly wide variety of simulation rules and networks of simulated components. Artificial Life is about figuring out how broad those favorable circumstances are (what an Alife pioneer once referred to as “life as it could be”, as contrasted with life as it contingently happened to emerge here on earth).

      Anyway, to cut a very, very long story slightly shorter…

      > Because I couldn’t see how these interactions could possibly conform to a set of rules, I didn’t see how they could possibly be replicated in a computer program.

      I hope I’ve given you a few pointers to how sets of rules can be formed so as to simulate the myriad interactions you refer to. Basically, the first thing you do is to slice up time, so that a computer (which can only do one thing after another) appears to be doing many things simultaneously. Then you write simple rules that emulate fundamental components, and execute these rules on zillions of sets of numbers representing the particular properties of individual components. Finally, you create the behavior by arranging these sets of numbers into appropriate networks of interactions (x has these values for its properties and interacts with y and z). The rules only define how the properties manifest themselves at a low level (e.g. states that simulated neurons will produce a spike train when they receive this much input spaced over this much time), and the actual biology results from the numbers (e.g. how many synapses there are between this neuron and that neuron and what transmitters are active).

      Phew! Any questions? 😉

      • stevegrand says:

        A couple of PS’s:

        Michael says: “the problem of chaotic systems, in which even the smallest deviation can eventually result in an entirely incorrect computation.”

        I just want to emphasize this idea of attractors, lest you be led astray by this. It’s true that complex systems are chaotic, so if you simulate them and your simulation contains even the most infinitesimal inaccuracy in its starting conditions, the simulation and reality will very quickly get out of whack with each other. Nevertheless, there is no reason to suppose that the two systems will be QUALITATIVELY different.

        Say you had a perfectly accurate simulation, in terms of its equations, and you copied the precise biological details of my own body and my entire immediately causal environment into the simulation’s database, except that each number was inaccurate in the ten millionth decmal place. Within seconds, the virtual Steve will be doing something different from the real Steve. But it will still behave LIKE the real Steve. Its “Steveness” will be robust. That’s why the real me HAS a discernable Steveness – I have a personality – I tend to do similar things in similar circumstances.

        So, sensitive dependence on initial conditions doesn’t imply that a simulation and reality need diverge qualitatively, only quantitatively. Qualitative divergence is certainly possible (but because of inaccuracies in the equations, not the stating conditions) but it remains to be seen that life is like this. All human beings are different, but we’re all identifiably human nonetheless.

        > I still can’t get my head around the idea of being able to create a machine that was entirely intelligent in a self-aware sort of way.

        Don’t mix up the self-aware entity and the computer. It’s not the computer that’s intelligent – the computer just generates a region of cyberspace in which we construct a virtual machine. It is this virtual machine that is intelligent. The computer only knows about atoms or neurons; the intelligent entity is made from a system of virtual atoms or neurons – it’s a completely different thing, in a different universe. People can get tripped up by this distinction.

      • Finn says:

        That’s a great explanation of attractors, that really set off the lightbulb for me.

        Your comments great in general, you could turn some these into actual blog posts!

      • mmmmbacon says:

        The computer only knows about atoms or neurons; the intelligent entity is made from a system of virtual atoms or neurons – it’s a completely different thing, in a different universe. People can get tripped up by this distinction.

        This is by far the biggest problem in explaining this position. So many people remain stuck in the idea that anything a computer does is “symbolic logic” and fail to see how really cool emergent stuff can happen. Once you see that, you’re on your way to wondering if we are living in a simulation 😉

      • Margo says:

        Hi Steve,

        Thanks for all that! Lots to think about and yes, questions aplenty to be asked! I’m in the fortunate position to have a computer programme designer/software engineer type fellow with whom to consult about the more computery technology side of things, and, taken with your great analogies about atoms, water molecules etc. etc., I do now see how, in theory, it is possible to create a ‘programme’ that is complex enough to potentially result in the development of some sort of ‘intelligent’ entity. In theory. One of the main break through moments for me was when you said “Don’t mix up the self-aware entity and the computer. It’s not the computer that’s intelligent…”. Amazingly, that makes things a lot easier to comprehend! And I mean duh! Of course! – now you’ve mentioned it, it seems so foolish not to have made that distinction right from the beginning!! It makes visualising the ‘end-point’ of AI seem much less unlikely :o)

        But I do need clarification on a few things. Firstly, just out of curiosity, I was wondering what it is that drives you to make progress in this field? Why, apart from it just being kinda cool to be able to do, do you believe it is worth investing so much of your blood, sweat and tears into? What sort of applications do you foresee?

        OK, on to issues closer to the heart of the matter. You talked about whether the water, river, waterfall etc. that you’d ‘created’ via a computer, were, in fact, ‘real’. If they have the critical properties of the ‘real thing’, then they too should also be considered real. But! Doesn’t that rather depend on the definition of reality? The most simple definition is “Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or may be thought to be”. Under this definition, then no, the water in any form it’s other dimension is not real, it merely behaves as though it is. But then you open the lid on the whole philosophical debate of the concept of ‘reality’. The phenomenological reality, the truth, fact – the whole ontology debate – and so on and so on. Well, maybe we should shelve that discussion for another time i.e., it’s a subject I know even less about and so am inclined to dismiss it for the time being. My perception of reality will do just fine for now :o) – I told you this was going to be hard work… Anyway, for the moment, I’d be inclined to sit more firmly on the ‘no’ side of your ‘yes and no’ answer options.

        I’m also a little unclear about the nature of the ‘programme’ that would drive the progression of the atoms in your primordial soup to ‘evolve’ as it were. Is that merely a case of creating an environment that exerts certain selection pressures to drive evolution by favouring certain developments? OK let’s say I accept that, that there are ways of accelerating the evolution process by supplying the right sorts of atoms in the right amounts at the right time in the right conditions for the creation of an advanced organism. My computery fellow assures me it’s all a matter of scale and several thousand years in this ‘parallel world’ can be condensed into seconds of ‘real-time’. The essence of Steveness for example, is a result of thousands of years of happy biological coincidences and a particular nucleotide recipe for genetic success. Can this be replicated by code in a teeny tiny fraction of the time? DNA essentially IS code I suppose… Is that where the notion of attractors come in? A dynamic system (your creature for example) evolving towards a set point (intelligent life)? Have I over-simplified it? Your example of the development of the visual cortex and binocular vision is all very well, but even those organisms that we might not consider ‘intelligent’, in the sentient sense, such as fruit flies and slugs, have some sort of visual capability. I consider vision to be a much more tangible and physical result of a particular sequence of molecular interactions than is intelligence and morality etc. So I’m not quite buying that particular analogy. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding or misinterpreting what you meant. Goodness knows stranger things have happened :o)

        Anyway, my brain kinda hurts now, I’ve moved
        way, way out of my comfort zone, which is good for me I know. But exhausting :o)

        Many thanks for all your efforts thus far.

      • stevegrand says:

        Hi Margo,

        > Firstly, just out of curiosity, I was wondering what it is that drives you to make progress in this field?

        It has little or nothing to do with applications, on a personal level. I just want to understand the nature of life and of the mind. Who doesn’t? It’s a fundamental drive in most humans, I think, but few have the opportunity, the gall or the stupidity to actually spend large amounts of their lives trying to figure it out!

        I think there are reasons to suppose that these are not things that can be understood deeply in normal, reductionistic scientific terms and the best we can do – the best we should AIM to do – is develop and prove our understanding by building actual machines. Take the brain, for instance – theories of brain function are two-a-penny, but they’re all hot air unless you can actually implement them. There’s a big diference between waving your hands in the air and saying something that sounds plausible, and actually sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and making something that works. Computers are astoundingly humbling – they take us so literally that they’ll quickly show up the smallest chink in our reasoning.

        So basically I just have the selfish wish to understand “what I am” before I no longer am. I guess I actively pursue it because I think I may have a few little insights that make the quest worth doing.

        > Doesn’t that rather depend on the definition of reality?

        Yes, it does, very much. I have some fairly quirky views on the nature of reality and I think we could have a really interesting conversation about that, but WordPress is squeezing these replies into ever-narrower columns and deep philosophy just ain’t going to fit! Maybe I’ll thik of a way to start a new post on it.

        You might be interested in reading my first book – “Creation: life and how to make it”, although the stuff about reality goes deeper than I could describe in that. We’d need to talk about particle physics, but the gist of my argument is that everything in the universe is FORM, not substance, and the universe is constantly discovering new (stable or self-maintaining) classes of form, whether they be particles, atoms, organisms or minds. Hardware is, when you look at it in the right way, merely a subset of software.

        > Is that merely a case of creating an environment that exerts certain selection pressures to drive evolution by favouring certain developments?

        That’s one way, but not one I favor. I disagree with your computery friend about the potential to speed up evolution at anything approaching realistic complexity levels – e.g. at the levels in which complex brains tend to evolve. I’ve certainly used artificial evolution many times in simpler circumstances, but even supposing we could replicate the real environment of Earth, with all its trillions of simultaneous “attempts to design a better life-form” and even supposing we could speed up the whole shebang by a factor of a million, we’d stil have to wait around for a thousand years before anything interesting happened!

        So no, I think we have to design these systems by hand – synthetic biology but at a more abstract level than Craig Venter and Co. The point about the attractors was simply to say that I don’t think we need extreme verisimilitude in our models. My initia line of argument was that a highly accurate and vast model of atomic physics MUST be capable of giving rise to (whether designed or evolved) real intelligence, real life and even real consciousness, unless these phenomena are genuinely supernatural. That was offered as a proof in principle, but we can’t do it in practice. However, I think biology shows such a robustness that far more abstract models can still potentially qualify as alive, intelligent and conscious. Life as a concept is not confined to the precise circumstances under which it developed here in this physical world on this particular planet. Much the same processes can occur in other, even somewhat simpler conditions. So there’s hope for creating artificial life.

        > Your example of the development of the visual cortex and binocular vision is all very well, but even those organisms that we might not consider ‘intelligent’, in the sentient sense, such as fruit flies and slugs, have some sort of visual capability. I consider vision to be a much more tangible and physical result of a particular sequence of molecular interactions than is intelligence and morality etc.

        I think we must have confused each other there. What is intelligence if not a sequence of molecular interactions? My purpose with the V1 illustration, though, was just to point out how genes and environment interact, in complex systems terms. It was a bit of an aside, so it’s probably best to ignore it.

      • stevegrand says:

        Heck, I think I will come back to you on this bit though:

        >”Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or may be thought to be”. Under this definition, then no, the water in any form it’s other dimension is not real, it merely behaves as though it is.

        No, no, no. I utterly disagree, although I know I’m out on a limb. I think it’s a key issue. Your dictionary definition is a tautology, for one thing – “reality is that which really exists”. Well that’s SO helpful! Furthermore, it doesn’t deal with the question of alternative universes – it presumes that there is only one valid theatre in which real things may exist, and that’s a big assumption. What’s real to us may not be real to someone else in a different universe, and vice versa. Does one universe have priority over others? Or is that just our parochialism talking?

        But I think there’s a fundamental difference between a computer program that merely behaves like something, and the emergence of a phenomenon FROM a computer program in the SAME way as it emerges in nature. In my example, the river wasn’t in any way programmed into the machine. It emerged by itself as a result of the properties of water molecules. I assert that it makes no difference whether those are “real” water molecules or simulated ones – in both cases the same phenomenon arose for the same reasons. If it is fair to call the one a river, then the other must be a river too.

        I know this is hard to accept and I’ve had many people do as you did and just plain deny it. “It’s not real because, well, because it just isn’t. It’s software. It’s a computer pretending.” But I really think this gut reaction comes from our incorrect intuition about the nature of reality. If a virtual river is a computer pretending, then a “real” river is just the universe pretending.

        Rivers are a bit misleading because they’re only objects by convention. Athough they do have an important property that gives the lie to our intuitive conception of “objects”, it’s easy to dismiss their “always the same yet always made of something different” nature as just a Zen observation. Organisms are a better analogy, but you’ll have to read my book or listen on YouTube to Richard Dawkins quoting it in some of his talks, because I don’t have space here.

        But to be going on with, let me pose a question: What IS an object, other than it’s properties?

      • stevegrand says:

        Oh, Margo, I just wanted to add something to my list of motivations:

        I do artificial life very much because I believe it may help ALL of us if we understood life better. I particularly try to undermine some of our cozy little innate assumptions about when life starts, which things are sentient and hence have moral rights, etc. I think a lot of big decisions are being made on the basis of ignorance or misunderstanding – abortion, stem cell research, vegetarianism, animal welfare, moral absolutism, etc. and I hope we’ll fare better at these things if we learn to let go of some of our unquestioned assumptions.

        Understanding what consciousness really is has a particularly important place in helping us form a lot of those decisions. That’s my hope anyway – the thing I’d like to contribute a little to.

        It meshes with my interest in religion, because the main religions, if not all of them, are inherently dualistic – they believe in the supernatural and some sort of magical soul. The alternative mechanistic view is far more likely to be true, but people currently see this as a very nihilistic and bleak concept. I think that’s a mistake and I’d like to show that we are simultaneously nothing but machines and yet so much more than “mere” machines. Emergence is a key concept here.

        So apart from my personal wish to understand what makes me so different from a brick, I also want to help alter other people’s understanding and hope it’ll help us make better choices, as well as appreciate ourselves and our position in the scheme of things better.

  13. Two brief cautions concerning the Church-Turing thesis:

    1. While considered true by most computer scientist (including myself), it is actually not proved—arguably, it is even unprovable. Specifically when discussing concepts like AI, consciousness, and similar, care should be taken, because assuming that it is true often amounts to begging the question.

    2. There is always the hitch of formalization. Consider e.g. air flow: To actually simulate it in the strictest sense, we would need to know the position and velocity of each individual molecule, the complete rules governing air flow, and a number of other things. This, however, we do not know, which means that only an approximation of the situation can be achieved. (Notwithstanding that this approximation can be very good.) In addition, there is the possibility of entirely random events on the quantum level and the problem of chaotic systems, in which even the smallest deviation can eventually result in an entirely incorrect computation. (Notably, with non-infinite variable lengths, deviations will always be present when simulating e.g. air flow.)

    • Margo says:

      Thanks Michael – I shall have to go and Google the Church-Turing thesis (!) but I do see why your words of caution would apply to accepting approximations as absolutely good enough, versus taking the ‘bigger picture’ into account when trying to apply such approximations to reality. I still can’t get my head around the idea of being able to create a machine that was entirely intelligent in a self-aware sort of way. I am, as always, ready to be proved wrong, but for now, I shall remain ever the armchair sceptic…

    • mmmmbacon says:

      For those of us who believe intelligence (and even consciousness) can be simulated, it is not considered to be a strong objection to require that simulations be accurate down to the quantum or even atomic level.

      Approximations of physical substrates are ok so long as they produce the underlying information-theoretic or cybernetic dynamics that are hypothesized as underpinning an intelligent agent.

  14. Margo says:

    It gets a little bit tricky after a while, trying to slot replies into the original conversations, but maybe because this is blog talk, that doesn’t actually matter. It’s essentially just another part of the same overall conversation anyway I suppose… But as it was a direct response to something you’d said Steve, it just seemed the polite thing to do, to try to match it up with that particular thread. But heck, this is your blog. These are all your threads, so I’ll stop worrying about the niceties and get to the point 🙂

    I should start by saying, that overall, I am beginning to get a clue about where you’re coming from! So fear not, all your efforts to explain thus far, have not been entirely in vain. And yes, you’re right, I do feel an innate reluctance to step outside the box of conventional intuition when it comes to considering the nature of the universe around us. It’s just so. I understand that it’s just so; there are aspects of the just so-ness that I don’t care for particularly, but that’s just the way it is…. Or is it? The tempting answer, for lazy armchair revolutionaries like myself, is yes. Yes it is. It’s fine, it works, move along…

    🙂 – have I talked you round to my way of thinking yet? No? OK then, well, I guess I could step outside the box for a little while longer, and contemplate the view from there. One of the concepts from your last posts that I can embrace wholeheartedly, is that there is a fundamental difference between a computer program that merely behaves like something, and the emergence of a phenomenon FROM a computer program in the SAME way as it emerges in nature. After all, you ask, what is an object other than it’s properties. This question brought back memories of a book I once tried to read – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – I very much enjoyed the travelogue aspect of the book, the guys journey with his son, but I was left feeling a little cold by the philosophical content of the book, about his quest to define ‘quality’. This confession probably illustrates just how entrenched I am in the conventional reality mindset. And also explains, probably, how I misinterpreted your V1 illustration (but I do see now the reasons you included it).

    I wonder about your definition of a ‘more abstract’ level of synthetic biology. Venter’s work arguably created a synthetic organism – is that artificial life? But even leaving that aside – what is your considered application of synthetic biology in developing your own notion of artificial life?

    About the alternative universe idea. I see where your coming from, and I accept the notion of (in)accuracies of the perceived realities therein, but what evidence is there to suggest these alternative universes exist? Sorry, yup, I’m all about the physical evidence and cold hard facts…. Or maybe I’m just being contentious and lazy again, after all, presumably there’s no evidence to say they *don’t* exist…

    I’m probably one of the very many you alluded to that need to let go of their unquestioned assumptions. Modestly, I would attest that I’m probably one of the few who would willingly have their assumptions challenged and proved wrong. But I think those religious nut-jobs have got us sussed. By ‘us’ I mean those with hard-wired human nature (no, I’m not sure what that means either, but I was trying to describe your average joe/jane). From the Milgram experiment and subsequent research, it has been shown that ordinary, average people can end up doing immoral and harmful things through a chain reaction of behaviour and subsequent self-justification. Apparently we will do whatever we can to avoid cognitive dissonance – which is one of the reasons religion continues to endure I suspect – very few people who claim to *believe* in the fairy stories will willingly stand up and say, actually, no, I was wrong – how foolish of me!! Instead they are more likely to reject all reasoning and hang on to their belief ever more tightly. So that’s my very generalised and pessimistic view of the situation! I think if you could find a way of reaching people on a level that they couldn’t just ignore because it doesn’t suit them to think about it, that would be an amazing accomplishment indeed. And it’s exciting and hope inspiring to consider that there could be a whole new dimension or dimensions just waiting be discovered, defined and explore. Phew, heading back to my reality now – there’s a load of laundry to hang up outside….

    • stevegrand says:

      Ah! SPACE! Thanks for taking us back to a full column-width! 🙂

      > And yes, you’re right, I do feel an innate reluctance to step outside the box

      And rightly so – inertia is important. Where would we be if we all just believed every new story that came along? 😉

      > One of the concepts from your last posts that I can embrace wholeheartedly, is that there is a fundamental difference between a computer program that merely behaves like something, and the emergence of a phenomenon FROM a computer program in the SAME way as it emerges in nature. After all, you ask, what is an object other than it’s properties.

      Way-hey!!! That’s the essential step as far as Alife is concerned. I need to finess it a bit, perhaps, but I’ll quit while I’m ahead!

      The next step is optional, really. I specifically talked about the idea that the universe is constructed from different “levels of being”, in which each layer emerges out of the interactions between the properties of components in the layer beneath, primarily to argue that true artificial life and consciousness are possible, since the very same hierarchy of phenomena can arise or be constructed out of sham building blocks too. I think we agree now that if the emergent phenomena arise in the same way then they are the same phenomena, regardless of how fake the lowest level building blocks are. So that gives A-life ontological respectability – under the right circumstances it’s not just a computer PRETENDING to be alive or conscious.

      But I’d love to persuade you to take that line of argument further, beyond computing and Alife, because if you manage to catch out of the corner of your eye what I get glimpses of too, then I think it can be quite transforming. I think it alters our understanding of the nature of “being” in general. And this even bears on the religion question and our quest for spirituality (but that’s a long path that I haven’t really explored yet).

      Here’s my argument: EVERYTHING IS FORM. Let’s ignore the mind-wrenching question of how we get time, space and force – we’ll take them as given. What I’m saying is that everything from that level upwards – everything that deserves to be called a thing – is an ARRANGEMENT of forces in space and time that has the property of persistence.

      Our intuition (even that of some particle physicists I’ve spoken to) is that an electron, say, is a little lump of matter floating in space. It’s really hard to shake off this notion. But I think it’s wrong. I think an electron is a distortion in these fundamental fields (the electromagnetic field, etc.).

      Thought experiment: Imagine a lake. Imagine making a huge splash. The surface of the water boils up into a wide variety of different forms – lumps and bumps and swirls. After a few seconds MOST of them have died away or become transformed into one of only two forms, which hang around for some time: ripples and vortices. It so happens that ripples and vortices are semi-stable forms on the surface of water. Ripples persist by kind of running forward to stop themselves falling over, while vortices do something similar but in a circle. Ripples have to keep running at constant speed, and they pass right through each other. Vortices can move slowly, and they interact – the two classes of form have different properties.

      But the main point is, those two shapes in the water surface, and only those two, have the capacity to maintain their form, at least for a while. All other shapes die out while they remain. What persists, persists, and what doesn’t, doesn’t.

      So now apply that analogy to the electromagnetic field (and other fields – we seem to need an interaction between multiple kinds of force to make matter). Stir up the universe in a big bang and wait. Most of the distortions you create will be unstable and doomed. A few – ultimately electrons, protons, photons, etc. – will have such a shape that they are able to maintain their form and hang around for a few picoseconds up to a few trillion years, depending on shape. Only a few such shapes have persistence at this level.

      So now I hope you have a mental image of matter as DISTORTIONS, not lumps. And notice that the universe now has new properties – these distortions can alter each other when they coincide, sometimes in ways that themselves are stable for new reasons – let’s say electrons, protons and neutrons interact to create stable atoms.

      So as the universe cools it discovers electrons and protons, and they discover atoms. Atoms are a new method of “staying around” and give the universe new properties: chemistry. Eventually, chemistry discovers an even classier way in which configurations of space can stay around: organisms. Organisms are networks of chemical reactions that create more of their own kind from simpler ingredients (metabolism), split into two when they get too large (reproduction), maintain their form even through the generations (heredity), and respond to destabilising events by re-forming themselves (adaptation and evolution by natural selection). BUT THEY ARE STILL JUST SHAPES. They’re (admittedly very complex) distortions in the electromagnetic field that have a hierarchy of self-maintaining tricks in their repertoire.

      Intuitively we can’t help ourselves thinking of an organism as a lump of something. But that’s an error – an organism is a pattern. The “lumps” (the molecules, which themselves are only patterns) are constantly passing through the system – an organism isn’t made from the SAME stuff from moment to moment, only the same ARRANGEMENT of stuff. (This isn’t as unusual as it may seem – clouds aren’t made from the same water molecules from moment to moment either, but they are still the same cloud in a meaningful sense.)

      So what comes after organisms? Minds? A mind is a real thing: I think therefore I am. It exists purely in the pattern of molecules and electrochemical disturbances that make up my brain. But it’s still a real thing, with the same ontological status as a proton. One day, not so long ago, the universe discovered minds, and now it is peppered with them. Once they form, they tend not to go away (unless they’re disrupted too far, sadly).

      Minds form societies. Societies have minds of their own – their own ways of persisting against disruption. Religions are also objects at this level of description, and they’re very damn persistent! They’re all real things, although they tend to get quite fuzzy from the perspective of our own senses, which are stuck at a certain scale.

      Potentially, the universe might discover, or have discovered god or gods – perhaps complete assemblages of galaxies or whatever might have properties comparable to those of neurons and another kind of sentience can emerge. I doubt it but it’s a possibility – how would we know? Our neurons know nothing of the mind that they form part of.

      Anyway, far from it being turtles all the way down, it’s distortions all the way down! I find this a very satisfying worldview, and MUCH better than the absurdly anthropomorphic notion of a creator. It tells us that we’re all machines BUT there’s no apparent upper limit to what those machines – those interacting disturbances – are capable of. It tells us that the universe is a WHOLE – all the parts are integrated at many levels and we are all one; perhaps in a profound sense. It tells us that the universe is an endlessly creative place. It DISCOVERS things, and once discovered, they tend to stay. Far from the dismal, static or declining creationist view, this means the universe is getting ever more interesting; ever more beautiful; ever wiser. Order is creating itself, with no need for a designer.

      And above all, it means everything is made from SPIRIT, which I redefine to mean form, structure, configuration, arrangement – something akin to Aristotle’s notion of form but more up-to-date 😉 Everything is spirit. We don’t need to believe in some kind of metaphysical goo to animate our bodies. And unlike the supernatural it’s compatible with science, although physicists are going to have to make some adjustments, because it was they, through their mathematics, who took form out of the equations and led to the bleak materialistic worldview that frightens religious people so. But that’s another story.

      How am I doing so far?

      > what evidence is there to suggest these alternative universes exist?

      Good question. I don’t really mean multiple universes in the sense that pysicists do. Define universe to mean the substrate from which a new level of form can arise. People have strenuously objected to my notion of emergence in a computer by saying things like “it’s not real – a virtual aircraft can’t carry me to Seattle”. No, but a virtual aircraft CAN carry a virtual you to Seattle. It’s not fair to expect the two universes to interact. Cyberspace is a universe in its own right (with somewhat different properties, interestingly). Things in cyberspace are just as real but it’s an error to dispute this by requiring those virtual things to have any meaning inside our own universe, just as I can’t physically pick up a virtual object and so that virtual object (were it sentient) might dispute that I am real. So, I was using universe in a somewhat unusual way – I, too, have problems with the physicist’s notion of multiple universes. I think that’s a sign that physics is creaking at the joints and due for a paradigm shift.

      Ok, you have laundry, I have bills to pay – must get on!!!

      • Margo says:

        OK, so my brain hurt before I even started contemplating alternative realities today. So apologies in advance for the inevitable brevity and potential obtuseness of this post. Reading your response above, a few things came to mind. Firstly, you mention spirit and spirituality a few times; man’s quest for spirituality (women, I imagine, are too busy doing laundry?)… Ooops! Sorry, just re-read the relevant paragraph above and you actually say ‘our’ quest for spirituality, but I’m going to leave the laundry comment in anyway, because I fleetingly supposed myself to be very witty indeed 🙂 Anyway – the point was supposed to be – what do you mean exactly, by spirit and spirituality? And why do you suppose we are driven to define it? Personally I can’t connect with that particular notion – at least I don’t think I do, which is why I would ask you to clarify it!

        And matter as distortion – I can absolutely envisage the matter in my environment as stable distortions of various dimensions and energies. BUT it still is actually lumpy!! I can poke the couch I’m sitting on – lumpy! Re-arrange the facial features of Mr Potato Head – lumpy! What am I feeling, if not solid matter? Is that just how we have been conditioned to interpret these distortions?

        I always thought of electrons as probable locations of some sort of energy, so never really attributed to them any sort of lumpy form, but atoms and molecules and compounds and so on, in my mind, make up lumpy structures! So it’s a bit of a leap to go from solid matter to distortion with any degree of conviction, but I CAN, on some level envisage these distortions, I just need a little help actually applying them to what I’m physically encountering on a daily basis.

        I’m afraid that’s all I got for today….

      • stevegrand says:

        > OK, so my brain hurt before I even started

        Know the feeling! 🙂

        > I’m going to leave the laundry comment in anyway, because I fleetingly supposed myself to be very witty indeed

        Ah, you girls and your fluffy little sense of humour… 😉

        Sorry. If I ever say “Man” then I definitely mean it to be capitalised, even if I forget to do so. But please do rap me on the knuckles about it – I try to avoid the word but it’s an unfortunate linguistic legacy. I’d be too busy doing laundry myself, except the ironing is sitting there staring at me and we’re waiting to see who gives in first!

        > what do you mean exactly, by spirit and spirituality?

        A damn good question! I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew there, for such a cramped medium as a blog comment. I’ll have to side-step it.

        Let me just mention the context, though. It seems to me that we once had an innate respect for the “spirit” of (and in) things, and religions are partly our attempts to explain what we mean by this. I actually prefer the attitude of animistic religions, in which pretty much everything is imbued with spirit, and I think it all went horribly wrong when animism led to polytheism led to monotheism, but that decline in our sense of the “spirit in things” was nothing compared to what happened when Science got started.

        Starting around the C17th this understanding started to crystallize out as dualism. Descartes said the universe is divided into res extensa and res cogitans – physical stuff and some kind of spaceless, timeless ectoplasmic goo that he needed to explain all the bits that didn’t seem to be explicable in terms of matter, such as the mind and soul. In other words, by Descarte’s time there was matter and spirit.

        But then along comes Newton et al, who basically say “Nope, there is only matter”. The universe is clockwork. Planets don’t do what they do because God commands them to, but because they obey immutable, simple laws. George Boole reduced thought to logical algebra, and Charles Babbage (and later Alan Turing) began to automate it. Even our minds were starting to look like “mere” machines.

        And as a result, spirit got squeezed out of the equation (literally, see below). Newton’s clockwork world seemed to reduce us to machines, and for many this feels very nihilistic indeed.

        The mathematics that arose in those times, and is still with us today, is reductionistic – it deliberately simplifies the organization out of the equations to make them manageable. For instance, all the zillions of vectors describing the motions of the individual molecules in a gas can be reduced to a handful of numbers: pressure, temperature, volume. That was the beauty of reductionistic physics – it made absurdly complex things like gases simple and understandable. But a side effect of this was a tendency to “tame” systems that shouldn’t have been tamed. In a gas, the precise organization at the molecular level is irrelevant – it all averages out to three numbers. But in an electronic circuit, say, or a biochemical network, this isn’t true. The organization is paramount, because the interactions are nonlinear. Two electronic circuits might have precisely the same constituents, mass, energy, etc. yet be arranged in subtly different ways and result in radically different behavior. Physics can barely even SEE such differences, let alone explain them, because it’s inherently reductionistic. As a biologist you’ve doubtless seen how biology sometimes suffers from “physics envy”, as if this kind of reductio ad nihilis was somehow the only respectable kind of science.

        We’ve started to understand Complexity with a capital C now, and give it the respect it deserves, but the old reductionistic paradigm is still very much present. And in the public eye I think this is why science is so frightening and demoralizing to many people. They still feel it reduces all that is beautiful in the world and takes the spirit out of things. Which it does, in a literal sense. No wonder so many people in the Arts are antipathetic to Science, and no wonder so many people still turn to religion for succour.

        So Descartes said “the universe is made from matter and spirit”. Newton’s followers came along and said “Nope. Sorry guys, there is only matter.” But I prefer to assert that there is only spirit. If “spirit” is taken to mean the ORGANIZATION of things, such that real, emergent new entities come into existence with surprising properties that can’t simply be reduced to the properties of the parts, then a) even matter is spirit, since electrons etc. are themselves emergent phenomena resulting from the reorganization of initially flat space; and b) I think there’s a way to escape the nihilism of reductionistic science and provide genuine hope for humanity without resorting to magical thinking and metaphysical goo. But that’s a much longer story…

        > BUT it still is actually lumpy!! I can poke the couch I’m sitting on – lumpy! Re-arrange the facial features of Mr Potato Head – lumpy!

        🙂 Ok, try this: Have you ever tried to push the like poles of two magnets together? Of course you have. Well imagine yourself doing this, and then take away the magnets in your mind. Just feel the repulsion force but without visualizing the actual lumpy magnets. Imagine that the forces are just “there”, acting between two points.

        If you find that tricky to do, think of the little whirlpools you get when you lift an oar from the water when rowing. Imagine yourself as a feather floating on the water that gets trapped in a whirlpool. You’ll feel a force, dragging you towards the centre of the depression in the water, and will spiral in. The force is real, but there’s no “lumpy magnet” in the middle creating the force – the force gradient IS the whirlpool. So now go back and think about the two magnets forcing each other apart, then imagine it without the actual magnets. Hopefully it’s easier now.

        What we’ve done is imagine a force field in its own right, with no little lumpy thing in the middle, just the distorted field.

        That’s what Mr. Potato Head is made of – zillions of little whirlpools of repulsive force (except with a faster drop-off over distance than the inverse-square law). And your finger is made of the same non-stuff. So when the whirlpools of your finger get really close to the whirlpools that constitute Mr. Potato Head, they are repelled, and you feel this as “solidity”.

        Does that help?

      • stevegrand says:

        P.S. I’ve cheated a bit with my solidity model for the sake of getting the idea across, and I don’t want to mislead you. Really there are both repulsive and attractive forces at work – each declines differently over distance.

        The atoms in Mr. Potato head are attracted to each other by electrical forces. When they jiggle and try to move apart, they keep getting dragged back together. But if they get too close, they are repelled. So all the little whirlpools attempt to settle out at a happy medium. That’s why objects have rigidity.

        Then along comes another object, whose atoms aren’t arranged in the same way, so the forces can’t bind the two objects together. Now one object feels the repulsion of the other – the touch sensors in your finger get crushed by the forces between your finger atoms and the couch atoms, and you feel the couch as “solid”.

        So it’s the interplay between attraction and repulsion that makes lumpiness, but at the submicroscopic level, no actual lumps are needed for this to happen – the atoms are just complex, self-sustaining eddies in the fundamental fields whose force gradients extend over a distance.

        Gravitation is another distortion (of space itself, according to Einstein) that drops off quite slowly and binds objects together over large distances. Electrical and magnetic forces repel or attract (according to mutual polarity and the distribution of charges) over short distances. The strong and weak nuclear forces act over even shorter distances and more abruptly. But they’re all (I assert) just dimples in their respective fields.

      • Terren says:

        Steve, you need to start making these blog posts of their own, because few people will find these gems by diving into comments.

        This latest gem was one of the best summaries I’ve read of the problems of reductionism, not to mention the brilliant repurposing of organization as ‘spirit’. Well done and I look forward to more, and thank you to Margo for asking great questions.

      • stevegrand says:

        Thanks Terren! You’re right – I should try to tackle these things in proper posts. One day I’d like to gather all these thoughts together into a book, so I might as well try them out on people.

      • Gryphon says:

        >Matter as distortions! Sweet analogies about ripples and vortexes! EVERYTHING IS SELF-PERPETUATING PATTERNS MOVIN’ AROUND IN THE FABRIC OF THE UNIVERSE, NUOH MY GOD

        Suffice to say, mind = blown.

        I’ve always been kind of mooching around in the neighborhood of this philosophy, but I’ve never ever been able to think about it it at that level, from that angle. I feel immensely privileged to have read those words, they’ve crystallized everything; this is what I’ve been frowning at and trying to find the edges of for so long.

        Thank you, thank you, thank you! You are so impossibly cool, do you just, like, walk around all day being this blindingly intelligent, bestowing wisdom upon everyone you meet? Do you, by any chance, happen to shine with a golden light? The norns might not’ve built you any temples yet, but I’m halfway to setting up a shrine. I could build it out of your books, maybe light a candle every Wednesday or something.

        (–Some of my earliest memories are of playing Creatures 1, and to this day, my mouse fingers twitch when I need to tell left from right, because that program’s where I learned the difference. So thank you, thank you, thank you for that, too, while I’m at it!)

      • stevegrand says:

        Ha! Don’t stop – I could get used to that! 🙂 I don’t think anyone has ever called me cool before.

        Actually I walk around all day with a puzzled frown on my face, just like you by the sound of it. The whole damn universe is a perplexing mystery to me, from the nature of matter to where I left my phone…

        But I’m glad you’re enthused, because I was just last night (2am, out by the lake, under the stars watching meteors, no less) considering writing a whole series of posts on this subject, as a kind of tutorial on how to look at the world in this light. I wanted to write a book on it a while back but got stuck on the best ways to understand some of the heavier bits, so maybe some blog posts would unstick me.

  15. Trevor says:

    Dear Steve & Margot,

    I just wanted to say how great the interchange between you two is!

    This is very profound indeed – much better than the rather depressing war going on in the God thread 🙂

    • stevegrand says:

      Heh! Perhaps it helps to see the two as connected (they are in my mind). I’m trying to feel my way towards a new cosmology, a non-reductionistic, non-materialistic one that has a proper place for spirit and a new understanding of what spirit, and hence spirituality, might mean. As part of that quest I need to locate my position in terms of existing and older cosmologies, and I also need to fight against those who are using the inadequacies of the present paradigm to argue for a return to an anachronistic one, for their own foul purposes.

      Onwards and upwards, eh? 😉

  16. Margo says:

    OK, so I’m on-board with the notion of multi-field vortices and the interplay between the forces of attraction and repulsion. I can envisage the magnets, and then the no-magnets and the continued forces of repulsion. I appreciate that the atoms that make up solid objects are in constant motion (I imagine some sort of vibrations?), held in place by the various local and not so local forces acting upon them. And I can see how what might be interpreted as the touch of a solid surface can be explained in terms of interactions between the forces of stability in one object, and the forces of stability in another. I’m pretty sure I’m not really seeing the full picture. I’ve been immersed in molecular biology for the past 3 years and it’s difficult for me to apply the vortices concept to the myriad movements and interactions and reactions and consequences etc. etc. etc., that occur with dizzying frequency and complexity at the sub-cellular level. I’m sure it’s all just a matter of scale and with a bit of application…

    You mentioned a scenario in which science might offer an acceptable alternative to conventional religions in terms of providing ‘hope for humanity’. Is this along the lines of what Sam Harris is about? I hadn’t heard of him until his name cropped up in one of these blog discussions. A Google or two later and I had a few basics and a few potential resources! Unfortunately I’m not able to access the Daily Show episode here in Blighty over the internet, not from official sources anyway. I’m sure I could probably track it down somewhere else. Anyway, suffice to say I’m intrigued by the idea, but haven’t quite summoned the energy to generate the motivation to make a more concerted effort to find out more… 🙂 I will though, it does sound right up my street.

    Also, I suspect I’m something of an existential nihilist at heart, and although I find the discussion and philosophy of such topics (mind, spirit, soul etc.) fascinating, I’m not sure that I have any business contributing. But then again, perhaps I think the term existential nihilism makes me sound more interesting than just plain old “lazy”… 😀

    And nihilism is a great Scrabble word.

    I do often feel regret that the majority of human beings seem to have lost that innate respect you mentioned, for the ‘spirit of things’. There seems to be a worrying lack of respect for so many things in our modern societies. Common sense for one! Other people! Compassion, kindness, tolerance. Anyway, that’s a by-the-by. But I like the idea of a mind-set that has an inherent respect for inanimate and animate objects.

    Sorry, digressing. OK, so where did I get to? Spirit is the ORGANIZATION (or, if you’ll permit me, the organiSation) of things. Right. I think I can actually comprehend what you mean, on perhaps a very basic level. From what we’ve talked about, the organisation of things giving rise to the properties of the object within which they’re organised (see – I told you it was at a basic level). But if I think about it some more, apply the idea of vortices and distortions in various fields and forces of repulsion and attraction, I do see what you mean. The particular organisation gives rise to a particular ‘character’. I don’t know why I seem reluctant to embrace the word ‘spirit’ or ‘spirituality’ – does the word ‘character’ suffice as an alternative?

    • stevegrand says:

      > (or, if you’ll permit me, the organiSation)

      Heh! Sorry – When I moved to the US I adopted a deliberate policy of “doing as the Romans do” as far as spelling is concerned, hence the Zeds (or indeed Zees). Although since I’m speaking to an Englishwoman I seem to have become mid-Atlantic and inconsistent!

      > does the word ‘character’ suffice as an alternative?

      Yes it does at a pragmatic level, but I think it loses all its power that way. I’m being deliberately provocative calling it spirit. “Form” has an historical legitimacy, so we could use that, but Plato and Aristotle made a bit of a mess with thinking that through, imho. “Spirit” is provocative, but I think the provocation is the most powerful reason to use it.

      I have a lot of respect for Sam Harris and I think he’s doing a good thing by shooting for a rational approach to morality. After all, religious morality was ORIGINALLY some mortal human being trying to rationalize (zee!) about how we should behave towards each other. It’s not like these pronouncements are REALLY the word of God, merely that citing a higher authority gave the ideas more credibility. These attempts are now pretty anachronistic and don’t take account of new insights, and so we need to revise them. I wish Sam Harris well, and I think it’s really impotant.

      But as well as morality, I’m trying to put across a rather more “arty”, existential, perspectivey paradgmaticy, state-of-mindy sort of thing. Unfortunately, words currently fail me about this and I don’t know how to articulate it.

      My late friend Douglas Adams had an extraordinary affinity for what he called “the interconectedness of all things.” As a writer he used to concoct stories in which “poetic justice” was a real force in nature. Everything was somehow bound to everything else, and the resultant melee formed a hierarchy of systems in which “magical” things happened without the aid of magic. I’m not explaining myself very well, and unfortunately, Douglas isn’t around to interject, but Douglas SAW SOMETHING. He had a perspective on the world that I share. It’s all about the way we look at things, and you got VERY close to this when you said, “I do often feel regret that the majority of human beings seem to have lost that innate respect you mentioned, for the ‘spirit of things’.” I definitely want to reinstate that.

      Molecular biology is an interesting topic in this regard, I think. Historically it’s pretty macho and reductionistic, wouldn’t you say? I never met Crick or Watson, but the other early MB’s I’ve met, like Sydney Brenner, say, have a very distinctive attitude, reflective of the time in which they grew up. It’s very similar to a certain class of theoretical pysicist, who is keen to develop an elemental theory of everything by knowing more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing. The Human Genome project is kind of like this – we now know the whole answer, but it’s clear we don’t yet understand the question.

      My friend Dennis Bray invited me to a MB workshop once and I watched as all these powerpoint slides listed partial reaction networks. I could see all the usual cybernetic properties – regulation on many timescales, positive feedback as switches, integration and differentiation, etc. But nobody ever mentioned them – they were hell-bent on looking at the details, not the principles. Often they only showed portions of a pathway, when it seemed clear to me that the network has to be understood as a whole, because it is self-regulating. Only Dennis (because of his work on complex self-organising protein assemblages in E.coli chemosensors) and Dennis Noble (with his excellent complex dynamical systems model of the heart) seemed to be thinking at the systems level. In fact the conference dinner involved a debate on the question of “Are there any general principles in biology?”. I stayed out of it, because the woman next to me, on learning that I have no qualifications, proceeded to look down her nose at me and ignore me, so I felt a bit alienated and stupid. But the result of the debate was a huge sigh of relief from most people at the table, who declared that biology has no principles at all – it’s all just contingent details. They were all looking down – none of them seemed to want to look up.

      But it’s poppycock. Biology is full of principles – cybernetic principles that appear over and over again at different levels of abstraction and in different kinds of systems. And the same principles appear in human psychology, ecosystems, economies, etc. All the “levels of being” in the universe take advantage of much the same basic building blocks, if you look at them in a process-oriented way. There’s consequently another way of looking at the world, in which it is not built from atoms and objects and people, but from leaky integrators, flip-flop metastable multivibrators, and suchlike. When I see a “valley on a hill” configuration of negative and positive feedback, it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m seeing it in an electronic circuit, in the brain, in the stability of a photon, or in a political system – it’s still the same “object”. Atoms and such are merely the MANIFESTATION, at their own level, of these more universal operators.

      So what I’m trying to develop and get across is a “process-oriented” view of the universe at large. I think it offers hope for humanity because it involves looking up as well as down. It sees the universe as an open-ended, creative place, in which “being a machine” is not an insult but a liberating thing, and everything is connected to everything else in ways that can delight the mind.

      I guess I’m arguing for a cybernetic view of reality, from atoms right on up, in which the focus is on feedback and process. It is good for us in lots of ways: it connects us all together; it shows there’s no upper limit on how beautiful and creative the universe can be; it changes the way we do politics, etc. by encouraging us to look beyond the first step in any argument and stop thinking linearly, so that we can appreciate the ways in which things tend to feed back on themselves and cause well-meaning intentions to really backfire; it reinstills a respect for “the spirit of things” and in turn alters our perspective on what we should value; it has things to say about our “purpose” here on Earth, and our legacy after our deaths; it offers a way to reunite the arts and sciences (a relatively recent but deep schism)… I can’t put these things into words yet, but I think there’s a lot that can come out of shifting our viewpoint.

      It’s kind of like turning the world inside-out. Everyone tends to think of language as a series of nouns connected by verbs, but equally you can see it as verbs connected by nouns. Everyone has an innate tendency (not necessailry a conscious one) to see reality as a kind of ball-and-stick model, in which a bunch of real objects (the balls) are connected to each other by properties (the sticks) that describe their interactions, but it’s equally legitimate to think of the properties as being the primary reality. Turning the world inside-out is a topologically smooth operation that doesn’t alter it but allows us to see it differently, and seeing things differently is what creates progress.

      I’m jabbering, you can tell! I just don’t know how to articulate what I can see out of the corner of my eye. It’s tricky. But trying to explain it to people helps!

  17. Margo says:

    >Although since I’m speaking to an Englishwoman…

    Well now Mr Grand, that’s rather a wounding presumption! An ‘ENGLISH’woman?? Not that my delicate sensibilities are actually so terribly delicate that I really care, but I quite enjoy pretending that I might, should the opportunity arise 😀 In fact, I hail from the frozen heathen lands north of the border…

    >Historically it’s pretty macho and reductionistic, wouldn’t you say?

    Ugh! Yes! And the egos and the politics. Publish or perish, etc. etc. There is definitely a particular mindset that lends itself well to success in the world of scientific research, and convention seems to dictate that this mindset is one that looks down with a determinedly narrow-focus, rather than up.

    >the same principles appear in human psychology, ecosystems, economies, etc. All the “levels of being” in the universe take advantage of much the same basic building blocks

    I absolutely agree. As you suggested, the persistent emergent forms persist because of an inherent stability that arises because of the particular organisation of their most basic components…. OK so maybe I’m suggesting, from what I think I maybe understand about everything you’ve written so far…! But assuming that I’m at least in the ball park of understanding (one of those huge, new, international sort of ball parks), it seems logical that similar principles would arise in all different levels of being, and the disciplines there-in. I don’t think I’m explaining myself terribly well. I seem to have derailed myself by my throw-away remarks re existential nihilism the other day. Which led me to look over the subject in a little more detail, which then left me feeling rather deflated in general. So I am going to take myself off and find some Nietzsche and a glass of decent Merlot, and take a break from dwelling on it all so much. For a little while at least 🙂

    Sincerest thanks for walking me gently (!) through the foundations and framework of your philosophies and theories. I have been genuinely inspired. And I dare say it won’t be long until I wade back into the fray of some thread here with my own two cents worth 🙂

    Best of luck with everything!

    • stevegrand says:

      Ha! If I’d taken the trouble to look at your email address I’d have known. So mea culpa. My humble apologies to you and your noble countrymen, er, countryfolk. 🙂

      I’ll raise a glass of Merlot with you to holism, to self-organisation and to looking up!

      Thanks for the stimulating conversation (and your patience: once I get on my hobby horse…). It’s been fun. See you around, Margo.

      – Steve

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