Archive for the ‘Video’ Category

Here’s an IAI debate with David Chalmers, Kate Devlin, and Hilary Lawson.

In ultra-brief summary, Lawson points out that there are still things that computers perform poorly at; recognising everyday real-world objects, notably. (Sounds like a bad prognosis for self-driving cars.) Thought is a way of holding different things as the same. Devlin thinks computers can’t do what humans do yet, but in the long run, surely they will.

Chalmers points out that machines can do whatever brains can do because the brain is a machine (in a sense not adequately explored here, though Chalmers himself indicates the main objections).

There’s some brief discussion of the Singularity.

In my view, thoughts are mental or brain states that are about something. As yet, we have no clear idea of what this aboutness is and how it works, or whether it is computational (probably not, I think) or subserved by computation in a way that means it could benefit from the exponential growth in computing power (which may have stopped being exponential). At the moment, computers do a great imitation of what human translators do, but to date they haven’t even got started on real meaning, let alone set off on an exponential growth curve. Will modern machine learning techniques change that?

Self-discovery: fascinating journey of life or load of tosh? An IAI discussion.

On the whole, I think the vastness of the subject means we get no more than first steps here, though the directions are at least interesting. Joanna Kavenna notes the paradoxical entanglements that can arise from self-examination and makes an interesting comparison with the process of novelists finding their ‘voice’. Exploration of selves is of course the bedrock of the novel, a topic which could take up many pages in itself. She asserts that the self is experientially real, but that thought also floats away unexamined.

David Chalmers has a less misty proposition; people have traits and we are inclined to think of some as deep or essential. Identifying these is a reasonable project, but not without dangers if we settle on the wrong ones.

Ed Stafford seems to be uncomfortable with philosophy unless it comes from an ayahuasca session or a distant tribe. He likes the idea of thinking with your stomach, but does not shed any light on the interesting question of how stomach thoughts differ from brain ones. In general he seems to take the view that for well-adjusted people there is no mystery, one knows who one is and there’s no need to wibble about it. Oddly, though he mentions being dropped on a desert island where the solitude was so severe, that even when the helicopter was still in view, he vomited. To suffer radical depersonalisation after a couple of minutes alone on a beach seems an extraordinary example of personal fragility, but I suppose we are to understand this was before he centred himself through contact with more robust cultures. Of course, those who reject theory always in fact have a theory; it’s just one that they either haven’t examined or don’t want examined. In response to Chalmers’ suggestion that a loving environment can surely lead to personal growth, he seems to begin adding qualifications to his view of the robustly settled personality, but if we are witnessing actual self-discovery here it doesn’t go far.

Myself I reckon that you don’t need to identify your essential traits to experience self-discovery; merely becoming conscious of your own traits renders them self-conscious and transforms them, an iterative process that represents a worthwhile kind of growth, both moral and psychological. But I’ve never tried ayahuasca.

A blast of old-fashioned optimism from Owen Holland: let’s just build a conscious robot!

It’s a short video so Holland doesn’t get much chance to back up his prediction that if you’re under thirty you will meet a conscious robot. He voices feelings which I suspect are common on the engineering and robotics side of the house, if not usually expressed so clearly: why don’t we just get on and put a machine together to do this? Philosophy, psychology, all that airy fairy stuff is getting us nowhere; we’ll learn more from a bad robot than twenty papers on qualia.

His basic idea is that we’re essentially dealing with an internal model of the world. We can now put together robots with an increasingly good internal modelling capability (and we can peek into those models); why not do that and then add new faculties and incremental improvements till we get somewhere?

Yeah, but. The history of AI is littered with projects that started like this and ran into the sand. In particular the idea that it’s all about an internal model may be a radical mis-simplification. We don’t just picture ourselves in the world, we picture ourselves picturing ourselves. We can spend time thinking just about the concept of consciousness – how would that appear in a model? In general our conscious experience is complex and elusive, and cannot accurately be put on a screen or described on a page (though generations of novelists have tried everything they can think of).

The danger when we start building is that the first step is wrong and already commits us to a wrong path. Maybe adding new abilities won’t help. Perhaps our ability to model the world is just one aspect of a deeper and more general faculty that we haven’t really grasped yet; building in a fixed spatial modeller might turn us away from that right at the off. Instead of moving incrementally towards consciousness we might end up going nowhere (although there should be some pretty cool robots along the way).

Still, without some optimism we’ll certainly get nowhere anyway.

Does language capture reality – or capture us in a cage of our own making?
Hilary Lawson believes we close the world; its rich, polyvalent potentiality is closed down into our limited stock of concepts and finite vocabulary so that our language doesn’t deliver reality to us at all; it lies beyond words. He recognises the difficulty of expounding, in words, the fundamental inadequacy of language.
There’s some truth in that view (and Lawson’s strictures about the limitations of our senses recall the basis of Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory). We surely do see things differently. Imagine a couple viewing houses; they have different priorities and see different things about each house. Later, when they discuss the one with the conservatory it’s not much of a stretch to say that they’re discussing different houses – though Lawson has in mind a more radical problem than that! In fact when you think about it, what he demands is astonishing – that in order to capture reality we have to apprehend the whole totality of it in every aspect. Either we have exhaustive perfect acquaintance with reality – or it’s not reality at all. Why aren’t small chunks of reality real?
Emma Borg, indeed, believes that there is an objective reality and words can tell us about it. Sure, language is a human fantasy, a human construct, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tell about the world. It’s human beings that give meanings to things, in fact. She grants that there are many different perspectives we can take, but ultimately some descriptions of the world just yield better results than others – as we’d have to concede in the case of say, medical diagnosis.
Daniel Everett thinks there are certainly big differences between the way different cultures address the world; in fact he says the idea of being “beyond words” would be hard to articulate in many cultures. Everett is of course famous for his controversial descriptions of the Piraha language, which has no numbers or colours and seems strangely restricted in other interesting ways. People have challenged his research, but no-one else really has anything like Everett’s depth of experience and knowledge of the Piraha. The cultural differences he describes seem to support the idea that words trap us in a “reality” of our own, but he also points out that we develop shared conventions and end up talking like the people we talk with.
Words can certainly be understood differently; who hasn’t picked up a word from hearing it in context, only to discover years later that the dictionary definition is not what we expected  yet years of using the word slightly wrong and therefore not saying quite what we thought we were saying, have passed unnoticed. (It turns out that “strictures” above might not really have been the word I wanted…)
Myself, I don’t think language is primarily about describing the world for our own benefit anyway; it’s more about influencing other people’s thoughts and creating harmonised streams of shared thoughts. It’s a pragmatic game, too, not a formal encoding based on a fixed intellectual structure,; it’s not unlike a game of charades whose players have developed a wonderful set of conventions that let them signal at blazing speed. So I’m really with Borg, I think.

What is evil? Peter Dews says it’s an idea we’re not comfortable with any more;  after the shock of Nazism, Hannah Arendt thought we’d spend the rest of the century talking about it; but actually very little was said. We are inclined to talk about conspicuous badness as  something that has somehow been wired into some people’s nature; but if it’s wired in, they had no choice and it can’t be really evil…

Simon Baron-Cohen rests on the idea that often what we’re really dealing with is a failure of empathy and explains some of the ways modern research is showing it can fall short through genetics or other issues. Dews raises a good objection; that moral goodness and empathy are clearly distinct. Your empathy with your wife might give you the knowledge you need to be really hurtful, for example. Baron-Cohen has an answer to this particular example in his distinction between cognitive and affective empathy – it’s one thing to understand another person’s feelings and quite another to share them or care about them. But surely there are other ways empathy isn’t quite right? Empathy with wicked people might cause us to help them in their wrong-doing, mightn’t it? Lack of empathy might allow you to be a good dentist…

Rebecca Roache thinks evil is a fuzzy concept but one that is entwined in our moral discourse and one we should be poorer for abandoning.  Describing the Holocaust as ‘very bad’ wouldn’t really do the job.

In my own view, to be evil requires that you understand right and wrong, and choose wrong. This seems impossible, because according to Socrates, anyone who really understands what good is, must want to do it. It has never looked like that in real life, however, where there seem to be plenty of people doing things they know are wrong

Luckily I recently set out in a nutshell the complete and final theory of ethics. In even briefer form: I think we seek to act effectively out of a kind of roughly existentialist self-assertion. We see that general aims serve our purpose better than limited ones and so choose to act categorically on roughly Kantian reasoning. A sort of empty consequentialism provides us with a calculus by which to choose the generally effective over the particular, but unfortunately the values are often impossible to assess in practice. We therefore fall back on moral codes, set of rules we know are likely to give the best results in the long run.

Now, that suggests Socrates was broadly right; doing the right thing just makes sense. But the system is complicated; there are actually several different principles at work at different levels, and this does give rise to real conflicts.

At the lower levels, these conflicts can give rise to the appearance of evil. Different people may, for example, quite properly have slightly different moral codes that either legitimately reflect cultural difference or are matters of mere convention. Irritable people may see the pursuit of a different code from their own as automatically evil. Second, there’s a genuine tension between any code and the consequentialist rationale that supports it. We follow the code because we can’t do the calculus, but every now and then, as in the case of white lies, the utility of breaking the code is practically obvious. People who cling to the code, or people who treat it as flexible, may be seen as evil by those who make different judgements. In fact all these conflicts can be internalised and lead to feelings of guilt and moral doubt; we may even feel a bit bad ourselves.

None of those examples really deserve to be called evil in my view though; that label only applies to higher level problems. The whole thing starts with self-assertion, and some may feel that deliberate wickedness allows them to make a bigger splash. Sure, they may say, I understand that my wrongdoing harms society and thereby indirectly harms my own consequential legacy. But I reckon people will sort of carry things for me; meanwhile I’ll write my name on history far more effectively as a master of wickedness than as a useful clerk. This is a mistake, undoubtedly, but unfortunately the virtuous arguments are rather subtle and unexciting, whereas the false reasoning is Byronic and attractive. I reckon that’s how the deliberate choice of recognised evil sometimes arises.

Here’s another IAI video on Explaining the Inexplicable: it honestly doesn’t have much to do with consciousness but today, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, it felt appropriate…
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Nancy Cartwright says there are those who like the “Big Explainers”; theories that offer to explain everything: then there are those who cherish mystery: she situates herself in the middle somewhere – the ‘Missouri’ position. We know that some things can be explained, so let’s see what you got.

Piers Corbyn thinks the incomplete Enlightenment project has been undone by a fondness for grand theories and models (not least over climate change). We need to get back on track, and making scientific falsehood illegal would help.

James Ladyman thinks modern physics has removed the certainty that everything can be explained. Nevertheless, science has succeeded through its refusal to accept that any domain is in principle inexplicable. We should carry on and instead of trying for grand total explanations we should learn to live with partial success.

I don’t know much about this, but I reckon an explanation is an account that, when understood, stops a certain kind of worry. We may notice that most explanations reduce or simplify the buzzing complexity of the world; once we have the explanation we need only worry about a few general laws instead of millions of particles; or perhaps we know we need only worry about a simpler domain to which the original can be reduced. In short, the desire for explanation is akin to the desire for tidiness, or let’s politely call it elegance.

The way we think about consciousness is just wrong, it seems.

First, says Markus Gabriel, we posit this bizarre entity the Universe, consisting of everything, and then ask whether consciousness is part of it; this is no way to proceed. In fact ‘consciousness’ covers many different things; once correctly analysed many of them are unproblematic (The multilingual Gabriel suggests in passing that there is no satisfactory German word equivalent to ‘mind’, and for that matter, no good English equivalent of ‘geist’.) He believes there is more mystery about how, for example, the brain deals with truth.

Ray Brassier draws a distinction between knowing what consciousness is and knowing what it means. A long tradition suggests that because we have direct acquaintance with consciousness our impressions are authoritative and we know its nature. In fact the claims about phenomenal experience made by Chalmers and others are hard to justify. I can see, he says, that there are phenomenal qualities – being brown, or square – attached to a table, but the idea that phenomenal things are going on in my mind separate from the table seems to make no sense.

Eva Jablonka takes a biological and evolutionary view. Biological stuff is vastly more complex than non-biological stuff and requires different explanations. She defends Chalmers’s formulation of the problem, but not his answers; she is optimistic that scientific exploration can yield enlightenment. She cites the interesting case of Daniel Kish  whose eyes were removed in early infancy but who has developed echolocation skills to the point where he can ride a bike and find golf balls – it seems his visual cortex has been recruited for the purpose. Surely, says Jablonka, he must have a somewhat better idea of what it is like to be a bat?

There’s a general agreement that simplistic materialism is outdated and that a richer naturalism is required (not, of course, anything like traditional dualism).

Is it really all about the unconscious? An interesting discussion, much of it around the value of the Freudian view: powerful insight into unfathomable complexity or literary stuff of no therapeutic value?

Shahidha Bari makes an impassioned case for the depth of Freud’s essential insights; Barry C Smith says Freud actually presents the motives and workings of the unconscious as too much like those of the conscious mind. Richard Bentall says it’s the conscious mind that is the real mystery; unconsciousness is the norm for non-human beings. Along the way we hear about some interesting examples of how the conscious mind seems to be just a rationalising module for decisions made elsewhere. Quote back to people opinions they never actually voiced, and they will devise justifications for them.

I think the separation between conscious and unconscious often gets muddled with the difference between explicit and inexplicit thinking. It’s surely possible to think consciously without thinking in words, but the borderline between wordless conscious thought and unconscious processes is perhaps hard to pin down.

Some deep and heavy  philosophy in another IAI video: After the End of Truth. This one got a substantial and in places rather odd discussion on Reddit recently.

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Hilary Lawson starts with the premise that Wittgenstein and others have sufficiently demonstrated that there is no way of establishing objective truth; but we can’t, he says, rest there. He thinks that we can get a practical way forward if we note that the world is open but we can close it in various ways and some of them work better for us than others.

Perhaps an analogy might be (as it happens) the ideas of truth and falsity themselves in formal logic. Classical logic assigns only two values to propositions; true or not true. People often feel this is unintuitive. We can certainly devise formal logics with more than two values – we could add one for ‘undetermined’, say. This is not a matter of what’s right or wrong; we can carve up our system of logic any way we like. The thing is, two-valued logic just gives us a lot more results than its rivals. One important reason is that if we can exclude a premise, in a two-value system its negation must be true; that move doesn’t work if there are three or more values). So it’s not that two-valued logic is true and the others are false, it’s just that doing it the two-valued way gets us more. Perhaps something similar might be true of the different way we might carve up the world.

John Searle, by video (and briefly doing that thing old people seem mysteriously prone to; sinking to the bottom of the frame as though peering over a wall) goes for common sense, as ever, albeit cloaked in technical terms. He distinguishes between epistemic and ontological senses of objectivity. Our views are unavoidably ontologically subjective to some degree (ie, different people have different views:  ‘perspectivalism’ is true); but that does not at all entail that epistemic objectivity is unattainable; indeed, if we didn’t assume some objective truths we couldn’t get started on discussion. That’s a robust refutation of the view that perspectivalism implies no objective truth, though I’m not sure that’s quite the case Lawson was making.  Perhaps we could argue that after all, there are such things as working assumptions; to say ‘let’s treat this as true and see where we get’ does not necessarily require belief in objectively determinable truth.

Hannah Dawson seems to argue emphatically on both sides; no two members of a class gave the same account of an assembly (though I bet they could all agree that no pink elephant walked in half-way through). It seems the idea of objective truth sits uneasily in history;  but no-one can deny the objective factuality of the Holocaust; sometimes, after all, reality does push back. This may be an expression of the curious point that it often seems easier to say that nothing is objectively true than it is to say that nothing is objectively false, illogical as that is.

Dawson’s basic argument looks to me a bit like an example of ‘panic scepticism’; no perfect objective account of an historical event is possible, therefore nothing at all is objectively true. I think we get this kind of thing in philosophy of mind too; people seem to argue that our senses mislead us sometimes, therefore we have no knowledge of external reality (there are better arguments for similar conclusions, of course). Maybe after all we can find ways to make do with imperfect knowledge.

What is experience? An interesting discussion from the Institute of Art and Ideas, featuring David Chalmers, Susana Martinez-Conde and Peter Hacker.

Chalmers seems to content himself with restating the Hard Problem; that is, that there seems to be something in experience which is mysteriously over and above the account given by physics. He seems rather nervous, but I think it’s just the slight awkwardness typical of a philosopher being asked slightly left-field questions.

Martinez-Conde tells us we never really experience reality, only a neural simulation of it. I think it’s a mistake to assume that because experience seems to be mediated by our sensory systems, and sometimes misleads us, it never shows us external reality. That’s akin to thinking that because some books are fiction no book really addresses reality.

Hacker smoothly dismisses the whole business as a matter of linguistic and conceptual confusion. Physics explains its own domain, but we shouldn’t expect it to deal with experience, any more than we expect it to explain love, or the football league. He is allowed to make a clean get-away with this neat proposition, although we know, for example, that physical electrodes in the brain can generate and control experiences; and we know that various illusions and features of experience have very good physiological explanations. Hacker makes it seem that there is a whole range of domains, each with its own sealed off world of explanation; but surely love, football and the others are just sub-domains of the mental realm? Though we don’t yet know how this works there is plenty of evidence that the mental domain is at least causally dependent on physics, if not reducible to it. That’s what the discussion is all about. We can imagine Hacker a few centuries ago assuring us loftily that the idea of applying ordinary physics to celestial mechanics was a naive category error. If only Galileo had read up on his Oxford philosophy he would realise that the attempt to explain the motion of the planets in terms of physical forces was doomed to end in unresolvable linguistic bewitchment!

I plan to feature more of these discussion videos as a bit of a supplement to the usual menu here, by the way.