16 March 2008

The Hall of Mirrors

It is said that true consciousness requires conscious of itself. Short of that, it is only sentience or awareness of what is outside. A flower or a tree is sentient. For example, consider phototropism of plants. But is a plant aware of its own phototropism? Not likely. In the animal kingdom, it is more obvious that sentience exists, but is it consciousness? Perhaps in some cases it is, but we have no proof of self-consciousness until language is used to describe the experience of the self to others. Of the animals, only apes and dolphins have learned some of our language; and we have not learned the language of any other species, as far as I know. We consider our language to be the very measure of intelligent consciousness. And self-consciousness brings the capability to question one's desires and choices, which is to say, to plan and influence one's own behavior. Without that degree of self-examination, how can we speak of free will? This is attention to what Keith Stanovich refers to as "second order desires," which he sees as distinguishing us from animals. We can seek to improve on our Autonomic Set of Systems, and try not to be such ASSes.

Most of us experience a certain fascination with the "hall of mirrors" effect, which appears when two mirrors near alignment so that they reflect into each other. We can peer around the edge of one mirror and see ourselves repeated many time over, like those industrious broom clones in Disney's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Human intrigues begin with trying to outguess another in a form of gamesmanship. We say "I could do A. But you probably know I will do A so you will do B to counter me. So I will do C instead, to keep you guessing. But then you might guess that I have guessed that you have guessed what I will do. So perhaps I should do something different?" It doesn't take much recursion to create a lot of confusion, and we have to decide how far to go. But this kind of thought process permeates the interactions among conscious (self-aware) individuals. It is perhaps most evident in games like Chess, where anticipating the moves of one's opponent is critically important to play an effective game. And in team sports or business, one must successfully anticipate the moves of one's teammates as well. So perhaps it is not just the consciousness of self that is key here, but the consciousness of being conscious of self, and of others and their consciousness. It was with this in mind that I took the self-portrait using my computer's web camera.

Another thing I had in the back of my mind was imagery from M C Escher's graphical work, which I have loved ever since I was presented with a book of it as a college graduation present. While Escher seems not to have ever drawn the "hall of mirrors" he was fascinated with reflections, especially from curved surfaces, and did a number of works that feature them. It always intrigued me that Escher chose to give a glimpse of himself and his world, embedded within his drawings. So in this world of blogs and social networking, where one puts out an image of oneself through the things one posts, I have posted a photograph here that I intend as an expression of my own consciousness. Think of it as taking the narcissism of the web a step further, an assertion of confidence. Rather late in a life of excessively self-conscious anxiety, I have found a lot of comfort in my own skin, and it feels great.

Some would call me a cheat, call me a liar
Say that I've been defeated by the basest desires
Yes I have strayed and succumbed to my vices
But I tried to live right

But I have no regrets, no guilt in my heart
I only feel sadness for any pain that I've caused
I guess I wouldn't bother to worry at all
If I'd lived right

Do you live by the book, do you play by the rules?
Do you care what is thought by others about you?
If this day is all that is promised to you
Do you live for the future, the present, the past?

If there is one thing I know, I know I will die
If anyone cares some stranger may critique my life
I may be revered or defamed and decried
But I tried to live right

There would be psalms sung by a choir
I would have a white robe, a halo newly acquired
I'd be at peace and I'd have no desire
If I'd lived right...

Unsung Psalm by Tracy Chapman

03 February 2008

The Robot's Rebellion

In a new book, Keith Stanovich of U. Toronto invokes a "Robot's Rebellion" as way of "finding meaning in the age of Darwin". I learned of the book through a Point of Inquiry podcast distributed by the Center for Inquiry, which can be accessed with the link attached to the title of this post.

I still haven't read this book, but have at least scanned the table of contents carefully and listened to the POI podcast a couple of times with attention to detail. It's a fascinating book and I am going to buy it if I can't find it otherwise, but my current feeling is that the thesis is fundamentally flawed. That's unfortunate, but perhaps the book leads us in the right direction in any case.

The basic idea is an extension of Richard Dawkins' concept of "the selfish gene" using the concept of memes, also credited to Dawkins, who set up an adversary relationship with our genetic code, by attributing "selfishness" to a macromolecule. Stanovich sets out to help us find meaning in world where evolution is held to be a fact of life. He suggests this can be achieved if humans will seize control of their lives from their genes and memes, and insist on guiding themselves instead. Much as I love Dawkins prose and his delightful explorations of evolutionary science, his supposed deep insight into sociobiology now seems misguided to me. As engaging as Stanovich's writing also may be, I'm suspicious than any meaning that is found in this way may well be misguided.

Not everyone is enamored with the idea of memes. A chapter subheading from "Robots' Rebellion" is "The ultimate meme trick: Why your memes want you to hate the idea of memes." So Stanovich would hold that many have fallen into this "trick" that memes play on us. They don't "want" us to understand that a host can be taken over by an idea that treats its carrier solely for the immediate advantage of the parasite. The joining of religious cults, and suicide bombings, are cases in point.

So what is the fundamental flaw? Well, let me quote Peter Fields: "Those who are not proud of their heritage will never amount to anything, because they are in contempt of themselves from the start." This may be a bit sentimental, but I think it is a profoundly huge mistake to adopt an adversarial relationship with our genetic heritage, regarding one's own genes as an alien replicator that has "taken over the body" for its own purposes. Shades of "Men in Black"! Here we must hold Richard Dawkins responsible as the source of the "selfish gene" meme, which is at the root of this mistake.

It's a natural enough error, until we recognize that a human body could never have been assembled in the first place without the presence of the genetic information. It's not as if a pre-existing and self-sufficient body has been invaded by an alien parasite. Rather the genes have guided the development of the material body with which they are able to preserve and propagate themselves. The body and the genes cannot be separated into distinct entities with different interests; they are the same. It could just as well (and erroneously) be argued that the dumb matter of the world has exploited the information contained in foundling scraps of DNA to assemble itself into living bodies.

Stanovich argues for a robot's rebellion, in which humans would extrapolate the evolution meme to take over from the genes who are exploiting us against our better interests. He imagines that this will release us from the constraints of "subpersonal" optimization, by which I think he means the interests of genes in expanding and developing the gene pool and the species. This will, in his view, free us to be more rational beings who figure out what we want for ourselves and pursue it. This concept has a lot of appeal as it echoes the spirit of the 60's counterculture within which many of us matured (or failed to do so). It rejects the wisdom of "anyone over 30" and challenges us to figure things out for ourselves and find new solutions.

But this looks all wrong to me from my present perspective. Genes and memes are distinguished by their temporal orientation and scale. Instead of being "selfish" invaders, genes are encyclopedias of the accumulated wisdom of the ages, distilled into individually unique, yet thematically consistent, forms that have dealt effectively with reality to sustain and propagate life. One of the resultant life forms has now developed its own facility for the creation and storage of information in encyclopedias, known as memes or memeplexes. Some of the memes provide models of reality that support successful prediction of the future, and how it depends on our current actions. And that allows us to practice rationality on a new time basis that is forward looking rather than backward looking, that is, experience based.

Bottom line: thinking of ourselves as robots planning a revolt is both demeaning and dumb. It's wiser by far to heed the message of the genes, while looking ahead to predictable changes that could revise genetic wisdom and allow "anticipatory adaptation". Perhaps it can be said that a truly intelligent species goes beyond trial and error.

19 January 2008

Oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve

My uncle-in-law forwarded me this provocative piece of nonsense:

"A lot of folks can't understand how we came to have an oil shortage here in our country.
Well, there's a very simple answer.
Nobody bothered to check the oil.
We just didn't know we were getting low.
The reason for that is purely geographical.
Our OIL is located in Alaska, California, Coastal Florida, Coastal Louisiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas
But Our DIPSTICKS are located in Washington , DC !!!
Any Questions ???"

Well, that made me check into my conventional liberal wisdom, and I came up with my typically wonkish rebuttal:

It's easy for folks to blow the type up to 40 points and color it, but it doesn't make the conclusion a "no-brainer". It makes it an "urban legend". But as always, don't take my word for it:

Wikipedia on "Peak Oil"
Wikipedia on Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve Controversy
Petroleum News on World Reserves
American University on Alaskan Reserves

From the above:
* Most optimistic world supply: ~75 yrs = 2300 Billion barrels / 30 Bb/yr
* Most optimistic supply in ANWR: 0.5 yr = 15 Billion barrels / 30 Bb/yr
30 Bb/yr worldwide is the current production rate, which could increase a bit if we invest in more capacity. But the world supply estimates have been constant since the 60's, so don't delude yourself about unknown supplies saving us. The projections include future discoveries using models based on experience.

So the Alaskan National Wildlife/Oil Reserve is pretty much a drop in the bucket on a global, or even national scale, since we consume much of the world's supply, or did until recent increases in China and India. And now Indians are making a $2500 car that many more can afford. That's about the price of a dual sequential gearbox for a VW, Audi, BMW!?

The naturalist/liberal prescription for the ANWR is then: "let's save it for a far rainier day than today." Damn, we're beginning to sound like conservatives, while the conservatives are dancing around the bonfire chanting "burn it, Burn It, BURN IT!"

It's a topsy turvey world!

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." -- Phillip K Dick

07 January 2008

The Metaphysics of Quality Rears its Head Again

Ok, I admit it: beyond college courses, my philosophical awakening was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and I'm a sucker for Robert Pirsig. I bought Lila in '91 or '92, but I must admit it made less impression on me than ZAMM did. However, I recently came across someone touting the Metaphysics of Quality as a way of resolving the apparent gulf between science and religion, and I zeroed in on that, visited the MoQ.org site, pulled out my copy of Lila, and began to root around to see if it had anything to say with which I now identify.

I clearly recall the single biggest message I took from ZAMM. It comes from an episode that is fresh in my mind after 30 years plus (which, if Steve Grand is right, means that none of the atoms of my present body were part of my body back then!). The traveling companions of Phaedrus and his son develop loose handlebars on their BMW motorcycle. It seems that some shim stock is required so that the handlebar clamp can regain a grip on the bars. Now, the BMW Company likes to cultivate an aura of high quality surrounding its products, and likes to charge a premium for that aura. Part of this is a strident insistence that only approved parts and supplies should be used on BMWs, and that only approved BMW mechanics should work on them, to assure observance of BMW's ultra high quality standards. Well, Phaedrus proposed to cut a shim from an aluminum beer or pop can, but this approach was roundly rejected by the owner of the BMW, who insists on taking the bike to a certified BMW dealer where the repair is made, presumably using "official BMW shim stock" (made from aluminum can stock?). From this I took the message that Quality is a concept that can be manipulated and misunderstood. An yet, there is a clear recognition that quality is very important, difficult as it may be to define.

Now I've done a bit more reading on the MoQ site, especially the essay collection, including "Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality," by Anthony McWatt from the Philosophy post-grad Seminar, University of Liverpool, February 12th 1998. After a lot of general discussion and background, he gets down to a Socratic Q&A exchange with himself:

How do [Pirsig's] four static patterns of quality relate? (intellectual, social, biological and inorganic)

The MOQ recognizes that the four static patterns of quality are related through cosmological EVOLUTION. A graphical representation is offered for this:

If the Big Bang is taken as the starting point of the universe, it is seen that at this point of time there were only inorganic quality patterns. That is to say chemicals and quantum forces. Since then, at successive stages of history, plants and animals have evolved from inorganic patterns, societies have evolved from biological patterns, and intellect has evolved from societies. "...the universe is evolving from a condition of low quality (quantum forces only, no atoms, pre-big bang) toward a higher one (birds, trees, societies and thoughts) and in a static sense (world of everyday affairs) these two are not the same." (letter from Robert Pirsig to Anthony McWatt, March 23rd, 1997)

As the cosmologist, Edward Kolb notes:
"In perhaps nature's most miraculous transformation, the universe evolved the capacity to ponder and understand itself." ("Astronomy", February 1998, p.37)

Well! that sounds a lot like Alan Watts and Carl Sagan, who both waxed eloquent about the role of humans as the conscience of the universe. I don't care much for Pirsig's nomenclature, and I would identify biological "static quality patterns" (SQP) as being equivalent to DNA information and its refinement through evolution. And, in my view, social SQP are equivalent to the social organization of living things into communities. Finally, intellectual SQP are equivalent on the written literature of humankind, which undergoes a refinement process much like that of the information in DNA, except that it is edited much more frequently and without life and death, except possibly for memes. Of these, you can see that I'm having the most trouble finding a form of information that is social in nature.

But the next question is:

Why is evolution an important consideration in the MOQ?

Evolution is an important consideration in the MOQ as a code of ethics can be generated from the four basic levels of quality patterns. Though each level of static patterns have emerged from the one below, each level follows its own different rules i.e. there are physical laws such as gravity (inorganic), the laws of the jungle (biology), co-operation between animals (society), and the ideas of freedom and rights (intellect). It is important to note that the different laws of the four static levels often clash e.g. adultery (biological good) v. family stability (social good).
The MOQ combines the four levels of patterns to produce one overall moral framework based on an evolutionary hierarchy (as seen on the MOQ diagram). The entity that has more freedom on the evolutionary scale (i.e. the one that is more Dynamic) is the one that takes moral precedence. So, for instance, a human being is seen as having moral precedence over a dog because a human being is at a higher level of evolution...

The MOQ follows a form of Darwin's "survival of the fittest" where the fittest is equated with the best. As Pirsig points out:
"...'survival of the fittest' is one of those catch-phrases... that sounds best when you don't ask precisely what it means. Fittest for what? Fittest for survival? That reduces to 'survival of the survivors', which doesn't say anything. 'Survival of the fittest' is only meaningful only when 'fittest' is equated with the 'best', which is to say 'Quality'." (Robert Pirsig, LILA, Black Swan, 1991, rep.1994, p.179)

On the other hand, Darwin defined "fitness" this way: "it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change".

In this context, the best generally refers to the choice which produces the most freedom for a given situation. It is an increase of freedom all the way. For instance, quantum forces can change their energy levels, earthworms can control their distance and direction, birds are able to fly in the sky while people manage to get to the moon.

"The MOQ says, as does Buddhism, that the best place on the wheel of karma is the hub and not the rim where one is thrown about by the gyrations of everyday life. But the MOQ sees the wheel of karma as attached to a cart that is going somewhere - from quantum forces through inorganic forces and biological patterns and social patterns to the intellectual patterns that perceive the quantum forces.

In the sixth century B.C. in India there was no evidence of this kind of evolutionary progress, and Buddhism, accordingly, does not pay attention to it. Today it's not possible to be so uninformed. The suffering which the Buddhists regard as only that which is to be escaped, is seen by the MOQ as merely the negative side of the progression toward Quality (or, just as accurately, the expansion of quality). Without the suffering to propel it, the cart would not move forward at all."
(letter from Robert Pirsig to Anthony McWatt, March 23rd 1997)

I find these ideas a bit fuzzy, but it seems to me they can be made more rigorous by identifying "freedom" with "free will" and a propensity to freely respond to change, as Darwin posed it.

And finally:

So what's the value of such a moral framework?

By removing morals from social convention and placing them on a scientifically based theory of evolution the MOQ removes much of the cultural subjectivity that is inherent in many ethical beliefs.

Pirsig produces the following example:

"Is it immoral, as the Hindus and Buddhists claim, to eat the flesh of animals? Our current morality would say it's immoral only if you're a Hindu or a Buddhist. Otherwise its OK, since morality is nothing more than social convention."

"An evolutionary morality, on the other hand, would say it's scientifically immoral for everyone because animals are at a higher level of evolution, that is, more Dynamic than are grains and fruits and vegetables. But... it would add ... that this moral principle holds only where there is an abundance of grains and fruit and vegetables. It would be immoral for Hindus not to eat their cows in a time of famine, since they would then be killing human beings in favor of a lower organism." (Robert Pirsig, LILA, Black Swan, 1991, rep.1994, p.190/191)

Lila is billed as "An inquiry into Morals" and Pirsig is clearly trying to devise an objective source of morals by basing it on Quality of life and evolutionary science. So he postulates an evolutionary ordering of life forms, a pecking order of "who may eat whom for dinner." If nothing else, this is certainly an effective rationalization for human omnivorousness!

To wrap this up, note that I have mapped Pirsig's quality patterns into a hierarchy of information. For inorganic SQPs, there is no memory or medium in which to store information. When DNA came to be used as a genetic storage medium, nature began to take notes on its progress with replicating life forms, and to keep and preserve the notes from generation to generation, and to practice mutation with natural selection. The result is 3.5 billion years of evolution that has recently produced a species that keeps its own notes from generation to generation and is busily refining them using a process analogous to evolution, but using memes in place of genes. The editing is going on much more rapidly than once per generation, however, so the pace of change has speeded up greatly.

All of which is a very long preamble to the overall point I'd like to make, which I believe to be supported by the Metaphysics of Quality. And my point is that DNA plays the role that humans have previously ascribed to an "immortal soul". The genome is scrupulously specific to each individual, is preserved for millions and billions of years so that it can be refined through selection, and is a ghostly reality that can be copied from physical medium to physical medium, with no substance of its own. As argued by Richard Dawkins and artificial intelligence expert Steve Grand, matter is merely "used" by genes and memes to propagate and test themselves. While not entirely satisfying as an analogue of the immortal soul of religion, the genome clearly shares many characteristics of that hypothetical construct, and is the closest thing we are likely to find to a scientifically defensible "soul" of each living thing.