Monday, November 30, 2020

Monday, November 23, 2020

When both sides accuse the other of a coup d'état

Just in case it isn't clear, Calvin is the Democrat; Hobbes is the Republican -- except according to Rasmussen 25% of Republicans agree with Calvin that the election wasn't rigged and 30% of Democrats agree with Hobbes that it was.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Knowledge Argument

Say there's a woman named Mary who has monochromacy, or black/white color blindness, so that everything looks like a black and white film. Despite this disadvantage, Mary becomes a celebrated neurologist, and actually the foremost expert on color perception. She knows exactly what is happening in the brain when someone sees the color blue, for example, even though she can't see it herself.

Anyhoo, one day Mary is sitting underneath a tree reading a book about Isaac Newton when an apple falls on her head and momentarily knocks her out. When she wakes up her monochromacy is gone: she can see the green grass, she can see purple mountain majesties, and she can see the clear blue sky. She had never seen these colors before. She had never known what "blue" looks like. But she knew everything that happened in the brain when someone experienced the color blue. So the question is: does Mary know something now that she didn't know before? This is the Knowledge Argument.

This isn't as easy to answer as you might think. I've been asking my students this for years and it's usually a split vote. One point to make here is that knowing what blue looks like wouldn't be propositional knowledge, but does it count as knowledge then? Some people think it's obvious Mary knows something that she didn't know before (what blue looks like) and others think it's obvious she doesn't.

The issue here is about qualia (singular: qualium), the "what it's like" experiences. Thomas Nagel wrote an essay called "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" which really brought this point home. Many philosophers of mind say that qualia are the heart and soul of the mind, and even human life in general. But the problem is that qualia can't be quantified and are effectively invisible to science. Science seeks to explain things from a third person perspective, but qualia are intrinsically first person in nature. Mary could describe color perception from a third person perspective but with no awareness of the qualium "what blue looks like". So the reason this is important is that, if Mary knows something after seeing the color blue that she did not know before, then there are important things -- foundational, fundamental things -- that science cannot address. If you had a complete physical, scientific description of the entire universe, it would be intrinsically incomplete, since it would not include qualia.

Moreover, the third person perspective is derived from the first person: to describe something from the third is to observe it from another standpoint, but ultimately this just means to observe it from what a first person perspective from that other standpoint would be. There can be no (to reference another Nagel work) view from nowhere. So science is utterly dependent on the first person perspective, and thus qualia, but cannot address them.

Naturally, all this is controversial. Some philosophers of mind, like Daniel Dennett, deny the reality of qualia. The philosopher who came up with the Knowledge Argument, Frank Jackson, eventually changed his mind about it because of the implications it had, viz., that there is more to reality than the physical world. Jaegwon Kim, who gives Nagel a run for his money as the greatest living philosopher in my opinion, fully accepts the reality of qualia and their centrality in human life, but still defends physicalism: see his books Mind in a Physical World and Physicalism, or Something Near Enough. And there's a collection of some of the most important essays about the Knowledge Argument which has the unfortunate title There's Something about Mary. So now you know what to read during the quarantine.

Your eyes are the darkest shade of light gray I've ever seen . . .

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Quote of the Day

I do not define the essence of religion as belief in God and immortality. Judaism in its earlier stages had no belief in immortality, and for a long time no belief which was religiously relevant. The shadowy existence of the ghost in Sheol was one of which Jehovah took no account and which took no account of Jehovah. In Sheol all things are forgotten. The religion was centered on the ritual and ethical demands of Jehovah in the present life, and also, of course, on benefits expected from Him. These benefits are often merely worldly benefits (grandchildren and peace upon Israel), but a more specifically religious note is repeatedly struck. The Jew is athirst for the living God, he delights in His laws as in honey or treasure, he is conscious of himself in Jehovah's presence as unclean of lips and heart. The glory or splendor of God is worshiped for its own sake. In Buddhism, on the other hand, we find that a doctrine of immortality is central, while there is nothing specifically religious. Salvation from immortality, deliverance from reincarnation, is the very core of its message. The existence of the gods is not necessarily decried, but it is of no religious significance. In Stoicism again both the religious quality and the belief in immortality are variables, but they do not vary in direct ratio. Even within Christianity itself we find a striking expression, not without influence from Stoicism, of the subordinate position of immortality. When Henry More ends a poem on the spiritual life by saying that if, after all, he should turn out to be mortal he would be

"... satisfide
A lonesome mortall God t' have died."

From my own point of view, the example of Judaism and Buddhism is of immense importance. The system, which is meaningless without a doctrine of immortality, regards immortality as a nightmare, not as a prize. The religion which, of all ancient religions, is most specifically religious, that is, at once most ethical and most numinous, is hardly interested in the question. Believing, as I do, that Jehovah is a real being, indeed the ens realissimum, I cannot sufficiently admire the divine tact of thus training the chosen race for centuries in religion before even hinting the shining secret of eternal life. He behaves like the rich lover in a romance who woos the maiden on his own merits, disguised as a poor man, and only when he has won her reveals that he has a throne and palace to offer. For I cannot help thinking that any religion which begins with a thirst for immortality is damned, as a religion, from the outset. Until a certain spiritual level has been reached, the promise of immortality will always operate as a bribe which vitiates the whole religion and infinitely inflames those very self-regards which religion must cutdown and uproot. For the essence of religion, in my view, is the thirst for an end higher than natural ends; the finite self's desire for, and acquiescence in, and self-rejection in favor of, an object wholly good and wholly good for it. That the self-rejection will turn out to be also a self-finding, that bread cast upon the waters will be found after many days, that to die is to live -- these are sacred paradoxes of which the human race must not be told too soon.

Sunday, November 15, 2020


Here's an article about a space company that plans to use the many discarded upper stages of rockets in orbit to make commercial space stations. That's awesome.

My posts on space science here are not consistent. I wrote a bit ago about a spacecraft that was going to momentarily touch down on a freaking asteroid, gather some stuff up, and then return to Earth. Then it actually did so, got more stuff than it was anticipating, everything's going great, and I didn't post about it. Not to mention the claims that they found some chemicals in Venus's atmosphere that, in our experience, are only produced by life, although it's possible for them to be produced by other processes. Didn't post on it. You'll notice I'm not providing links to those stories either. That's because it would have required effort on my part.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Some more recent acquisitions


William P. Alston, A Realist Conception of Truth.

---,  The Reliability of Sense Perception.

Robert Audi, The Architecture of Reason: The Structure and Substance of Rationality.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning.

Michael Bergmann, Justification without Awareness: A Defense of Epistemic Externalism.

Edwyn Bevan, Symbolism and Belief.

Roderick M. Chisholm, The Foundations of Knowing.

Paul Copan, ed., Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan.

Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.

Alvin I. Goldman, Epistemology and Cognition.

George S. Pappas and Marshall Swain, eds., Essays on Knowledge and Justification.

Ernest Sosa, Epistemology.

Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim, eds., Epistemology: An Anthology (1st edition).

Barry Stroud, Hume.

Peter Unger, Philosophical Papers, vol. 1.

---, Philosophical Papers, vol. 2.

Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus' Essential Teachings on Discipleship.

Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.


Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics.

Tony Daniel, The Robot's Twilight Companion.

Jack Dann, ed., Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Philip José Farmer, Night of Light.

Walter M. Miller, Jr., Conditionally Human.

---, The View from the Stars.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians.

---, Galileo's Dream.

---, The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson.

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man.

Robert Charles Wilson, Spin.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Oy vey

I don't write much about politics on this blog (for reasons), but I'm concerned about this Presidential election. I think we're heading to an Avignon Papacy situation. This is because I don't see any way for either side to back down.

Situation 1: Say the Trumpfolk are right and the Bidenkin are trying to steal the election. Honestly, I take it for granted that there are a lot of nefarious machinations behind the scenes like this. And while I'm not a Republican, I have noticed that when there's a close race and the Republican is slightly ahead, they often find a secret cache of votes that go disproportionately to the Democrat. I think it's generally accepted that the Democrats stole the 1960 Presidential election. In my own neck of the woods, Chris Dudley was ahead by about 30,000 votes in the 2010 race for Governor in Oregon, and then overnight they found more votes that made him 30,000 votes behind. In the 2008 Senate election in Minnesota, Al Franken was behind in the votes, although it was really close. As they recounted, they kept finding ways to include or exclude votes, and it just happened to skew to Franken until, ultimately, Franken was declared the winner. I'm not saying it never goes the other way, it's just what I've noticed.

So anyway, I don't think it's outrageous to suggest that's what's happening now. If so, then there's no way that Trump, being Trump, is going to let it go. I suspect a lot of the Trumpfolk wouldn't accept it, even it went to the Supreme Court and they found for Biden. Really, if the Bidenkin are trying to steal the election, then the Trumpfolk shouldn't accept the results. But I don't think the Bidenkin would let it go either. For them to let it go would be to tacitly admit that they cheated and tried to steal a Presidential election. They're not going to do that, they would lose authority and power for good. So if the Bidenkin really are cheating, neither side can back down under any circumstances.

Situation 2: OK, now say that they're not cheating, or at least their cheatings aren't consequential enough to change the election results. In this case, the Bidenkin wouldn't let it go for the same reason: it would be a tacit admission that they cheated. It's even worse here though, because it would have the same effects (a permanent loss of authority and power) but it wouldn't even be true. They wouldn't and shouldn't give in if this is the case.

Could Trump let it go? Well, I guess he could, but, y'know, Trump. He won't. I wouldn't trust him to let it go even if he came to genuinely realize that he legitimately lost (although I don't think he's unique in that regard). But there's more to it. If he let it go it would be a loss of prestige and authority for him. He could run again in 2024, but I think it would closer to a Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 scenario than a Grover Cleveland in 1892 one. So Trump wouldn't let it go. What about the movement that he represents? I'm not sure if they would lose power and prestige, but I don't think they would be willing to let it go either. Trump is their avatar.

So that's why I'm concerned. If the Bidenkin cheated, there's no way either side would back down. If they didn't cheat, there's no way either side would back down. I think Civil War 2.0 is starting, folks. But I really, really hope I'm wrong. The good news is that me being wrong is much more likely.

Update (Nov. 30): This article by a pollster sums up the reasons why people are claiming the election looks like it was rigged.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Lucas-Penrose Argument

Brace yourselves, this one can melt your brain.

In the early 20th century, it was thought that mathematics could be made into a complete formal system. This is a system in which every element has a complete definition, every entailment is deductive (so that conclusions necessarily follow from premises), and which contains no contradictions. But some basic concepts are unformalizable. "Truth," for example, allows us to form the Liar Paradox: "This statement is not true." If it's true, then it's false, and if it's false, it's true. So no formal system can have a truth predicate in it. (This isn't a mark against truth, btw.) One motive for this is a system with a contradiction leads to the principle of explosion, since ex falso quodlibet -- from a contradiction, everything follows.

Anyhoo, Kurt Gödel, inarguably the greatest logician of the 20th century, suggested we use a concept in place of truth that IS formalizable and doesn't lead to a paradox: provability. "This statement is not provable" doesn't lead to a problem like the Liar Paradox. But since such a statement can be made within any formal system, and since any such system must involve deductive provability, it follows that there can be no complete formal system. This is the intuition behind Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems. We'd been chasing a mirage.

This was around 1930. About the same time we had huge strides made in artificial intelligence by the likes of Alan Turing, Alonzo Church, etc. Turing came up with the idea of a Turing machine, which is an instantiation of a formal system, the cause-and-effect processes of the machine standing in for the deductive ground-consequent relations of the formal system. But since any formal system will have a statement within it to the effect of "This statement is not provable within this system" (called a Gödel sentence), such would also have to be the case for a Turing machine.

This is a problem because a Turing machine can only affirm provable claims, so any given machine will have a Gödel sentence which it cannot affirm. Human minds, however, have no such limitation: we can see that there is a Gödel sentence within our own systems of thought and affirm it, recognizing that it is correct. It is correct that "This statement is not provable within this system" is not provable within that system. This has two consequences: 1) Human minds cannot be reduced to Turing machines. They cannot be fully explained by the mechanistic cause-and-effect processes that are going on in the brain. There is an element of the mind that goes beyond it, and this element is truth-conducive. 2) Turing machines, and artificial intelligence in general, cannot fully duplicate the processes of human minds. They may be able to duplicate the end-products, but they can't produce them the same way that human minds do: through non-deductive (non-formal) reasoning. They can only do it via mechanistic cause-and-effect processes which don't have to be truth-conducive in order to arrive at those end-products.

This conclusion was reached by Gödel himself in his 1951 Gibbs Lecture, "Some Basic Theorems on the Foundations of Mathematics and Their Implications", but it wasn't published until the third volume of his Collected Works came out in 1995. J.R. Lucas -- who in writing this post I have learned passed away earlier this year, which devastates me -- however, wrote an enormously influential essay in 1961, "Minds, Machines, and Gödel" which presented the same idea. It motivated a lot of objections which Lucas responded to in philosophy journals, and then he published his book "The Freedom of the Will" in 1970, the last third of which is on the implication of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems for the mind and AI. You can read most of his essays online at Later, mathematical physicist Roger Penrose defended the argument in his own way in his books The Emperor's New Mind and Shadows of the Mind.

Simple, no?