Friday, October 25, 2013

Interview with Bertrand Russell in 1959

This interview of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the analytic philosopher, logician and mathematician, was done in 1959, and makes fascinating viewing.

Friday, August 2, 2013

How Smart Are Dogs?

To continue on one point from my last post: abstract thinking in animals.

The experiment with “Chaser,” the female border collie, in the last 5 minutes of this video seems to show that dog capable of a simple inferential reasoning by exclusion. It is quite remarkable.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Edward Feser on Kurzweil on Artificial Intelligence

Edward Feser’s review of a recent book by Ray Kurzweil can be found here:
Feser, Edward. 2013. “Kurzweil’s Phantasms,” First Things 232 (April): 51–53.
Ray Kurzweil’s book is How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed (New York, 2012).

Now Edward Feser is an Aristotelian Thomist and Classical theist, who blogs here.

Although there are other critical reviews of the book (here and here), Feser’s is considerably more sceptical, because of its apparent repudiation of a materialist/physicalist theory of mind.

A rough list of the various categories of theories of mind can be seen below:
(1) Idealism;

(2) Dualism:
(1) Platonic dualism
(2) Cartesian dualism
(3) Occasionalism
(4) Property dualism.
(3) Epiphenomenalism;

(4) Materialism/Physicalism:
(1) Reductive materialism
(2) Eliminative materialism
(3) Connectionism
(4) Functionalism
(5) “mind as chaos” theory
(6) “mind as physics” theory.
Kurzweil’s “Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind” seems related to connectionism, and is obviously a materialist/physicalist theory of mind.

First, Feser appeals to the theory of phantasms and concepts developed by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas (Feser 2013: 51). Our minds work by abstracting from experience of reality. An individual sense experience can represent something in reality, and from “sense experiences” we abstract intellectual knowledge. The “phantasm” is a mental image of an object or phenomenon, and from these the intellect can generate “concepts” or what we conventionally think of as universals: concepts of types/classes, properties, relations (for more on this, see Kenny 1993).

Feser contends that intellectual knowledge in the sense of abstract thought involving universals is not to be identified with material processes in the brain (Feser 2013: 51). That is to say, Feser is pushing a dualist theory of mind. Feser argues that non-human animals are incapable of true abstract thinking about universals (Feser 2013: 51).

A very worrying thought for Feser must be the prospect that science will one day create artificial beings with real consciousness and intelligence, for their existence would be a grave blow to the dualist theory of mind. Whether and when science can do such a thing is open to question, but Feser’s arguments against it are not very convincing.

The dualist assertion that our highly abstract thought involving universals is not caused by, or causally dependent on, brain processes is highly dubious.

First, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can identify the neural correlates involved in abstract thinking (Gilead et al. 2013), and, secondly, neuroscientists have already identified the crucial process of neural connection “pruning,” by which human ability in higher-level abstract thinking progresses from the poor ability of young children to the sophisticated form seen in later adolescence and adulthood (Garlick 2010: 86).

Secondly, another highly questionable assertion of Feser’s is that non-human animals are incapable of abstract thought and (at least) simple perception of universals.

Now nobody denies that animals are incapable of true language or doing science or social sciences, nor under current physicalist theories of mind should we expect them do to so.

We need only note here the crude behaviourism behind the Nim Chimpsky experiment and its failure, and the findings of other ape language studies that chimp language abilities, after intense teaching and even on the most generous estimates, are comparable to those of 2 year old children only, and never progress to that of 3 or 4 year olds.

It seems clear that only humans have the genetically-determined ability to learn and speak syntactically complex natural language spontaneously and easily. Our language ability is most likely the result of Darwinian evolutionary adaptive selection, this means that we have biological structures that cause language and that all other animals lack.

Nevertheless, the great apes, and other higher animals, do not necessarily require language in order to have at least simple abstract thinking of the type that refutes Feser’s dualist position.

Before we even get to the great apes, it looks like man’s best friend is capable of abstract thought:
Scientists have welcomed dogs into a select club of species capable of using abstract concepts. The research showed that dogs are able to mentally sort objects into categories, a talent for abstract thought that has only been shown in birds and primates before.

The researchers trained four dogs with a touch-screen test which involved choosing between two images which appeared simultaneously. One was an image of a dog, the other a landscape. The animals indicated their preference with a prod of their noses. When they chose the dog they were rewarded with food. If they chose the landscape they had to wait a few seconds before the same two images appeared again.

Next the team tested the dogs – two border collies, an Australian shepherd and a mongrel – with an unfamiliar set of dog pictures and landscapes.

To pass they would need to realise that ‘dog’ is a category of object that unfamiliar objects also fall into. Their success dropped slightly from about 80% to 72%. ‘It shows us that dogs are able to use more or less abstract concepts,’ said Dr Friederike Range, who carried out the work with colleagues at the University of Vienna.”
Randerson, James. “Dogs smarter than we think, Study Shows,” The Guardian, 6 December 2007
Now obviously nobody asserts that dogs or higher animals have the type of abstract thinking of human beings in all of its richness and sophistication, but it is a matter of degree not of kind, and this experiment appears to show dogs having some simple ability to intuit what Feser would call a “concept” as distinct from a “phantasm”.

Evolution has produced organisms with varying degrees of mental complexity and abstract thinking. Human beings are no doubt at the top of the pyramid and no other animal can match them, but it seems we are hardly alone in the general ability to think in a basic abstract manner with general concepts such as kinds/types/classes.

To return to the great apes, it seems that chimps and baboons have cognitive structures in their brains that permit some kind of abstract thinking (Estep 2006: 121; Fagot et al. 2001). Other experiments show that some varying degrees of abstract thinking exist in chimpanzees, orangutans, baboons, monkeys, dolphins, sea lions, parrots, and pigeons (Vyshedskiy 2008: 17; Katz et al. 2002). To take an example, it is suggested that the different but consistent warning sounds that vervet monkeys use when they see leopards, eagles and snakes respectively suggest a simple ability to think abstractly about types of animals, and even a rudimentary grasp of the concept of kinds/sets (a type of universal) (Vyshedskiy 2008: 18).

Of course, the critic might complain that these tests have not really measured or detected abstract thinking in animals, but that would require counterarguments and evidence, not lazy appeals to Aristotelian metaphysics or dualism.

Secondly, the critic might respond that this sort of intelligence is only seen in certain individual animals only, and not generally. But that can hardly be a strong objection. Why? The reason is that Darwinian evolution, sexual reproduction, and environmental development obviously mean that there could be important individual differences between members of the same species in terms of intelligence and even in the ability to think abstractly. Some individual dogs or chimps can be much smarter than others. Perhaps some of them really do attain a degree of ability in abstract thinking that others do not.

It follows from all this that the hard and unbridgeable gulf between (1) human beings and (2) other animals in terms of abstract thinking and use of at least simple universals like sets or types is unconvincing.

While the human mind has true language and animals do not, nevertheless higher human intelligence most probably emerged by Darwinian evolution. If higher intelligence is the product of evolution, then it is also likely that it can be engineered, even if the eventual artificial technologies from which an artificial mind would depend on causally for its existence might very different from modern computers.

Estep, Myrna. 2006. Self-Organizing Natural Intelligence: Issues of Knowing, Meaning, and Complexity. Springer, Dordrecht.

Fagot, J., Wasserman, E. A., and Young, M. E. 2001. “Discriminating the Relation between Relations: The Role of Entropy in Abstract Conceptualization by Baboons (Papio papio) and
Humans (Homo sapiens),” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 27: 316–328.

Garlick, Dennis. 2010. Intelligence and the Brain: Solving the Mystery of Why People Differ in IQ and How a Child Can Be a Genius. Aesop Press, Burbank CA.

Gilead, Michael, Liberman, Nira and Anat Maril. 2013. “From Mind to Matter: Neural Correlates of Abstract and Concrete Mindsets,” Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience

Katz, J. S., Wright, A.A., and J. Bachevalier. 2002. “Mechanisms of Same/Different Abstract-Concept Learning by Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta),” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 28.4: 358–368.

Kenny, Anthony John Patrick. 1993. Aquinas on Mind. Routledge, London.

Kurzweil, Ray. 2012. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. Viking Books, New York.

Morell, Virginia. 2013. Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of our Fellow Creatures. Crown, New York.

Potì, Patrizia. 1997. “Logical Structures of Young Chimpanzees’ Spontaneous Object Grouping,” International Journal of Primatology 18.1: 33–59.

Premack, D. and A. J. Premack. 1983. The Mind of an Ape. Norton, New York.

Randerson, James. “Dogs Smarter than We Think, Study Shows,” The Guardian, 6 December 2007

Smith, Dinitia. 1999. “A Thinking Bird or Just Another Birdbrain?,” October 9

Vyshedskiy, Andrey. 2008. On the Origin of the Human Mind: Three Theories: Uniqueness of the Human Mind, Evolution of the Human Mind, and the Neurological Basis of Conscious Experience. MobileReference, Boston, MA.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Monday, July 22, 2013

Richard Carrier on the Finely Tuned Universe

A nice interview with Richard Carrier here on the fallacy of the argument from design based on the finely tuned universe.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Richard Carrier on Bayes Theorem

Richard Carrier gives a talk here on Bayes theorem and Bayesian probability theory.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Chronology of the Universe

Our universe is 13.7 billion years ago. It turns out that it is actually comparatively young in terms of the whole lifetime of the universe.

We can review this below by looking at what physics says about the lifetime of the universe and its various eras:

(1) Primordial Era (beginning to 1 million years after the Big Bang)
The Big Bang is thought of as the beginning of the universe, and time and space had a beginning that is conventionally understood to be the origin of matter and energy inside of the singularity that was the Big Bang. Before the Big Bang, no space, time, matter, or energy existed.

One hour after the Big Bang and the cosmic inflation, there was the emergence of quarks, hadrons, hydrogen nuclei, and the origin of gravity, the strong force, weak force, and electromagnetic forces.

For the next million years, continuing inflation occurred and stable atoms formed.

(2) Stelliferous Era (1 million to 100 trillion years after the Big Bang)
The present era we live in is called the “Stelliferous Era.” By 100 million years after the Big Bang, the first stars developed.

This Stelliferous Era is a time in which new stars are still forming and most energy comes from nuclear fusion in stars. This is the era in which organic life can evolve and live, and in which civilizations with organic sentient beings can exist. This era will end by about 100 trillion years from now.

Since it was been 13.7 billion years from the big bang, we are at 0.0137% of the total age of the Stelliferous Era. In other words, only 0.0137% of the total age of the Stelliferous era has passed. The universe is remarkably young.

(3) Degenerate Era (100 trillion to 10 trillion trillion trillion years)
In 100 trillion years, the “Degenerate Era” will begin. Stars will no longer form and all the stars will die. Civilizations at that time will need to find new ways of existing in the absence of stars. By 10 trillion trillion trillion years from now, all the stars will have collapsed into black holes, neutron stars, or white dwarfs.

(4) Black Hole Era (1038 to 10100 years)
During this era, black holes are the only star-like objects. In this era, they all evaporate.

(5) The Dark Era (10100 years to infinity)
In the Dark era, all the black holes have evaporated. Only photons, neutrinos, electrons, and positrons remain. The universe is dark and empty. This state of affairs will then continue to infinity. This era will begin in 10 000 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years from now.
Finally, some examples of the types of numbers used above, so one can grasp the time scales:

10100 = 10 000 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years

10 trillion trillion trillion = 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

1037 = 10 trillion trillion trillion years = 10 000000 000000 000000 000000 000000 000000

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

George Ellis on the Nature of Causality in Complex Systems

I post a video of the cosmologist George Ellis giving a talk called “On the Nature of Causality in Complex Systems,” given at the 16th Kraków Methodological Conference “The Causal Universe,” from May 17-18, 2012.

It discusses the history of the universe and the nature of causality.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Block Universe, Entropy, Science and “Miracles”

The major point I am going to make below is simple: what science tells us about the universe suggests that it is scientifically possible for events that look like miracles to happen, but in realty if we ever observed such an event (an alleged “miracle”), it is highly unlikely it would be a “miracle” in the accepted sense of the term. It would still be explicable in terms of science, and entirely non-supernatural.

I also make some assorted comments on the nature of the universe and time.

In order to make my point, I am afraid you have to read and at least understand these terribly difficult articles about modern physics:
Andrew Thomas, “Time and the Block Universe,” 2009.

Andrew Thomas, “The Arrow of Time.”
I also recommend watching this documentary below, part of the “Fabric of the Cosmos” series by Brian Greene.

In short, mainstream science tells us this:
(1) all things and events in the future and past have an existence as real as all things and events in the present. We live in a block universe in the sense that all that has happened, is happening now, and will happen in the future exists simultaneously in a huge block of 4-dimensional space-time.

(2) We have an illusion of a moving “present”: a forward, irreversible direction of time. Why we experience this is unclear. It seems to be an unresolved question in science, perhaps one of the most important, profound problems! As Andrew Thomas (author of the articles above) says:
“The reason why we don’t see causality happening in the backward direction is purely because of a bias in our psychological systems: something about the complexity of our psychological system (our brains!) causes our thought processes to work only in the forward direction of time.”
It seems to have something to do with human consciousness.

If, for example, the future already exists and your own future in all states already exists, then why can’t you remember events from the future in the same way that you remember events from the past? I have never seen an adequate explanation of this, and it must be regarded as an unsolved problem, if the block universe view of mainstream science is correct.

(3) as the author of the articles above says, what is extremely interesting is that the arrow of time is “something of a mystery to physicists because, at the microscopic level, all fundamental physical processes appear to be time-reversible.”

What seems to explain the forward flow of time is entropy (or disorder). Entropy can be seen as an emergent property of relations and interactions between a group of particles, molecules, or aggregates of atoms or molecules. The big bang created the universe with a very low entropy state. The initial conditions of our universe are crucial for understanding its current state (from our perspective). The low entropy state at the big bang meant that disorder has increased since that time.

Any closed system moving forward in time and subject to randomness will see its state become more disordered over time. This is the second law of thermodynamics.

However, the process is to be understood from a probabilistic perspective: in any set of possible states a system could have, the number of possible disordered states is vastly greater than the possible ordered states. Our belief that the state of affairs we see in the universe is necessarily caused by the universal second law of thermodynamics is somewhat misleading:
“the second ‘law’ of thermodynamics is not really a ‘law’ at all, certainly not an unbreakable law on the same basis as other physical laws - it is a statistical principle. In fact, it might be possible for a room full of randomly-distributed particles to re-order itself quite by chance so that all the particles end up in one corner of the room - it would just be incredibly unlikely!”
In theory, then, there is no reason why a thing cannot move from a state of disorder to order. That is to say, an event that might look like a reversal of time such as a broken glass reassembling itself is not impossible, just mindbogglingly, highly improbable. It would require some way for energy to be imparted to the broken glass shards and move them in the right directions to converge, and then chemical bonds between atoms and molecules to be reassembled. An event like this would give the illusion of being a miracle, but it would not be: it would have some material, scientific explanation with matter and energy, but involve a set of events that is incredibly, extremely improbable.

With this in mind, it is not impossible for a human being who has been (correctly) pronounced clinically dead to come back to life. A sufficiently advanced human technology could do it, if you could repair all the damage to cells, molecules, and the brain, and restart all the chemical and other physical properties of a living organism. If you had a good record of the brain state of the person before he or she died, you could even restore memories and the mind, even if there was bad damage to the brain.

But I would contend that it is also not absolutely impossible that a dead man might come back to life by some some sheer accidental natural processes, just mindbogglingly, highly improbable. Of course, it is almost certainly true that such a thing has never happened, and never will, but the issue is simply that it is not absolutely impossible in theory.

How does this relate to miracles? I think it is obvious: think of the claims made by Christians about Jesus’s resurrection.

Of course, I do not for a second think that any of the evidence for Jesus’s bodily resurrection is remotely convincing, for reasons described here.

For one thing, the earliest conception of Jesus’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.35–53 written by St Paul seems to show that Paul and the early Christians did not think of a bodily resurrection (of flesh and blood) for Jesus at all: they thought of Jesus being resurrected as a new spiritual being with a pneumatic body (soma pneumatikos in Koine Greek) without flesh or blood. This body was then exalted to heaven at the moment of the resurrection, and was only seen subsequently by human beings in visions or dreams. Paul even says that “what you sow is not the body that is to be” (1 Corinthians 15.37), which suggests that what is buried (a body of flesh and blood) is completely different from the “pneumatic body.” Paul says flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of god (1 Corinthians 15.50) - the “pneumatic body” will not be one of flesh and blood (but of some heavenly substance, like the bodies of angels). And 1 Corinthians 15:3–6 does not in any way require an empty tomb story, which was most probably the invention of the author of the gospel of Mark some 40 years after Jesus’s death for literary and theological purposes. The bodily resurrection is an invention of still later Christian writers like the author of the gospel of Luke.

It is even possible that Paul thought that Jesus’s dead body stayed in the grave and rotted, since (in his view) Jesus was re-created as a new spiritual being with a non-material body, possibly already part of the unseen heavenly realm.

But my main point is this: even if we saw a human being who was dead somehow come back to mortal life in 2013, and this was verified by science, it would still be theoretically explicable in terms of modern science; it would still most probably have some material explanation in terms of mater and energy, even if that explanation was not entirely clear at first. Such an event would not necessarily give us any proof of the supernatural or supernatural beings like gods. It would just be a mindbogglingly, extremely improbable event.

Even if you (for the sake of argument) make massive concessions to Christians in debate and concede that there is some convincing evidence that Jesus died and came back to life (although I do not think there is any such evidence), this does not necessarily prove this event was supernatural. It does not necessarily prove the existence of god. It does not necessarily prove the truth of Christian supernatural dogmas, and it certainly does not necessarily prove that Jesus ever did other alleged miracles or was anything but a mortal man after he came back to life.

The event would in theory be explicable in terms of, and consistent with, modern science, just an extremely mindbogglingly improbable event. Perhaps it is so improbable that it might only happen once in the whole 100 trillion year history of the entire universe. Or maybe twice or half a dozen times.

But such things would not necessarily prove the supernatural at all!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Robert Price on The Case Against The Case For Christ

It is Easter again, and after all the news stories about Christian belief, I enjoy looking at the other side of the story: the skeptical critique of Christianity.

Robert Price discusses his book here which is a critique of Christian apologetics.