Small fusion project with potentially big results

Reading with interest about the Sandia National Labs’ Z machine, an electromagnetic fusion reaction generator, if it every works. More than a decade behind schedule, the project is the least heavily funded of the various fusion projects in the U.S. and Europe. Someone will make fusion work, and it will be a tremendous step forward toward sustainability. Check out how the Z uses a ring of supermagnets and tuned laser burst to compress and, hopefully ignite, a fusion reaction. It’s simplistic in its design, essentially a containment field. Let’s hope we keep funding this kind of small project instead of defaulting to one big bang approach to fusion. It will yield more results we can learn from.

The Tether Hypothesis

A fascinating development in cognitive science, the tether hypothesis, which says that our brains on the rapid onset of evolutionary growth compared to other species was “ripped apart” and allowed to rewire itself.

In and of itself, it explains nothing about why our brains wired themselves for Mind, but it does break down a barrier to understanding how it happened. It makes sense that our brains would opportunistically rewire themselves at the time our craniums grew dramatically. Why chemical signaling reached between far-flung regions of the brain — except if you assume that the brain was fundamentally changing from an unconscious mind to a conscious one, which begs the question — provided the opportunity to blend experience and memory to facilitate consciousness remains a mystery.

Write because there is nothing to read

Walter Benjamin, in an essay called “Unpacking My Library,” writes that “Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”

I spend a lot of time reading old books, and a few new ones. It seems to me that more books are like snack food than great meals, and it has always been so. But we live at a time when many great meals from the past are available to anyone who cares to read carefully and think. This, I think, bodes well for the future, when some of the great readers will get sick of the junk they are offered and reinvent the book, the magazine, fiction and non-fiction alike.

Call me an optimist, at last.

News doesn’t have to important

There’s a great quote by Ernie Pyle in the new Columbia Journalism Review, from his time as a managing editor at The Washington Daily News, that every writer, let alone every journalist, should read each morning:

“You can hardly walk down the street, or chat with a bunch of friends, without running into the germ of something that may turn up an interesting story if you’re on the lookout for it. News doesn’t have to be important, but it has to be interesting. You can’t find interesting things if you’re not interested.”

Words to live by.

Debating Free Will

I’ve been involved, in my usual obsessive and annoying way, in a discussion about free will on Quora. I think it has yielded some good thoughts, and I will share my latest comment below. But the whole thread is worth a read….

(2) Scott Swigart’s answer to Does free will exist? – Quora.

Here’s my latest:

I wasn’t actually providing evidence of free will, I was asking you to explain how a decision that involves human conscious intervention in a chemical process is deterministic. Any you’ve answered. Let’s look at the answer….

The nut of your response is “it is just a decision like any other [decision].” I think you make two mistakes with this argument — first, you conflate the definition of “decision” with the “result of a chemical process.” Outwardly, this isn’t new information; you said we are “just chemistry.” But is is illuminating of the pervasiveness of mechanistic explanations of life. You are treating consciousness as just an algorithm, which it is not — if there is one thing that scientists agree on, it is that they don’t agree what consciousness is. It is not just an algorithm — I’ll cite the work of cognitive scientist David Chalmers, one of the leading thinkers about the question, and leave it at that: “….the hard problem [of conscious experience] is hard precisely because it is not a problem about the performance of functions. The problem persists even when the performance of all of the relevant functions is explained.”

Now, you may simply disagree that consciousness is different than the result of an algorithm, but the question remains, as you put it a couple responses back, one of “free will as it relates to consciousness.” You have not distinguished what you believe consciousness is, so your argument isn’t complete or persuasive. Rather, you’ve broken the history of the decision into a set of inputs and extended the metaphor of mind-as-computer by citing 1.) Previous experience, 2.) Genetics, and 3.) Sensory input at the time of the decision. Only the last of these is potentially deterministic, and only if you rely on reflexes rather than reflective thought to make the decision.

Previous experience is not deterministic. Why? It is unreliable. Unreliable data leaves a decision as to what to credit as reliable information about one’s past to a process separate from the previous experience itself. Because it appeals to factors external to the data itself, it is not deterministic. Something enters into the process, what we refer to as consciousness.

Genetics is probabilistic but not deterministic. In the context of deciding to take a drug, it is not in any way directly directly controlling the decision. One may be risk averse or adventurous, but these are psychological states that are merely influenced by genetic inputs, but previous experience, which we’ve seen, isn’t deterministic, is a substantially greater factor in personality traits that may influence a decision than genetics.

These critiques of your answer provide ample theoretical room for free will. It is not my mission to prove free will, only to live as though I have it. Everyone needs to make their own decisions about this question.

The other flaw in your argument stems from the source of your conviction that there is no free will, the work of Sam Harris, whom you’ve cited as providing proof that free will is not a factor in human decisions. Mr. Harris and I are both atheists, but he’s making an effort to separate himself from a question raised in the Middle Ages in order to distinguish himself from the Christian philosophers who first identified the problem of free will. I think, on the contrary, that the identification of the probelm was the result of intellectual progress that yielded the problem of free will; it was simply cast in the context of Christian thought because of concerns about a particular heresy, Pelagianism. The arguments that produced the distinction of free will in choosing to believe in God were cast in some goofy mystical ways, but that doesn’t mean the resulting problem — one that remains actively debated — isn’t valid: the problem of free will, which is the problem of living with consciousness. In some sense, the problem of free will evolved as we became something utterly unlike anything else on the planet — fully conscious beings. There are debates about when this happened, and some theorists argue it didn’t happen until the past few centuries. I don’t know when we acheived this distinction, but I recognize the importance of this distinction.

And here is where we return to your assertion that the decision to take a drug and alter one’s chemistry is “just a decision like any other.” A conscious decision is very different than the autonomic processes that produce life, and the two can co-exist in the same system. Awareness of and consciousness of something are two fundamentally different experiences. We humans are aware of things that other animals or any organism with physical awareness of the environment are, but we are also able to do something that has not been identified in any other species, use conscious thought as a tool. We can hold a thought, or diametrically opposed thoughts, in our minds while simultaneously processing an immense amount of environmental information necessary to remaining alive while exploring those ideas. This is not a “ghost” or something separate from mind doing the thinking, it is us, our brains and bodies and the experience of consciousness itself, which have the ability to make independent (non-determnistic) decisions. Not all decisions are the same, and consciousness isn’t a zero-sum game in which every decision has to exceed the limits of determinism in order to preserve the notion of free will.

Now, if you want to argue that the universe, DNA and history are all forces that militated to produce a life form capable of independent conscious thought, I’d argue that the you’re engaging in a kind of mysticism, suggesting that there is a maker of the system — I don’t think you are making that argument, but it is the traditional claim that a first mover is responsible for the apparently intelligible state of the world. I claim we are responsible for the particular state of the lifeworlds in which we live.

If you are saying that all human action is an “accident,” I’d argue you are not giving any credit for progress to the species that makes progress, and denigrating conscious experience before it’s been explained. That would be jumping the gun, as well as dismissing the seriousness of the question of responsibility for our actions, which is the more important ethical question than simply assuming we are machinistic victims of circumstance. I am not suggesting we skip over the hard problem of consciousness to debate ethics, by the way, I am simply saying there are other questions. Questions we pursue because we have the free will to do so.

I’ll be happy to continue the discussion, but thank you for answering my question so patiently.

Taking a lesson from Mark Twain

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing. Writing on the blog, writing at work, writing a book or two. And one of the things that has been eating at me as I felt these writerly urgings is the predominance of self-help books in the world and on *-seller lists.

Everyone seems to have a lesson to teach these days. Everyone seems to want lessons. I think it is a symptom of the troubling times we live in, not to mention the mixing of work and life to a degree that everything becomes “investment” rather than sometimes being just for fun, or a good scare, or whatever motive one might have for reading other than self-improvement. The fact that so many deem themselves fit to teach suggests our collective self-critical faculties are shaky, or shaken by the deeply fucked up times.

Then I ran across this in the newly released Authoritative and Complete Autobiography of Mark Twain (first volume — two more are coming):

That’s all I want. I only want to interest the reader, he can go elsewhere for profit & instruction

I can afford to take a lesson from Twain and concentrate on keeping your interest instead of improving you. I’ve never had any expectations that you be better than other folks, so sit back and enjoy. I’m going to let the writing muscles stretch a bit….

“At the heart of Godel and Einstein’s opposition to positivism…

was their unfashionable realism, their reluctance to make ontology, the theory of what is, subservient to epistemology, the theory of what can be known. At bottom, the positivist mentality consists in deriving ontology from epistemology.” — Palle Yourgrau, The World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein.

He who fights monsters should be careful…

…lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will stare back. — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.

People often think Nietzsche was an advocate of unchristian action. He was always aware that philosophy had become monstrous in the most devout hands. He spoke of the “superhuman” as a means of asking for the ultimate humanity in the philosophers who read and attempted to think with him.