Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Spirituality in Science

The chances are, if you're a human being, when you say the word spirituality you mean something completely different from what I mean when I say it... even after we've consulted a dictionary.

Though I consider myself to be religious, when I use words like spirit or soul or consciousness in a metaphysical sense (collectively, mind-body duality), I do so with full acknowledgement that I have no idea whatsoever what those words really mean. And the more I talk with people who think they know what these words mean, the more I'm convinced that they have no idea either. And yet they're all over the place.

When the words are used, they typically describe some incorporeal, non-physical beingness. We suppose that this beingness exists apart from the body, and is yet tied to the body. And though we have perfectly good meat-computers in our heads, it is this beingness that we imagine controls our actions and thoughts, through some undefined manipulation of these meat-computers (brains).

None of this explains what a soul is, or how it interacts with a brain, or why we suppose it to be indestructible. It doesn't explain why we imagine it to be something we can give away -- or that some devil can collect -- while continuing to go about our lives. And given the fact that our thoughts and memories can be affected by chemicals, or physical trauma, or surgery, or genetics or disease; it doesn't explain why we suppose it to live on after our deaths to face punishment or reward or recycling or merging with some grander consciousness, depending on your religion. It doesn't explain why the concept of mind-body duality is accepted without question by people who believe themselves to be atheists, yet write fiction involving body-swapping and possession and mind-reading at a distance and astral projection and transcendental evolution. I don't think even the Pope could adequately explain it without saying it's a matter of faith. And honestly, I think that's a pretty good answer.

It's generally agreed that this is not a scientific concept. That doesn't mean it can't be true; but it means that we've agreed (most of us, anyway) that there's no way of testing it scientifically. And for the following discussion, I'm going to put my scientist hat on.

Basically, if you took all of the verified scientific evidence of the existence of mind-body duality, wrote it all out on 20# paper stock, and put it on a scale, it would weigh nothing whatsoever. Empty scale. On the other hand, you could fill a library with the "factual" statements of conviction that have been written on the subject. (Don't get excited. The same thing's true of much of theoretical physics.)

Here's an example: Supernatural Magazine. I've linked you to an article on consciousness and parallel universes. Notice all of the declarative statements. Nary a doubt. Notice all the scientific jargon, like "vibrational rates", which mean absolutely nothing outside of this word salad. Notice phrases like "Science says," when Science does no such thing. Some scientists may say something to the effect, but you have to be very careful to understand the context of any theoretical discussion among scientists. That is, the scientists all know and understand the discussion to be theoretical. In other words, every word of every discussion is understood to be descriptive of models built from hypotheses and suppositions accepted for the purpose of discourse to then ask the question, "What if? If all of these things we're talking about were true, then what would we expect to see?" And then they go off to experiment and measure and observe and tell you whether they see those expected things. And if they don't, then they dream up something new. And though for the sake of their human egos and funding and pride, most theoreticians like us to assign a little more gravitas to their gravity; at it's core, that's what science is. The folks at Supernatural Magazine don't seem to understand that. Instead, they take these models as solid fact and present them as such. The end result is a meaningless, garbled mess. They confuse parallel universes with multiple dimensions and get basically everything wrong.

Sometimes scientists themselves get tied up in knots in a similar fashion over this subject as well as similar nebulous terms such as free will. I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that we really have no idea what free will is, or how we would recognize it if we saw it. I think it's fair to say that as far as we know, the Universe is deterministic, even if it is unpredictable at the scales of the very small. (I think probability more accurately describes the state of our knowledge than the state of the event. Thought experiment: flip a coin and call it in the air. What is the chance that it lands heads-up? 50%? Now flip the same coin, catch it in the air and cover it. What is the chance now? Now flip it, catch it, cover it, and peek. Then ask someone else to tell you the odds. Do the two of you agree?) How is it possible to have free will in a deterministic universe? For that we need to know what free will is, and that's tied in with consciousness, and we don't even know what consciousness is. That's just being honest.

I think it's highly unlikely that we could ever actually solve problems like this about the physical universe. We cannot prove the self-consistency of a system from within the system itself (Gödel's incompleteness theorems). And sadly, we are intrinsically part of the Universe we're trying to explain, and we're using the brains that we're trying to explain. So I think that "we don't know" is a very rational response to our questions about the most fundamental nature of reality and of ourselves.


That doesn't stop people from trying, of course. I recently came across a 2014 article in ScienceDirect by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose entitled, "Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory". "Orch OR" stands for "orchestrated objective reduction". I'm not going into a detailed summary, as the article is exactly that, and you can read the article and commentary yourself. And as you do, note the inherent differences between this article and the previously-linked one from Supernatural Magazine. In ScienceDirect, phrases like "we may speculate" and "we believe" abound. In criticizing the article, I make no comment on the discussion of neurochemistry. I'll take their word for it as I don't study that. But I do have some issues with their logic.

Of course, Orch OR invokes quantum events as an outside causal agency for the action of free will. Hameroff and Penrose conclude that "consciousness plays an intrinsic role in the universe." The problem I have with it is that with all of the mental gymnastics employed in the article, there's no way that the premises or the arguments definitively support the conclusion.

Let's strip it down. At the start of the article they declare: "what consciousness actually is remains unknown". Well, that much is true. And in their conclusion they state, "Such OR events would have to be ‘orchestrated’ in an appropriate way (Orch OR), for genuine consciousness to arise." See the problem? They don't know what "genuine consciousness" is. They therefore have no basis for stating its required conditions.

Yes, they do lay out some conditions that they may believe are descriptive of consciousness. But these are self-admittedly subjective. That we feel as if we have free will does not mean that free will is a property of "genuine consciousness". Should we encounter a provably deterministic consciousness that reports that it feels as if it has free will, it would meet the conditions at least as well as we do. Typically, some form of randomization is usually invoked in discussions of free will, but it doesn't follow that a randomized system is non-deterministic; merely that the trigger for the action is unknown. And once triggered, the system itself is still deterministic. "Free will" of itself does not even imply randomization... quite the opposite. "Free will" implies deliberation and volition, not random action. And if a wave-function requires consciousness to collapse, and consciousness has free will, why can't Schrödinger simply will his cat to live?

Such difficulties are why I now like to avoid the term "free will" entirely, and instead focus on "self-determination". It doesn't matter whether I have free will or not. As your brain is equipped no differently, you have no inherent authority regarding my decisions. It works for me on every level, including the religious, the philosophical and the political.

To be fair, Penrose is quite explicit that when he's talking about non-computability, he doesn't mean randomness. But I'm not sure he makes his case. Randomness is pretty much how the transition from quantum to classical physics expresses itself in our present understanding. Penrose proposes that some new model of physics is required. Unfortunately, this would appear to require processes that take place below the threshold of possible experimentation.

But this does nothing to define or explain what is meant (if anything) by employed terms such as proto-consciousness. Really... what the hell is that? I intuitively think that OR -- objective reduction -- as a "real thing" must exist in some form, otherwise we have a very hard time explaining the reality of events, the effects of which we observe long after their occurrence in the far reaches of the Universe. I think it's pretty nonsensical to seriously posit whether things exist that we haven't experienced. But is it necessary to invoke consciousness to explain the reduction of those events? Is it not enough to allow that interactions count as observations? Is it not enough to allow that quantum events, although they may provide random input, thus influencing our computation, do not necessarily imply a consciousness separate from ourselves? Is it necessary to discard the notion that our brains are sufficiently complex to perceive themselves as "conscious" without first disproving it?

Now, all of that is said with my scientist hat on. When I take that hat off, there's something extremely familiar about the notion of some pervasive objective consciousness collapsing the wave-functions of the Universe, resulting in a deterministic world which we inhabit while exhibiting free will made possible by partaking of the essence of that proto-consciousness. It certainly seems to be a restatement of things I accept on faith, dressed up with a bit of math. It's called Religion. And yet, Penrose describes himself as an atheist. Maybe that's a wave-function he should concentrate on reducing.


UPDATE: One other thing that I'd like to address is that the article mentions the following:
Measurable brain activity correlated with a conscious perception of a stimulus generally occurs several hundred milliseconds after that stimulus. Yet in activities ranging from rapid conversation to competitive athletics, we respond to a stimulus (seemingly consciously) before the above activity that would be correlated with that stimulus occurs in the brain. This is interpreted in conventional neuroscience and philosophy [1–3] to imply that in such cases we respond non-consciously, on auto-pilot, and subsequently have only an illusion of conscious response. The mainstream view is that consciousness is epiphenomenal illusion, occurring after-the-fact as a false impression of conscious control of behavior. Accordingly, we are merely ‘helpless spectators’
Hameroff and Penrose offer quantum processes in the brain as "loopholes" for such implementations. I wonder if that's even necessary, as I have doubts as to whether the mainstream view is even correct.

Here's an analogy from my own field of computer programming. Granted, programs are automata (even as we might be) so I'm going to anthropomorphize a bit and use a simple example, but it's for the purpose of illustration.

Let's take a program like Chess. There are basically three things going on here: You have a user interface (UI). That's what communicates with the outside world in some meaningful way, by taking input from the keyboard and mouse and drawing graphics. The UI may have other functions, such as being 'aware' of the rules of the game and checking the legality of the player's moves. It may remember previous positions. Then there's the chess engine, which has very limited UI, mainly intended to communicate with the UI. And then there's a library of set responses to known chess positions. Together, they comprise the chess program.

Now, you might think of the library as 'instinct' or 'reflex' or 'muscle memory'. It's not very interesting here, in that no 'thought' is involved in the responses. So long as it receives input that's 'in the book', it responds automatically.

Positions that are not 'in the book' are evaluated by the chess engine. Once that's done it distills all of that analysis into a single response (the move) and sends it back to the UI.

The library is much faster than the computations performed by the engine. And to improve performance, we need not wait for the library to report failure before working on the problem. The engine 'thinks' about the problem even as the library is being searched. But the library responds first, even though we know we 'consciously' set to work evaluating the position. And if the library responds negatively, then we've constructively used the time. In any event, it takes some finite amount of time to integrate the results and report them to the UI.

Keep in mind that the UI is fairly superficial. And if we look at what's going on in the internals of the machine, the program has generated a response and taken action to update its internal 'board' before the UI is 'aware' of the decision and can communicate it to the user. Other programs do similar things with procedural calls to back-end processes that perform actions before they can be reported. For instance, I've designed a system for mortgage insurance that submits applications to multiple decision engines and returns "first response" underwriting decisions.

If our understanding of the 'program' were limited to the superficial layers that communicate with us, then we might conclude that the program were acting 'unconsciously'.

I think the same is likely to be true of biological consciousness. It's not that any part of this happens 'unconsciously'. Rather, it's that consciousness is more complicated than is thought of in the mainstream view. I think it doesn't all happen at once, monolithically, and it's not a step-by-step linear process as it might be in a very simple program. Rather, I surmise that we frame a choice and set the various parts of our mind to work on it, integrating the results and reporting them. To say that something is 'unconscious' when it is part of the conscious process is to mis-label it. And this goes back to the earlier assertion that we don't really know what consciousness is... so we run the risk of excluding necessary functions from that definition and erroneously saying that it's not conscious at all...  we are merely ‘helpless spectators’ experiencing an 'illusion'. We look at functional design and conclude that it's a paradox. Such an interpretation is not necessarily warranted.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Can You Tango with a Frango?

Even when languages are very similar, we can be tripped up by unexpected minor differences.

For instance, shortly after I first moved to England, I was asked by a young lady, "Would you like to pop 'round my flat this Saturday and knock me up?" (I've met a few other people with similar experiences)

"What a lovely invitation!" I thought, until I realized that she meant I should strike her door repeatedly with my clenched fist. As I was married at the time, my disappointment was mixed with relief.

I experienced some similar scenarios this past week on a business trip to Brazil. I met with salespeople from all over South America, about half of which spoke Portuguese and the rest, Spanish. And on some occasions, I smoke a pipe. On this trip I used my pipe as an excuse to go outside as often as possible to take in the mountain vistas and examine the botanical diversity. When I did, I was often accompanied by some of the salesmen, mostly the Spanish-speaking ones. They'd generally tell me, "You remind me of my uncle," in smooth, measured voices borrowed from Antonio Banderas. And they'd point to my pipe and tell me it was my pipa (pronounced "peep-ah").

So late in the week, when I'd run out of my own tobacco, I went to find a tabacaria to buy more. After a few false starts, I found what I was looking for in Barra... a little hole-in-the-wall cigar shop. I walked in fairly confidently (it was my seventh day in Brazil) and asked, "Você vende tabaco para pipa?"

The vendor looked at me with a very puzzled expression and finally said, "Marijuana?" "No, no no!" I exclaimed, pulling the pipe from my pocket and showing it to her. "Ah! Cachimbo!" was her reply.

As it turns out, while "pipa" is Spanish for "pipe", in Portuguese it means "kite". I suppose she thought I wanted to get high. So I tried again: "Você vende tabaco para cachimbo?"



Another word left me more puzzled than confused. It's the Portuguese word for "chicken".

In all other Latin-derived languages, the word for chicken is derived from the Latin "pullus". In Italian and Spanish, it's "pollo". In French, it's "poulet". Even in English we say "poultry" and "pullet" when we're not using the German-derived word.

In Portuguese, it's "frango" (rhymes with "tango").

I have no idea where this word comes from. Neither did any of my Brazilian guides. It just seems to have popped into the lexicon out of nowhere. Looking around the Web, I've seen suggestions that perhaps during the time of Portuguese colonization it was assimilated from some other language that has since gone extinct.

I suppose it's not important, but to me, not knowing the origin of this word is the intellectual equivalent of having a bit of sand in an inconvenient place. So if you have a good theory, please tell me in the comments.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Tale of Two Rios

I just spent a week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although that seems straightforward, it does bear some exposition. Like "New York", "Rio" is both a city and a state. And like New York, the two things are in no way identical.

Here is one Rio... the one everyone knows about:

Here is the other...

I was there on business, and for the majority of the trip, I stuck with my group. But for two days I broke away and did my own thing.

One of the things that I wanted to do when I was there was to see the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. I took a pair of high-powered binoculars for the purpose. So when my friends went out drinking, I went to Macumba Beach, which was practically deserted compared to the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana:

My friend Mayank took this pic the night
before I went stargazing.
I was the last of my group to leave. On Saturday I was by myself in Rio for the entire day. So I hired an Uber. Now, Uber is something I've never used before this trip, and there are both very good and very bad things about it. Because everything is done on-line... setting your destination, making your payment, rating the driver... there is absolutely no need whatsoever to talk to the driver. That can be a great thing when there are language problems. None of us spoke any Portuguese of any consequence, and it meant we could get around. And when I was with the group, none of us spoke to the driver very much. But it also means that an Uber ride can be a very lonely experience if you're by yourself, and that's very, very bad.

But... Google Translate is quite possibly the greatest invention in the history of Mankind. What I found when I was by myself was that if you put Google Translate in the conversation mode, that Uber driver transformed from a driver to an animated tour guide. In every case -- and I took a lot of rides -- the driver laughed with delight at the first translation, and then became animated and talkative. The translation's not perfect, but you can tell when it "hears" things wrong, and we all laughed at the mistakes. The main thing I had to do was tell the driver not to talk to the phone, but to talk to me, and let the phone do the work. Each driver loved the experience so much he installed Google Translate on the spot.

On Saturday, I had one driver for almost the entire day, and several for the remainder. I was the first U.S. citizen that two of my drivers had ever met, and the first that any of them had talked to at length.

My first intention was to visit the statue of "Christ the Redeemer", but by the time we got there (the drive took nearly an hour) the queue for the tram was a two-hour wait. Although my driver (Fernando) was willing to park and wait for me, I wasn't going to make him wait for at least three hours while I went up there, snapped a few photos, and came back down. Besides, clouds covered the statue itself. So I told him I'd rather drive around with him and talk some more. Through Translate, Fernando told me that that it was an incredible sight, and he would feel bad if I didn't see it. I responded that there are thousands of amazing sights in this world that I would never see. Missing this one wouldn't hurt me... and besides, I would rather just spend the time with him, hearing what he had to tell me about Brazil.

As we drove around, we visited the "hot" spots, but also drove past the favelas. But what was more important to me was to see places that tourists don't see, so we drove through the country as well. And as we drove, we saw some of the economic disparities like those that you can see for yourself in the pictures above. A great many houses are built by the inhabitants themselves using cast-off construction material like re-used cinder blocks and sheet metal for roofs. And if you ask how anyone can live like that, the answer is that any house is better than no house.

The answer confirms something that I suspected before I went on this trip; and now I believe it firmly: there are a great many people in the United States who think they are poor only because they have never personally experienced poverty.

When you stop at almost any traffic light outside the city centers, Brazilian children will jump in front of cars to juggle or dance (poorly for the most part) or try to sell useless items. While it all seems very exotic and entertaining when you're with a group of tourists, it takes on a completely different flavor when you're alone with a Brazilian who's explaining that while such antics don't really work to earn money, they do it because they have no other means, and no hope for improvement.

My drivers were completely consistent in blaming these problems on corruption in their government. Fernando, in particular, responded to my query about the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth in a way that almost made my heart break. He said that yes, Brazil has much beauty and much ugliness. Only he wasn't talking about the favelas; he was talking about the people. So I told him, "Fernando, I have never seen or met an ugly Brazilian. You're all beautiful. I want you to put this in your heart: just because you have less than someone else, never believe you are worth less." He told me that he wanted to come to the United States where something like that could be true. "Os Estados Unidos são ótimos e bonitos."

People like those I met are not looking for aid: they're looking for opportunity. We in the US have so much that we take for granted. I'm not talking about things. I'm talking about the hope that Americans can rise to any station from any beginning. Because it is true that here you can be whatever you want if you're not hampered by your own disbelief. With very few exceptions, it's true that our poor are not destitute. It's true that we have individual dignity that can be relinquished, but never taken. Even as elitists smugly deride the thought, the common people of the world look to us. We are the hope of the world.