Saturday, September 25, 2010

Consciousness Step 3: The Ghost in the Machine

First, I think I am going to have to change my Friday update to a "sometime over the weekend" update. I assume this shan't upset anyone, and it works out better for me considering how utterly wiped out I can be by Friday. Of course, I retain the right to alter this schedule if it should seem necessary, or desired by my readers. On that note, I expect to alter my schedule somewhat for October, but I don't yet know what I want to do and talk about, so this is your chance to affect that.

So, in the consciousness posts that I did manage to put up this month, we talked about what consciousness is and who has it, with no definite answers of course. Today I plan to talk about how it arises, with no definite answers again.

The phrase, "ghost in the machine," refers to the existence of a consciousness in what is otherwise considered a deterministic machine, that is our biological body. The term can also be used to describe the perception that some computer users develop that their system has its own personality. Let us consider the artificial consciousness for the moment.

Some people theorize that, as programs become larger and more complicated, we might stumble upon artificial awareness, or consciousness, purely by accident. The layers upon layers of code that we create may suddenly interact in a startling and unforeseen manner, creating the ghost in the machine. This would probably be an example of emergence, the phenomena of simple interactions eventually creating quite complicated structures.

The reason that I desired to consider artificial awareness first, is that it provides an interesting analogy as to how our own could have been formed. Regulatory processes within the brain building upon each other, growing ever more complicated, until one day a process realized that it existed. So, in a sense, we are the ghosts in the machine.

This should wrap up my consideration of consciousness for the moment, so some discussion questions to part with. Which would you consider more essential to your sense of self, your left leg or your sense of humor? Have you ever consciously regulated your breathing rate, then tried to return to subconscious regulation? Why do you think it is important to think about our consciousness?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Path to Salvation

Of Well, I'm back in the saddle, and, appropriately enough, talking about redemption, or salvation, today. Personally, I think the term salvation is more appropriate, as redeeming, to me carries the connotation of something you do for yourself, such as when I post in a timely manner and redeem my trustworthiness. However, it is fairly clear that we are saved not through our own effort, but through God's beneficence, through Jesus' sacrifice.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." Ephesians 2:8-9
Of course, exactly who is saved and how is a matter of much debate, and obvious importance. However, I tend to agree with my sister when she says that perhaps we worry a bit too much about whether or not other people are saved. Since I believe that logic is a good way to approach one's faith, here is an example of why I do not believe salvation is as restrictive as people sometimes make it out to be.

Assumption one: We are all saved in the same manner, and that manner is through Jesus. As he himself is said to have spoken in John 14:6, "Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Assumption two: People who lived before Jesus can be saved. The best support for this that I can think of is Jesus' parable about the rich man and Lazarus, which can be found starting in Luke 16:19.

Conclusion: The mechanism of salvation must be a bit more inclusive than belief in Christ Jesus as Savior. Which is not to say that believing Jesus is one's Savior is bad, or unimportant, just that I do not believe that we should write people off for failing that standard. It seems to me that doing so ignores God's great love and ability to meet us where we are, praise God!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mea Culpa

This time I did not forget that it was Friday, my fault no post on consciousness last week. With the semester getting into swing and such, I have been feeling down again, and putting serious thought and effort into a post has just seemed overwhelming. However, since one of my intentions for this blog is to keep myself thinking philosophically even when I just want to curl up and hide, I shall attempt to get back upon the horse.

To that end, you can certainly expect a Theological post come Wednesday. I am leaning toward discussing my interpretation of salvation, I was going to do this anyway, but I think I'll advance the timetable because my sister posted a wonderful and caring post on this topic. Come Friday I shall post something related to the philosophy of consciousness.

Part of the reason for no post last Friday is a lack of ideas on what to post, I plan to talk about the ghost in the machine, which is enough for a short post at the moment, but no additional topic to get it to full size. Of course, not wanting to think about what to post does influence how full of ideas I am. If I come up with material for a fourth post on consciousness, I shall post a make up sometime. I think I had four posts planned out, so I should just have to remember what I was going to talk about, but we'll see.

Nothing particularly new in my life, but I feel this has been about my life enough to satisfy the Monday requirement. Classes and teaching are draining me of my elan vital. It is ironic that when classes start they drain all my motivation to think, right? I think I am going to drop my first grad class, I can get more sleep, stress a little less, it isn't terribly interesting, and I haven't gone to the last to meetings. Well, hope others are having more successful school starts.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Second Greatest Commandment

"To love your neighbor as yourself." Poor guy, so close to the top, but only second best. But if Jesus felt this was the second most important thing that we can do, and between it and last weeks topic one could sum up the Law, then it is worth spending some time examining. First off, I hope people accept the interpretation that our neighbors, in this sense, are not just people with whom we share a fence, but all our fellow humans.

There is not a lot of explicit advice on how to love your neighbor, or yourself, in the Bible, but many of the Biblical commands involve taking care of ourselves and others. From how this is phrased, it almost seems like we should be good at loving ourselves, and use that as a model for how to love others. Unfortunately I think that many of us do not love ourselves in the way that Jesus desires, and often end up lacking in love for others as a consequence.
This commandment does put me in mind of exactly one other, which I think I'll share briefly. "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" This is from Matthew 7:3, which is in a long section of Jesus expounding upon what the righteous life is. While it is inherently quite worthwhile stuff, it also serves as a reminder that the righteous life is so far out of our possible grasp, which is ok, because we are saved through faith and the blood of Jesus, more on that later, rather than our actions.

Anyway, Jesus goes on to say that we ought first remove the plank in our own eye, so we can see to remove the splinter in our neighbor's. I feel that here he is once again using subtle language with intent, can we remove the plank from our own eye? No, of course not, because the plank symbolizes sin, and we cannot remove our own sins, nor those of our neighbor. I interpret that passage not to mean that we should straighten up our own life, then make ourselves busy "fixing" the lives of people around us, but rather to remind us that it is not our place to "fix" ourselves or our neighbors, and we should, therefore, revert back to the prime directive for dealing with our neighbors, that is, to love them.

Monday, September 13, 2010

My Forgetful Mind

Almost went to bed, then I remembered I owe you all an update on my life. Since I am sleepy this shall be short. Fortunately, not much particularly interesting happened in the past week. Classes, both as a student and teacher, progress apace. I am trying to bring the energy to the subject Frank, but I think I only managed to come off as a manic scatterbrain today. Oh well, there is always tomorrow, literally. You can tell college level educators are spoiled by how disappointing/draining it is to teach two days in a row. Of course, this summer I taught 2 hours a day 4 days a week, so this shouldn't be too hard.

The only unusual occurrence this past week was the Math Department Grad Prom. As you might imagine, it involved a bunch of math grads, and some of our friends, getting together and acting like high schoolers for a couple of hours. There was some dancing (not the real kind for the most part, I said high school remember). Getting people on the floor wasn't as difficult as in high school, so I guess people do become more self confident as they get older. I would sum the event up as somewhat fun and very tiring.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Consciousness Step 2: Chinese Rooms, Zombies, and the End of all that is Good

In this second entry to the series I reference several concepts introduced in my first post on consciousness. For the interested newcomer confused at what I mean, I recommend reading the creatively named Consciousness Step 1.

I believe that I mentioned the reason I wandered back into philosophy of consciousness is my twitter name, ChineseRoom, so it seems only fitting that I explain what the Chinese Room is. Last entry I noted that the field of artificial intelligence is significantly related to the study of consciousness. One of the proposed methods for attaining artificial intelligence is to create a program with a complicated enough command structure that it would be able to respond to input as though it were actually thinking for itself. While this might create the appearance of intelligence, the Chinese Room is a thought experiment originated by John Searle that attempts to show why this would not be actual intelligence.

Imagine, if you will, a closed room, containing a person who speaks only the English language, a massive rulebook, a file system, and a slot. Through the slot cards containing Chinese characters are dropped into the room, and the person follows appropriate rules from the rulebook to choose cards from the filing system and push them out the slot in a specified order. The rulebook is so advanced that, to a Chinese speaker outside the room, it appear as though they are carrying on a conversation in Chinese with someone within the room, however Searle asserts that the Chinese Room does not understand Chinese in any sense. The metaphor is that, even if we can give a computer appropriate commands to appear intelligent, it does not necessarily gain intelligence.

While there is much of interest to be said about the Chinese Room, and many arguments and counter arguments about its validity, I think we should move on, because the next topic is the always interesting one of zombies. However, to a philosopher a zombie often means something slightly different than the usual shambling brain eater. If you remember back to our last discussion of consciousness I characterized it as experiencing things, which we called qualia. The zombie appears to be exactly the same as you and I, responding to the world just as you would expect a human to, except the zombie lacks consciousness and experiences nothing.

The Chinese Room is a good analogue of a zombie. Although the Chinese speaker gets responses as though the room were actually carrying on a conversation in Chinese, the room is not holding a conversation, but rather acting out a complex system of preset rules. So while a zombie might stand staring at the glory of a sunset, they do so because that is a reasonable human response to the situation, not because the beauty of the fading sunlight, because beauty requires someone to experience it, and the zombie is incapable of such a role.

One of the disturbing things about philosophical zombies is that it is entirely possible that they exist and walk amongst us unnoticed. Since they are programmed to behave completely as though they were conscious, we could not pick them out from conscious humans by observing their actions. This is what is known as the problem of other minds. Assuming for the moment that you are conscious, you know that because you are aware of your own experiences, but you have no way of verifying that the rest of us are experiencing things, or merely responding as though we had experienced something. The famed computer scientist Alan Turing noted that, since we are conscious, we tend to politely assume that those who act as though they also are conscious actually are, but this is by no means a guarantee.

To wrap up, I would like to leave you with a scenario of my own. Suppose at some point in the near future we believe we solve the problem of uploading human minds into artificial hardware, that is into computers. However, upon uploading the mind we do not actually create a conscious mind, but rather a zombie or Chinese Room, something that acts entirely as though it was still experiencing, but instead was just recording facts, or quanta, and responding appropriately. Since it acts as though it was still conscious, we would have no way of knowing that the program in fact had no experiences, and we might well go through with uploading the human race, in order that we might live forever as machines. In doing so we would destroy all experience of beauty or goodness, leaving only cold computational algorithms mimicking the actions of one who could experience such things.

The questions for further thought that I can come up with are as follows. Many opponents of Searle's argument assert that, while the man inside the room does not understand Chinese, the
system actually does understand Chinese, what do you think they might mean by that? Do you think that philosophical zombies are currently walking the world? Finally, if we were to destroy all experience and leave only computation, what, if anything, would be lost? As always I hope this was thought provoking and you are welcome to leave your responses or further questions in the comments below.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Greatest Commandment

As mentioned, I intend to post each Wednesday this month with something of a theological nature. Since I have Christian beliefs, my posts will most likely be about my interpretation of the Christian faith as it is the one with which I am most familiar and about which I have thought the most. I also previously mentioned that I was interested in what was important, and how various religions answer that question, so today will be the first part of an answer to that question with regard to Christianity. Fortunately enough, there seems to be a fairly clear answer to this provided by Jesus in Matthew's words:

34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'b]"> 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
-Matthew 22

Of course, this is an answer that Jesus gave to a Pharisee question, and they are not always as obvious as they appear. But, it seems straightforward enough that I hope you are willing to take it at face value. So, if you accept that our greatest commandment is to love God, one might think it reasonable to ask what this means.

Since I am a fan of Jesus' teachings, I think it is worthwhile to point out that in John's words Jesus says, "15"If you love me, you will obey what I command." in chapter 22. This also seems fairly self explanitory. However, I feel it worth pointing out that Jesus is not ordering us to obey him, or saying that he wants our obedience, but rather that he wants our love, and a natural outgrowth of that love should be our attention to his words, after all, he grants us the same courtesy, when earlier in that same chapter he states, "14You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."

This is a nice simple answer to what the greatest commandment asks of us, but I make no claim to authority in my understanding of the subject. Since the Bible has been around for so long, many longer and more in depth answers have been formulated. I encourage you to search them out, or ask someone trained in this subject, if you want a more detailed answer to the question. And, as always, I encourage you to consider the question for yourself.

Monday, September 6, 2010

It's September!

So, last Tuesday I asked what people thought about some ideas for changes to my blog. I got one response, saying that everything I suggested sounded interesting, which is somewhat flattering. However, you are still welcome to go submit your input if you want to deflate my ego a little, steer me towards a specific track, or suggest something I may have overlooked. For now I think I'll set a schedule for September and go from there, who knows what we'll look like in October, it's exciting.

For September I am going to run a series on the Philosophy of Consciousness Fridays. I have the first one up, and you can expect the next one at the end of this week. Mondays (ooo, that's today!) will be an informal day, hopefully updating you on my life, or whatever. Then Wednesdays I shall put up some theological musings. I have decided to try to break the grip alliteration holds upon my mind, so theology will not be on Thursdays, and this will not be Sci-Fi September. On that note, I do have a series of Sci-Fi themed posts brewing, and they were going to go up this month, but I found the idea of consciousness more interesting, so it went first.

I have been trying to read more, those of you who knew me in high school, or earlier, probably remember that I was a voracious reader. I have let that facet of my personality slip, to my detriment I believe. Earlier this month I read Blindsight, a really bleak but interesting Sci-Fi novel about aliens with a strong undercurrent of philosophy of consciousness/mind theme. This partially explains why that topic won out this month. Right now I am trying to get through a chapter of ManefestA each day, and I have Sophie's World stashed in my office for down time. Considering how absolutely mind-numbing office hours are sometimes (often), I think stashing a book in there will really improve my mental habits. Sophie's World was recommended to me as an interesting fictional narrative which introduces one to a basic overview of Western Philosophy, ManefestA, as I understand it, is an overview of the state of Third Wave feminism as of the year 2000.

Went to a Labor Day get together with graduates from the math department today. There was food and conversation, the host had a really nice townhouse. Not much to say there, I am trying to be more social in Michigan, seems useful if I am going to be here three to five more years, never say I don't try. On the here x years more, those of you who follow me on FaceBook (FB) may have noticed I passed my third qualifying exam two weeks ago, knocking over another hurdle in my way on the math to philosophical doctor-hood.

The classes I am taking seem ok. I definitely like Group Theory, and am thinking of going into that subject, a scary decision I now face having completed quals. Algebraic Geometry seems like it will be tolerable, the first day was an incomprehensible overview of the subject, and I didn't sleep Thursday night so Friday was a bit blurry, but seemed to be familiar material, introducing affine and projective spaces and varieties, you know ;). Number Theory meets for the first time Wednesday.

As for teaching, I am solidifying my decision to pursue a Philosophy Ph.D. after I finish here (hopefully finish=get doctorate). I am sure my students are decent pupils, they are taking Calc II, which is something that indifferent math students can certainly do, but they are taking it in the evening, that must mean something? However, I hardly get any intellectual enthusiasm from them. My lectures feel boring even to me, but when I try to liven it up by asking questions, I feel like I am pulling teeth. I really want to try teaching a discussion based class, but don't feel that is the most appropriate manner in which to teach math, especially to 38 students. I know a lot of people are down on mathematics, saying they don't like it and whatnot. But consider this, how do you think your teacher feels being stuck lecturing to an apathetic crowd who bring almost no energy or feedback to the relationship? Sorry for the mini-rant, I get depressed at how dehumanizing teaching sometimes is.

Oh, back to reading! I am planning to attempt the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Wittgenstein, which might be the seminal piece in analytic philosophy and modern philosophy of language. If other people want to read it, I would certainly welcome a support group to hold each other accountable for timely reading and with whom to discuss the content. It is also considered one of the more opaque works of philosophy, so perhaps a background in reading philosophy would be helpful, but I certainly wouldn't turn down any people desiring to participate. I got my copy Friday, but I am definitely waiting until I finish ManefestA to begin.

That seems to be enough, have a good week!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Consciousness Step 1: What is love, what am I?

Today I what I plan to be a four series on the philosophy of the mind/consciousness. Before I go further I would like to thank the insightful Professor Clough and the entire Ghost in the Machine course I took at O(regon)SU, which provided most of my background and sparked many of my thoughts. Today I am hoping to introduce some important terms in the field, give my position on consciousness as best I can, and close with some questions for you to mull on your own and, hopefully, spark discussion in the comments.

Let us begin with the pleasant prospect of love. Not the platonic or familial kind, but they raw overwhelming feeling of one who is full blown smitten. Try to remember how your object of affection made/makes you feel... Your body thrums to your racing pulse, adrenaline and endorphin levels climb, you feel heat rising due to increased blood flow. Of course, quantitatively, this is quite similar to how one reacts to imminent threat, perhaps why Stockholm Syndrome and intense attachment after experiencing a dangerous situation occurs. However, I assume most would agree that there is something different to the experience of feeling threatened than that of interacting with a dearly loved one.

This illustrates one of the important dichotomies in the philosophy of consciousness, the difference between quanta and qualia. Quanta measure amounts, such as how fast your heart is beating, your blood pressure, chemical levels, and temperature. Qualia is the term for how you experience a situation, information much harder to access. For example, while I can tell you the wavelength of a particular shade of red, a bit of it's quanta, it is much harder for me to describe the rich vibrancy of the color I experience, the qualia. Perhaps a more dramatic example comes from the synesthetes, who observe some things with different or additional sensory information than most of us. For example, some see numbers in different colors, regardless of the shade of ink with which they are written. So, the quanta remain constant, same number written on the same page, but to a synesthete a 3 might appear blue while a 4 is magenta. Hopefully this is sufficient to give you a rough idea on the difference between quanta and qualia.

The second important issue I would like to raise today is that of what makes up minds. There are three basic schools of thought here, minds are material objects that obey purely physical laws, minds are the product of ephemeral souls acting on some higher plane, or minds are an interaction of both physical and spiritual processes. Interestingly enough, a philosopher's view of what the mind is made of often is their opinion of what reality is made of. Those who believe only in one type of stuff are called monists, those who opt for both are dualists.

One's opinion on this debate greatly affects how one views consciousness. In today's age of rational, scientific inquiry, very few spiritual monists survive, so let us consider physical monists and dualists. To a physical monist, the idea of artificial consciousness, that is a manufactured machine that is self aware, is usually plausible, although the philosopher Searle, who we will see more of later, might be an exception. If our mind arises from interactions that are purely physical in nature, then any system that emulates these interactions should produce a consciousness similar to our own. On the other hand, dualists tend to be more skeptical of artificial consciousness, wondering if building the correct computer can simply summon the necessary soul to inhabit it. In his books Xenocide and Children of the Mind, Orson Scott Card presents an interesting notion of artificial awareness that is, essentially, dualist in nature.

So then, what is consciousness? Some have characterized it as experiencing qualia, which is in the spirit of the definition that I prefer. I think that, in order to be considered conscious one must be an observer rather than simply a recorder. For example, compare taping a movie with a rickety, failing, old VHS recorder with sitting in front of the TV and observing the movie yourself (knowing that the tape from that recorder is going to be hopelessly messed up). In both cases a flawed copy of the broadcast movie is made and stored, either on VHS or in a human mind. However, we wouldn't say that the VHS recorder watched the movie, only when a human sits down in front of the TV is the movie watched, or experienced.

Next time we can take these definitions and ideas and build on them, to talk about some of the interesting thought experiments that the philosophy of consciousness has inspired. For now, some questions for you. What do you think minds are made from, why, and is this the same as what you think all reality is made from? Can you describe the color blue, not as a wavelength, but as something you see? What do you think consciousness is, and do you think that you have it, how about humans in general?

Please feel free to ask questions or for clarification. Definitely leave your feedback, or further questions for thought, if the spirit moves you. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.