23 November 2011

That Book is DONE, Bitches!

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:26 pm

For months I’d been hoping to finish writing the first draft by tomorrow. Then I couldn’t quite get started, and then the writing was going slowly, and gradually I resigned myself not to finishing on time. But wait! About two weeks ago I began realizing that what I’d been thinking was the first half or first third of a fairly long novel was turning into a self-contained shorter book, with a tight story and an ending well in view. So I did a last push and voilá, this afternoon it’s done, a day ahead of schedule. Sure there’s editing to be done, but at the end of the day I kicked that book’s ASS!

Is it a short novel or a novella? I don’t give a damn what you call it, just call it DONE! Here’s the last sentence:

As he followed the hostess across the square a courier walked up to him, asked him to sign, and handed him the little white box with the gold ribbon.

20 November 2011

The Now: Reality or Illusion?

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:17 pm

More from Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel:

A complete scientific description of the physical universe would not contain the information as to what time is “now.” …In real life, this is the job of the conscious brain: It constantly tells the organism harboring it what place is here and what time is now… Strictly speaking, no such thing as Now exists in the outside world.” (pp. 34,36)

How so? One of the benefits of a scientific description of the space-time continuum is that it enables an observer to locate specific points on that continuum. Metzinger is prepared to acknowledge the reality of a world outside of our internal representation of it, a world that includes objects occupying specific coordinates in space. Objects in the world also occupy time coordinates: they come into existence, endure, disintegrate. Processes and events in the world unfold over discrete intervals of time: they begin, they happen, they end. I understand that, for the scientist, identifying the specific coordinates on the space-time continuum is usually a third-person activity: things positioned on the continuum are there; they are then. For me, an individual subject occupying those coordinates, I am here, I am now. These are just two different vantage points for observing the same set of space-time coordinates — coordinates that exist in the real world. Like being at the eye of a tornado, the coordinates are no less real just because I happen to be in the middle of them.

Metzinger contends that the subjective experience of the Now is an “illusion.” It takes time for our sensory apparatus to transmit signals to the brain and for the brain to assemble these inputs into a coherent representation. Consequently what we experience as “now” is actually a re-creation of what was happening a fraction of a second ago. That’s true, but to call “the now” an illusion seems like a serious overstatement. It’s possible to describe with precision the causal processes linking my representation of the now with the real-world now; it’s possible to compute the time lag between the real external now and my internal now.

Metzinger reminds us that the color we perceive as apricot-pink doesn’t exist as such in the electromagnetic waves pinging against our retinas. Apricot-pink is the way humans represent that band in the light spectrum. What is the time continuum really like, or an interval, or an instant? Do we experience time as it is, directly? Or, as with vision, do we represent time in a way that’s dependent on objective time but that’s also transformed by our perceptual and cognitive systems? The latter is probably the case. But if our subjective experience of the color apricot-pink is more than mere illusion, so too is our experience of time.

18 November 2011

God Detection Neurons?

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:21 pm

Here’s a second installment on Thomas Metzinger, following up on yesterday’s post.

If certain aspects of consciousness are ineffable, we obviously cannot correlate them with states in our brains… But pinning down the neural correlates of specific conscious contents will lay the foundation for future neurotechnology. As soon as we know the sufficient physical correlates of apricot-pink or sandalwood-amber, we will in principle be able to activate these states by stimulating the brain in an appropriate manner. We will be able to modulate our sensations of color or smell, and intensify or extinguish them, by stimulating or inhibiting the relevant groups of neurons. This may also be true for emotional states, such as empathy, gratitude, or religious ecstasy.

– Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, pp. 19-20

Neuroscientific research has already made good progress in identifying brain coordinates for color perception, and investigation of the role of mirror neurons in empathy is a hot topic in the field. But being able to stimulate the neurons directly doesn’t belie the more important empirical evidence that these neurons are usually activated by information extracted from the environment. I.e., the parts of the brain that detect the color apricot-pink are tuned in to specific frequencies of radiomagnetic waves reflected by the surfaces of objects out there in the world, detected by photoreceptor cells in the retina, and transmitted via neural pathways to the brain.

So what about religious ecstasy? Already it can be artificially stimulated by shysters and hucksters; some day brain probes might be able to do the trick. But just because the religious ecstasy neurons can be juked doesn’t imply that all religious ecstasy is an illusion. Color-detecting neurons detect features of environmental surfaces; mirror neurons detect features of other humans. Might not religious ecstasy neurons detect features of other sorts of non-human, super-powerful sapient beings that are out there in the environment somewhere?

I know this idea has been proposed before, that the gods have equipped humans with internal mechanisms for detecting the gods’ presence or for receiving their messages. Metzinger refers to our internal representation of the environment as a “tunnel” because of its narrow bandwidth. We are equipped to detect only a small fraction of the almost unimaginably rich environment in which we are immersed. Maybe the gods are out there chattering and emitting vibes all the time, but we just can’t pick up the signals.

Humans who have never previously seen a snake exhibit fear on first contact with one. Presumably this is because the instinct to fear snakes was adaptive in the environment in which humans evolved. Our ancestors who had active snake-fear neurons avoided snakes, didn’t get bit, and so survived to pass on the snake-fear gene. Surely some ancestors who didn’t fear snakes managed to survive, and so there are surely some among us today who do not instinctively fear snakes. But there’s certainly no evolutionary pressure for the snake-fearing gene to go extinct in a snake-free environment. The snake-fear neurons are still there in the brain even if the bearer of that brain never once encounters a snake in the world.

So what about the god-detector neuron? Most people in the world claim to detect the presence of the gods. In a sense it doesn’t matter whether these billions of people’s god-detector genes are activated by real gods in their environment or whether they are artificially stimulated. The point is that these hypothetical god-detector neurons can be activated. Maybe in the evolutionary environment it was adaptive for humans to be aware of the gods. Maybe the gods enhanced survival value by conveying information about where to find food or where predators were hiding or how to overcome an enemy. Still, some of our ancestors who couldn’t detect the presence of the gods might have survived anyway, passing the god-indifference genes on to subsequent generations. Just as the absence of snake-fear genes does not hinder survival in an environment in which there are no real snakes, so the absence of god-detection genes might pose no handicap in an environment where the gods have departed or where they no longer provide survival benefits to humans.

Maybe the god-detector neurons need to learn — that is, they have to be put through some input-output-feedback iterations before they become properly attuned to the signal. Neurons assigned to language processing never function properly if you happen to be raised by wolves. Exposure to language-speakers during early childhood is necessary if the child is to learn to speak and understand speech. Maybe this iterative learning circuitry is necessary also for the god-detector neurons. If during the critical developmental period a person is not exposed to the gods, that person never develops the ability to detect gods if they happen to show up later.

It’s also possible that the god-detector neurons can become hypersensitized. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have hypersensitive asshole detector neurons: they’re chronically inflamed, always alert, always receiving signals alerting my brain to the proximal presence of assholes. The problem with a hypersensitive detection mechanism of this sort (or so I’m told) is that it generates some false positives; i.e., I’m prone to detecting assholes when none are present. Maybe this same problem of false positives plagues those burdened with hypersensitive god-detector neurons: they detect divine activity everywhere and all the time, even when it’s not present. Alternatively, people with dulled, insensitive detector neurons may experience a high proportion of false negatives. They don’t detect assholes or gods even when they’re staring them in the face.

17 November 2011

Metzinger: So Far So Good

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:45 pm

In this book I will try to convince you that there is no such thing as a self.

Thomas Metzinger begins The Ego Tunnel (2009) with a bang that sounds suspiciously like the hollow clangor of “eliminativism.” Having read only second-hand, generally critical accounts, I presumed that the notoriously “scientistic” Metzinger would argue that only brain-body physiology is real, and that subjective epiphenomena generated by and emerging from neural states and processes — perception, cognition, self-awareness — are illusions. But that’s not what he says. He’s aware of his own notoriety and he responds to it. After briefly documenting the recent explosion in empirically-supported knowledge about consciousness, Metzinger acknowledges the backlash:

We have learned how great the fear of reductionism is, in the humanities as well as among the general public, and how immense the market is for mysterianism. The straightforward philosophical answer to the widespread fear that philosophers or scientists will “reduce consciousness” is that reduction is a relationship between theories, not phenomena. No serious empirical researcher and no philosopher wants to “reduce consciousness”; at best, one theory about how the contents of conscious experience arose can be reduced to another theory. Our theories about phenomena change, but the phenomena stay the same. A beautiful rainbow continues to be a beautiful rainbow even after it has been explained in terms of electromagnetic radiation. Adopting a primitive scientistic ideology would be just as bad as succumbing to mysterianism. Furthermore, most people would agree that the scientific method is not the only way of gaining knowledge.

I’ve just started reading Metzinger’s book, but I suspect that his opening salvo is more of an attention-grabber than a thesis statement, sort of like asserting two hundred years ago that there is no soul. The book focuses largely on what might be deemed component parts of selfhood: consciousness, the internal representation of the external world, the sense of being centered in one’s own body, self-reflexivity. Briefly, Metzinger argues that it’s not particularly useful to think in terms of “selfhood” as a holistic entity that we are or that we have within us. Instead he proposes the concept of a “phenomenological self-model” — a continually refreshed simulation by which the human monitors his environment, his body, and his cognitive processes. Metzinger contends that this self-model simulation is not really a subjective image of the internal and external environments in which we function; rather, it is a tunnel through which we encounter these environments. Even here, though, Metzinger seems overly dramatic in his rhetoric. Immediately after introducing the metaphor of the tunnel, he asserts that we do generate images or representations of our environment and of our internal state — that in fact we encounter the world and ourselves only through these representations. Does this make Metzinger a “correlationist”? We’ll see. I have a sense that later in the book he’s going to claim that empirical science enables us to get out of the tunnel in order to have more direct encounters with the outer and inner environments.

I like the way he begins the book, not because of the controversies he seems bent on provoking but because he purports to take empirical science seriously. Many non-scientific theorists weed through the jungle of scientific findings in order to extract a few “proof texts” that support their a priori ideas. Metzinger seems more willing to “let the data speak,” allowing empirical findings to shape and revise theory.

Unlike many of my philosopher colleagues, I think that empirical data are often directly relevant to philosophical issues and that a considerable part of academic philosophy has ignored such data for much too long.

I find this approach more comprehensible, more compatible with my own inclinations and educational background, and more likely to be true than the so-called armchair philosophy practiced by introspectors, sophists, antiquarians and other creative geniuses whose insights and literary flourishes often seem indistinguishable from bullshit.

I may have more to report from Metzinger’s book as I go along.

13 November 2011

How Nerdy Am I?

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:03 am

It can get blustery here at the edge of the mountains. Yesterday was one of those days: warm, partly sunny, westerly winds 70+ miles per hour. More than once on my walk the wind stood me up and pushed me back a few steps. Grit was blowing in my eyes so I was tempted to walk backward, but I wanted to stay alert for any airborne tree branches or baby carriages that might be hurtling my way. The chain link fence around the baseball field was plastered with all manner of blasted detritus: dried leaves, cardboard fast-food containers, a long strip of danger tape carried off from some now-unmarked hazard. I tore off a segment of the tape as a souvenir and shoved it in my jacket pocket.

I made it home without incident. On the front porch the wind had pulled the plant pots right out from under their plants and carried the pots away, leaving the plants behind, root balls and all. Anne was standing in the kitchen talking to her mother on the phone, telling her about the wind. Watch this, I said to Anne. I showed her my strip of yellow tape, stepped back out onto the porch, and tossed the tape into the air. Anne looked at me quizzically when I came back inside. I threw caution to the wind, I told her.

6 November 2011

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Potocki, 1814

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 6:34 pm

…My father spent three years with the Camaldolese monks. The good fathers managed by means of assiduous care and angelic patience to restore to him the use of his reason. He then went to Madrid and called on the minister. This gentleman called him into his office and said, “Señor Don Enrique, your affair has come to the ears of the king, who has blamed this mistake on me and on my office. But I showed him your letter signed Don Carlos and here it is. Please tell me why you didn’t put your own name on it.”

My father took the letter, recognized his handwriting and said to the minister, “Alas, Your Excellency, I now remember that at the moment of signing the letter my brother’s arrival was announced. The joy of hearing his name must have made me put it in the place of mine. But it isn’t this mistake which caused my misfortunes. Even if the commission of colonel-general had been sent in my name, I would not have been able to exercise the office. Today my sanity has been restored and I now feel able to carry out the plan which the king then had.”

“My dear Enrique,” said the minister, “all the proposals for fortification have been abandoned and at court it is not the custom to mention again things which have been forgotten about. All I can offer you is the office of commandant of Ceuta. That is the only vacancy I have. And you will have to leaver for Ceuta without seeing the king. I admit that the office is beneath your talents and it is moreover unkind at your age to be confined to a rock in Africa.”

“That is precisely what attracts me to the post,” replied my father. “It seems to me that I shall escape my cruel fate by leaving Europe; by going to another part of the world I shall become as it were another man, and shall find peace and happiness there under the influence of more favourable stars.”

My father quickly collected his orders as commandant, went to Algeciras, from where he set sail, and arrived without mishap in Ceuta. As he disembarked there, he experienced a delicious feeling. It seemed to him that he had reached port after many long days of stormy weather…

So my father, living the life of the mind, passed in turn from observation to meditation, nearly always confined to his residence. The continual efforts to which he subjected his intellect made him often forget that cruel period of his life when his reason had given way under the weight of his misfortunes. But often, too, the past would claim its due. This would occur mostly in the evenings, after the labours of the day had exhausted his mind. Then, since he was not used to seeking distractions outside his own company, he would climb up to the terrace and look across the sea to the horizon, edged in the distance by the coasts of Spain. This view reminded him of those glorious and happy days when he was cherished by his family, loved by his mistress, admired by men of worth, and his soul, burning with the fire of youth and lit by the wisdom of a mature intellect, opened itself to all those feelings that are the delight of human life and all those thoughts that dignify the human spirit.

Then he remembered his brother robbing him of his mistress, his fortune and his rank and himself lying on the straw, deprived of his reason. Sometimes he took up his violin and played the fatal saraband which decided Bianca in favour of Carlos. This music provoked him to tears. When he had cried he felt relief. Fifteen years went by in this manner.

One evening the Lieutenant-Governor of Ceuta, having some business to transact with my father, visited him quite late and found him in one of his melancholy moods. Having thought for a moment, he said, “My dear commandant, I beg you to pay attention to me. You are unhappy and you are sorrowful. That is no secret. We know it and so does my daughter. She was five when you came to Ceuta and since then not a day has passed without her hearing you spoken of with adoration, for you are the tutelary deity of our little colony. Often she has said to me, ‘Our dear commandant only feels his sorrows so deeply because he has no one to share them with.’ Come and see us, Don Enrique. It will do you more good than counting the waves of the sea.”

So my father let himself be taken to Inés de Cadanza. He married her six months later, and I was born ten months after their marriage.

When the weak child that I was first saw the light of day, my father took me in his arms, raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Oh almighty power, whose exponent is immensity, oh last term of all ascending series, oh my God, behold another sensible being projected into space. If he is destined to be as unhappy as his father may you in your mercy mark him with the sign of subtraction.”

Having thus prayed, my father kissed me passionately and said, “No, my poor child, you will not be as unhappy as I have been. I swear by the holy name of God that I will never teach you mathematics but you will know the saraband, the ballets of Louis XIV and every other form of impertinence which comes to my attention.” Then my father bathed me in his tears and gave me back to the midwife.

Now I beg you to note the strangeness of my fate. My father swears never to teach me mathematics and swears to teach me to dance. Well, the reverse happened. It has turned out that I know a great deal about the exact sciences and I am incapable of learning, I won’t say the saraband because that’s no longer in fashion, but any other dance. In fact, I cannot conceive how one can remember the steps of the quadrille. There are indeed no dance steps which are produced by a point of origin whose sequence is governed by a consistent rule. They cannot be represented in formulas and it seems inconceivable to me that there are people who can retain them in their memory.

As Don Pedro de Velásquez reached this point in his story, the gypsy chief came into the cave and said that it was in the interests of the band to move on and retire further into the Alpujarras mountains…

4 November 2011

Move My Money?

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:25 pm

Tomorrow is Move Your Money day, the day when the 99% are exhorted to transfer their cash from banks to savings and loans. I’m sort of clueless about these sorts of things, having only found out about Move Your Money on Tuesday at the Occupy Boulder. The main rationales as I understand them:

Doing business with many small credit unions helps dilute the oligopolistic power of the big banks.

Credit unions are owned by the depositors, not by outside investors, so profits are distributed in the form of lower fees and higher interest rates rather than as capital gains or big bonuses to executives.

Credit unions invest in small businesses more than in global corporations. Small businesses generate proportionately more jobs than giant companies.

These seem like pretty good reasons to participate, although as I discussed yesterday at the Occupy with Jim — a former banker, current “radical democrat,” and fellow blogger — the Move Your Money intervention is rather a “weak tea,” intended to appeal to unregulated capitalist libertarians as much as to left-wingers. My issues are these:

Are there limits on what credit unions can do with the investments they make with depositors’ money? Somewhat repulsively to me, the Move Your Money website invokes George Bailey’s Building and Loan from It’s A Wonderful Life as the exemplar for the modern credit union. Good Old George wouldn’t foreclose on your mortgage and throw you out in the street like that mean old banker Mr. Potter would. But can’t credit unions and savings & loan associations sell balloon, subprime, low-down-payment mortgages to customers just like any other home financing company? Can’t credit unions and S&Ls bundle up their mortgages and sell them to giant consolidators? Are S&L-initiated mortgages any less likely to be foreclosed? I don’t know the answer to these questions, and brief internet research didn’t throw any light on the subject.

Just twenty years ago there was a Savings and Loan Crisis, in which overleveraged S&Ls got themselves into deep shit via risky lending practices and had to be bailed out by the US government. Like credit unions, most savings & loans are mutual companies owned by the depositors. To tell the truth, I don’t know what distinguishes a credit union from a mutual S&L association. The S&L industry was underregulated, and so a lot of hotshot executives got rich quick — GW Bush’s brother Neil was one of the big players in this scandal. It’s my understanding that few additional regulations have been put in place that would prevent a recurrence. I.e., S&Ls aren’t much different from banks in corruption opportunities unless I’m missing something.

Do credit union executives in the aggregate actually earn smaller salaries and bonuses than do their counterparts at the big banks? The big banks are, well, big, with a lot of high-paid people working at any given bank. Credit unions are smaller but larger in number. Do they really pay their executives a smaller percentage of total revenues than do their jumbo counterparts? I used to work for a small mutual insurance company, analogous to a saving and loan in that the company was owned by the policyholders. The CEO and COO both earned big bonuses tied to quarterly sales and profits. State Farm and Allstate are giant mutual insurers: do their execs make less money than, say, the heads of private firms like Hartford and Aetna? I don’t know.

The small businesses to which credit unions extend loans: do they actually charge less for their products and pay their employees better than do big businesses? Based on personal experience I doubt it, but I don’t have any numbers.

When I started writing this post I figured that I’d probably Move My Money anyway, even if I didn’t do it with dramatic flair on Saturday. Diluting oligopolistic power and supporting customer-owned business both seem like better alternatives to collusive investor-owned banks. But recalling the S&L Crisis has given me pause. I’d like to know more before making a decision. Besides, It’s A Wonderful Life kind of disgusts me.

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