Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Mind/Brain Dualism and the Singularity

A few weeks ago, the excellent EconTalk podcast featured an interview with Professor Robin Hanson of George Mason University. Hanson and the host, Russ Roberts, talked about the singularity, with some very interesting comments on the Economic implications. I wish they’d said a lot more about those implications, actually, since it’s an angle that not a lot of people look at with regards to the Singularity. Most commentators look at the asymptotic knowledge growth, the functionally infinite lifespan, the massive social change, etc. but rarely something so practical and tangible as “what will the economy of the planet look like post-Singularity”.

Unfortunately, part way through the interview, Hanson and Roberts get sidetracked on some of the implementation details of the Singularity and, after crashing face-first into the Mind/Brain Dualism problem, they seem to muck about stunned for a little while before stepping gingerly away and continuing off on other paths. And this is kind of a pity because they failed to mention one of the most interesting things about the Singularity.

You see, the Singularity is, among other things, a hypothesis regarding the Mind/Brain Dualism question. In order for the Singularity to come about as it’s predicted by its believers, the mind must map to the brain in a one-to-one fashion. In other words, every Brain-state must create one and only one Mind-state. If Brain-states aren’t a function on Mind-states, then any simulation which occurs (using Hanson’s version of “simulation”, which he articulates in the podcast), will end up with ambiguities.

These ambiguities would have to be resolved in some way, and, given that we can’t turn to the brain’s state to resolve them, such resolutions will be essentially arbitrary.

So in order to be able to reliably emulate a human mind, that mind must be the range expressed by some function of brain-states. In other words, Mind/Brain Dualism must be false in order for the Singularity to proceed as it’s most often envisioned, with the “uploading” of human minds into some sort of trans-human storage medium.

(Note: it’s an interesting and, I think, open question whether or not the advent of Quantum Computing will any way change this fact. Mind/Brain Dualism has to be false in order for a mind to be simulated on a deterministic machine, but I think it’s still unclear whether it needs to be false in order for the mind to be simulated on a non-deterministic machine such as a Quantum Computer.)

Two other articles that are well-worth reading. The first is Timothy B. Lee’s response to to the Hanson/Roberts interview. He makes a very plausible technical case for why the emulation of natural systems is impossible. I have to admit that I’m not 100% convinced, but I think the odds are very good that he’s right. (I take quibble with his statement that natural systems don’t conform to mathematical models. One could write a mathematical model to accurately describe a lot of natural systems. It’s just that for any system of even modest complexity, the scaling problems in making an accurate model will be entirely intractible. A small quibble, but I think it’s an important one.)

Secondly, read Daniel Dennett on Mind/Body Dualism. It’s a little more general than the Mind/Brain Dualism problem I talked about above, but I think it lays out the important issues. It’s wrapped in kind of a cheesy story, but it raises many of the interesting questions regarding Dualism.

EDIT: On re-reading Timothy Lee’s post, I think he actually addresses my quibble, so basically I think he’s right. Emulating even modestly complex natural systems is intractable.

I Want Michael Bywater’s Job

Seriously. I don’t know how much he gets paid to crank out tripe like this, but I’ll do it for half the price. Not only does this guy butcher basic grammar, he also has the stylistic sense of a high school Freshman who’s been told he’s a genius a few times too many. And I should know, I used to be that high school Freshman.

And honestly, I can overlook bad grammar and bad style if the content is solid. After all, it’s better to be right than to seem right. But Bywater’s entire column is so wrong that it’s not even wrong. It’s just hundreds of words of nonsense mixed liberally with factual errors. Don’t believe me? Here’s his fourth paragraph in its entirety:

The last really successful religion – the only successful one for 1,340 years, since Islam kicked off with the Qur’an – was started way before the online Distraction Machine. One article in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction started the whole thing going. The author was a red-headed pulp sci-fi writer with a sideline in Westerns and fantasy who to the astonishment of his colleagues churned out about a million words a year at 70 words a minute. Clearly he hadn’t just been cooling his heels for the remaining 46 weeks of the year, but thinking up something spectacular. The new religion (or at least its core idea) was no flash in the pan; its author, writes sociologist Stephen Kent, “had been discussing and developing his ideas at least as far back as the previous summer”. Assuming he could think twice as fast as he could type, that’s roughly 18 million words of thinking before he went into print. No wonder the idea caught on.

Bullshit on stilts this is. It starts with a baldfaced lie, descends into illogical horseshit, and ends up in one of the most stunning non-sequitors I’ve ever read. Bywater comes across as so clueless that he couldn’t get a clue if he walked into a discount clue shop with a suitcase full of hundred dollar bills.

Scientology is the only successful religion since Islam? Sit down, Mr. Bywater, this list is going to take awhile:

  • Tibetan Buddhism
  • Shingon (Japanese) Buddhism
  • Sikhism
  • Lutheranism
  • Anglicanism
  • Calvinism
  • Presbyterianism
  • Baptism
  • Russian Orthodox
  • Wahhabism
  • Sunni Islam
  • Shia Islam
  • Suffi Islam
  • Shakers
  • Quakers
  • Mormonism
  • Baha’i
  • Seventh-Day Adventism
  • Swaminarayan Hinduism
  • Wicca
  • Rastafarianism
  • Yogic Transcendentalism
  • Iglesia ni Cristo

All of these religions were founded between Islam and Scientology. And shit, this even leaves out some of the weird ones that were never popular, but still had huge influences (e.g. Thelema, Church of Satan, Raelism). Even with the most stringent interpretation of “successful” the list above still contains several that have many more followers than Scientology and/or have much higher name recognition. To skip over these faiths and simply state that there’s a 1300-years of religious downtime between the founding of Islam and the founding of Scientology is, at best, horribly ignorant. And I mean that literally; that is absolutely the best possible interpretation. The best case scenario here is that Michael Bywater is so ignorant about religion that he’s unqualified to write a vapid puff piece on a minor freakshow of a religion.

A more probably and far less flattering interpretation of Mr. Bywater’s statement is that he knows about at least some of these religions, but their existence was inconvenient to his thesis, and so he ignored them. I would say that this makes Mr. Bywater a rhetorical whore, but I’m sure most sex workers have a hell of a lot more professionalism and intellectual honesty than does Mr. Bywater.

Then there’s the absolutely mess of a description of L. Ron Hubbard that follows. He writes a million words a year. But he apparently only writes for 6 weeks of the year, because there’s a nonsensical reference to “the other 46 weeks”. Also, apparently a million words at 70 WPM is an astounding number. That 40 minutes of typing per day must have really taken it out of ol’ Mr. Hubbard.

Then there’s some odd implication that he worked long and hard on Scientology, followed by a quote that says he’d been working on it for at most a year. Then some bizarre calculation about the number of “words of thinking” that Hubbard put into Scientology. A calculation, by the way, that is wrong, even by Bywater’s own standards. If L. Ron wrote a million words a year, thought twice that fast, and took a year to invent Scientology, that’s two million thought-words.

Which would mean something if “number of words of thought” meant anything at all, which it doesn’t, because Michael Bywater is a hack who is so full of shit that it makes me irrationally angry just thinking about it.

And none of this even touches on his bizarre sidetrack into Solipsism later in the article. Apparently everything (literally everything) is bollocks, according to Mr. Bywater. Well, as the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Maybe if all you can write is bullshit, every topic looks like nonsense.

In summary, Mr. Bywater is, at best, incompetent. At worst he’s an unprofessional and sophistic hack.

In other news, I really need to learn how to get less worked up about these things.

The Economics of Culture

One of the unfortunate truths about economic development, is that it’s not just about the measurable, tangible parts of a national condition. A big part of economic development also comes down to culture. Writing in the January issue of Foreign Affairs, Óscar Arias makes the case that there are traits found in Latin American culture that inhibit growth and development in the region.

From the article (sub required):

Nearly two centuries after the countries of Latin America gained their independence from Spain and Portugal, not one of them is truly developed. Where have they gone wrong? Why have countries in other regions, once far behind, managed to achieve relatively quickly results that Latin American countries have aspired to for so long?

Many in the region respond to such questions with conspiracy theories or self-pitying excuses. They blame the Spanish empire, for making off with the region’s riches in the past, or the American empire, which supposedly continues to bleed it dry today. They say that international financial institutions have schemed to hold the region back, that globalization was deliberately designed to keep it in the shadows. In short, they place the blame for underdevelopment anywhere but on Latin America itself.

Arias goes on to identify four cultural traits which, he claims, are currently holding Latin American nations back from economic development: “resistance to change, absence of confidence, fragile democratic norms, and a soft spot for militarism.”

I’ve always been interested by the ways fuzzy things like culture impact issues of national development and success. I’ve long thought that America’s greatest economic asset (and a large part of the reason why we are currently responsible for about a quarter of the world’s GDP) is a culture of innovation and embracing social change. (This, by the way, is one thing that we share with Japan who has, for years, been one of the strongest economies in Asia. This might be coincidence, but I like to think it’s correlation. Japan, after all, is a culture obsessed with newness, innovation, and the future. For more on that, see this great essay on Japan by William Gibson.)

If there is a strong correlation between economic strength and cultural neophilia, then Arias’ comments about Latin America’s perpetual resistance to change seem like not only a credible critique, but a pretty damning one.

From the FA article:

Latin Americans glorify their past so ceaselessly that they make it almost impossible to advocate change. Instead of a culture of improvement, they have promoted a culture of preservation of the status quo. Constant, patient reform … is unsatisfying; the region accepts what exists, while occasionally pining for dramatic revolutions that promise abundant treasures one one insurrection away.

This quote also dovetails nicely with Arias’ comments on the regions persistent militarism. But what interested me was that this showed not only a disregard for progress, but also a simultaneous impatience with it. Not only do Latin American cultures look to the past rather than the future, they are also, according to Arias, impatient when the future they’re ignoring takes too long to arrive.

Contrast this with modern America or with the Japan as described by Gibson in the article linked above; people in both countries expect that things will change and improve over time and enthusiastically embrace such changes (no matter how gradual.)

We’ve now reached the point in the post where I make a massive and entirely unsupported leap. I’ve given two examples where having a future-oriented culture coincides with prosperity and one example where having a past-oriented culture coincides with stagnation. This is enough to hint at, though not establish, correlation.

But I genuinely believe that there’s a causative relationship at play. In fact, I think that some level of neophilia in a culture is a huge benefit to economic growth, since it inclines people to embrace new technologies, ideologies, and lifestyles. This encourages diversity in the economy, which in turn spurs competition, which leads to greater adoption of better ways of living. This drives efficiency and innovation, and hence growth.

Now, of course, I would love to be able to prove that. But other than simply identifying which countries I think have some measure of neophilia, versus those that are (for lack of a better terms) neophobic, and then plotting their GDPs, I wouldn’t know how to go about it. As such, I’ll follow in the proud tradition of math and CS books everywhere and leave the proof as an exercise to the reader.

Of course there are other interesting explanations for this correlation, should it exist. One is that economic progress, in fact, causes neophilia. Perhaps seeing the fruits of economic growth leads people to wonder what else the future might hold for a developing nation and, as such, fosters amongst its populace a more forward-looking culture. This could explain, for instance, the 1950s obsession with science fiction and futurism. A post-war nation in the middle of the economic boom, which was seeing incredible scientific and technological developments and was in the middle of one of the biggest standard-of-living increases in its history, might naturally look to the future with wonderment and desire.

Similarly, perhaps the relationship between forward-looking culture and economic progress is in some sense reciprocal. Maybe neophilia and economic progress share at least one sufficient condition (e.g. strong individual liberty).

Maybe the correlation is purely incidental based on cultural imitation. I.e., those nations that are currently best-off are neophilic. They trade with a variety of other nations, and this trade brings about increasing prosperity for this trade partners. In addition, this trade ALSO helps spread cultural traits, including neophilia. This would mean that neophilia is, in some sense, a noise artifact cause by trade with wealthy countries that just happen to be neophilic.

One last thought on this occurs to me. If one grants as true that cultures exist on a spectrum in terms of their levels of neophilia, then there might be a global analog to Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations curve1. Some technology (e.g. the cellphone or, per Patri Friedman, the technology of Liberal Democracy) gets invented in one nation and is early-adopted by wealthy, future-oriented countries. It then diffuses to wealthy, but future-neutral countries, then eventually to poorer and neophobic nations adopt it last.

Of course this is all just speculation, and exceedingly hard to prove. Still, I am fairly certain that the relationship between cultural neophilia and economic prosperity is not only real, but causative. As it stands, there seems strong evidence that, at least in the case of Latin America, suspicion of the new has helped lead not to stability and security as come wish to suggest it would, but rather to poverty and conflict.


^1 For more on this topic, see Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations. Then, if it’s any good, let me know because I’ve been meaning for years to read it, but haven’t ever gotten around to it.^

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.