Author Archive

January 14, 2010

Cretinous Tirade

by Asher Kay

via Perverse Egalitarianism

January 13, 2010


by Asher Kay

December 31, 2009

We Have Never Been Miracles

by Asher Kay

On this edge of a new year, I’m reflecting about humanity.

I don’t have any huge hopes or expectations. What I would like to believe is that deep down, people are basically not idiots. I would like to believe that they are motivated, at least sometimes, by a desire to know what is true, and that this desire will lead them occasionally to question things, to evaluate evidence, to reason. Most of all, I would like to believe that in some small but fundamental way, people are capable of setting aside what they want to be true, and that through argument and imagination, reflection and discourse, they will sometimes be willing to follow the trail of what really is.

And with that statement of what I want to believe, I’ll leave you with a quote from Larry Kudlow, a former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan:

Despite the historic expansion of the federal government’s involvement in, intervention in and control of the economy — including Bailout Nation; takeovers of banks, car companies, insurance firms, Fannie, Freddie, AIG, GM, Chrysler and GMAC; large-scale tax threats; overregulation; an attempted takeover of the health care sector; ultra-easy money; a declining dollar; and unprecedented spending and debt creation — despite all the things that would be expected to destroy the economy — all this socialism lite and the degrading of incentives and rewards for success — despite all this, the U.S. economy has not been destroyed.

In fact, it is coming back. In 2009, the stock market had one of its greatest rebounds in history. And in 2010, we’re likely to witness a mini boom in economic growth.

If you believe in miracles, as I do, this looks like a miracle. If you have faith in free-market capitalism, as I do, then somehow this faith is being rewarded by a more durable and resilient free-enterprise capitalism than many of us thought possible only one year ago.

December 9, 2009

Elevator Pitch for Special Relativity

by Asher Kay

Physics is a way of looking at the world around us, with a unique perspective on how things move and interact with one another. It defines everyday phenomena through the conceptual lens of precise and unchangable “laws” — a sort of destiny that affects everything from how your dinner cooks to how the universe was formed. For Newtonian physicists, time and space are absolute — you are where you are. Special Relativity changes all that. With Special Relativity, the car speeding past you is actually shorter than a car at rest. And if you live on a mountain, time actually moves slower for you than it does for the people in the valley. Special Relativity frees us from the constraints of being nailed down to a boring and unchanging place in the cosmos.

December 2, 2009

Science, Philosophy, Territory, and Speculative Motivation

by Asher Kay

This is going to be one of those minimal, opening-up sorts of posts. I’m going to lay a couple of quotes out without any commentary, and see what people make of them.

The first is from a recent post by Levi on translation:

On the one hand, my initial thought is that it is not for philosophy to answer how translation takes place in any specific relation between objects. Initially this response might look like a dodge; however, it is premised on a distinction between the sort of thing philosophy does and the sort of thing other disciplines do.

The second is from Graham Harman’s much-talked-about causation essay:

For several centuries, philosophy has been on the defensive against the natural sciences, and now occupies a point of lower social prestige and, surprisingly, narrower subject matter. A brief glance at history shows that this was not always the case. To resume the offensive, we need only reverse the long-standing trends of renouncing all speculation on objects and volunteering for curfew in an ever-tinier ghetto of solely human realities: language, texts, political power.

Any thoughts?

[UPDATE: Harman’s recent reference to the “Neurology Death Cult” might also shed some light on this subject. Graham would seem to be pointing to Brassier’s “wing” of SR. See Reid Kane’s thoughtful response here.

I joined a Neurology Death Cult once. Every Thursday we’d get together and do fMRIs on Orange Vampires to find out why they were so dismissive of other people’s ideas. We also came up with this great pudding based on glial cells. It was like Kheer, except more chunky.]

November 30, 2009

Ontology, Justification, Direct Access, and Drano

by Asher Kay

We had a rousing discussion the other day here at Vole Central about emergence and reduction. The perennial topic of the justification of ontological theories came up, clothed in the distinction between strong and weak theories of emergence.

For the purposes of our discussion, strong emergence was defined as an “ontological” stance in which emergent properties are seen as a part of the actual, really-real world. Weak emergence, on the other hand, was defined as a more “epistemological” stance in which emergent properties are seen as necessary to our explanations of the real world, but not necessarily existent in the real world.

A lot of people think that we are pretty much doomed to a weak stance, essentially because we have no way of grounding ontology in the real, “noumenal” world. But even if we accept this rather Kantian limitation, the questions don’t go away.

Even if we can’t know the world as it really is, can we know something about the world? Our theories about how things are appear to have some relation to things rather than none at all. And if they do, we’re still stuck with the problem of justifying how we know those things. And it’s probably just as complicated as justifying a “strong” theory, because we still have to explain what our relationship is to things such that we can say stuff about them.

This justification can be called many things. I’ve been calling it a “theory of theories”, because it attempts to explain what makes our theories work. But it could also be called an epistemological theory, since it tries to explain how we know things. And it could be called an ontological theory, because it tries to explain how things are such that we know them. If you’re ever accused of conflating epistemology with ontology (or are accusing someone else of it), this is a good thing to keep in mind. When it comes to justifying theories, the two are conflated, at least to some degree. And I think we need to conflate them some more.

The burning question is: How are things such that our knowledge of them comes about? What access do we have to reality? Is it direct or indirect?

As a thought experiment, pour some Drano on your hand. The Drano is external reality, and your now smoking and sizzling hand is knowing about it. When I say “knowing” here, I do not mean you feeling the pain of being seriously burned by Drano. I mean that your hand is affected by the Drano in the exact manner of human flesh when it comes into contact with Sodium Hydroxide. Your hand does not have to know anything in particular about causticity, molecular structure, or anything else to be so affected. Your hand does not have to have a model of the hand-Drano interaction in order to be severely damaged. The “knowing” of the Drano is not “direct” in an absolute sense (your hand doesn’t, for example, “become” the Drano or “inhabit” the Drano, or even occupy a sensuous bubble of intentionality with the Drano — its “knowing” is just the damage and disfigurement), but we’re tempted to call this knowing “about as direct as it gets”.

Okay, you can wash your hand off now. Wasn’t that instructive?

It’s possible that we know the world in the same way as the hand knows the Drano. In the case of mental knowing, the process by which the world “damages” our conceptual apparatus is far less immediate and way more complicated, but ontologically, there may be no essential difference between the two processes.

Assuming that’s the case, what form does a theory of theories take?

[UPDATE: Apparently John at Ktismatics was already musing upon the selfsame subject of direct access to the world. It’s more evocatively put than this post *and* it doesn’t require a trip to the emergency room!]

November 21, 2009

Causation, Reduction, Emergence, and Marbles

by Asher Kay

Riffing off a nice post by John at Ktismatics on whether we have direct access to our own minds…

Whenever there’s a discussion about the neuronal vs. the mental, issues of causation and reduction often come up. Can conscious activity be reduced to an explanation of neuronal activity? Does the neuronal level of organization *cause* the level at which qualia are experienced? What form does that causation take?

My stance is that causality is really a much, much looser concept than physical science would make it seem. Over time, physical science has corralled causality into a smaller and smaller area — but that area is occupied by some pretty inscrutable things — things like “forces”, which end up being mostly tautological at a paradigmatic level (“it’s a force because it makes things move — it makes things move because it’s a force”), and metaphorically hinky at the level of theory (gauge bosons as “virtual particles”).

So when we think about the neuronal “causing” the mental, we usually have in mind some sort of physical-science-like efficient causality, because that’s what we see as operating at the molecular level of description that neural networks inhabit.

But the question is — why are there multiple levels of organization at all? Is reality really separated into strata of magnification, with causality operating horizontally within a layer and vertically between layers? If so, are the vertical and horizontal causalities the same *kind* of causality?

This is where reduction comes in. It seems that a lot of people think that if we can describe something at, say, a molecular level, we have reduced it, and we no longer need the description at the higher level, because we’ve explained everything that needs to be explained. Let’s say that we have a particular arrangement of a certain sort of molecules, and we know exactly why the regularity of that arrangement and the nature of the forces between the molecules allow photons to pass through without being absorbed. Have we “reduced” the emergent property of transparency? A scientist would probably say that we have — that the perceptual level of “seeing through” something doesn’t add anything to the explanation.

But that’s just one idea of reduction. Here’s another. Let’s say that we have a game that’s defined by the manipulation of yellow and blue marbles on a grid according to a set of rules. We’re given an initial row, from left to right, of, say, a thousand marbles on the grid, some yellow, some blue — and we’re given eight simple rules about how to place marbles on the next row of the grid. The rules tell us to look at each marble in the row, and place a marble below it with a color that’s based on the marbles directly to the right and left of the marble we’re looking at. For example, a rule might say, “if you’re on a yellow marble with a blue to the right and a yellow to the left, place a blue marble below it”, or “when a yellow marble’s neighbors are both blue, place a yellow marble below it”. It will take five hundred steps, but eventually we will run out of marbles, because the ones on the ends don’t have neighbors, and therefore don’t get marbles placed below them.

So what we have is an extremely simple system with only two entities, eight rules, and 1000 objects. Reductively, we would say that we have fully explained the system, right? We know all of the things that there are (red and blue marbles), all of the possible ways that they can be manipulated (exactly eight ways), and the exact configuration of the entire universe at its inception (a line of 1000 marbles). We know everything there is to know about the system.

Okay. So what if I now asked you to tell me, given a particular row of a thousand marbles and a particular set of eight rules, what the sequence of yellow and blue marbles will be after 250 steps of applying the rules. But wait, there’s a catch — the *only* thing you’re *not* allowed to do in figuring it out is *actually carry out the 250 steps*.

Why this prohibition? Well, the set of rules and the initial lineup of marbles are what constitute the *reduction* of the system. If you actually carry out the rules to find out the configuration after 250 steps, you haven’t *reduced* anything — you are actually *running* the real, unreduced system.

So — is it possible? Can you do it?

The answer is that in some cases, it’s impossible.

Now, many people would say that the example I just gave confuses reduction with predictability. But what if, instead of asking you to predict the sequence of marbles after 250 steps, I asked you to tell me, in a general way, if the rows of marbles produced by following the rules would make a pattern, and, if so, what sorts of features (in general) that pattern would exhibit. Could you do that? The answer, once again, is that in some cases, you couldn’t. Some configurations of marbles and rules produce weird repeating patterns that look like spaceships. The spaceships are not in the rules or the marbles — they emerge from them, but are not explained by them.

What I’m getting at is that although predictability and reduction are not the same thing, they are intimately related and not really separable. Predictability is the only real test we have to tell us if we have explained something fully. Reduction is a way of formulating a prediction about how something will behave.

November 1, 2009

Tentative Album Cover

by Asher Kay

Comments are welcome. Does the finger look “just photoshopped enough”?


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