Saturday, May 7, 2022

Bernardo Kastrup Explains Everything

Well, I feel mildy excited, and greatly relieved today, I don't quite understand how my son-in-law decided that Kastrup's thinking reminded him of mine, since I don't have too many actual memories of exposing my thinking to him or to anyone else. I only ever get so far. But then I'm on the slope down now toward the singularity of collapse into the enternal present of death. Memory, in other words, ain't what it used to be. Anyhow, thanks to him that I watched (listened to) the YouTube hereinbelow.

So I watched it, and was utterly amazed at Kastrup's lucidity, and at the completeness of his philosophy (be forewarned, it's two hours long):

His view of consciousness seems to conform to mine, as well as his placement of narration on the "inside" of our own strangely individuated whorls in the continuum of universal "mentation." He uses the term "alter", derived from dissociative identity disorder in the field of psychology, to describe the (pathological?) sequestration of a self from cosmic mentation. 

I am left with two or three basic questions that I have yet to find an answer to:
  • I haven't found his opinion yet on whether artificial consciousness is possible. Since he lists that field as one of those in which he holds degrees, I think the answer might be consequential. And does he really find the film Inception to be anything but trash?
  • While he acknowledges the importance of emotion to mentation, at least implicitly, I wonder if he's done any theoretical work on emotion.
  • While the non-dualism of his idealism manages to retain the validity of the empirical scientific method, I haven't seen where he actually defines mentation in any way to cosmically differentiate it from whatever are the processes of materialism. He erases an unnecessary boundary, sure, but doesn't quite, to my satisfaction, answer the "OK then, so what?" question. He seems still to imply a before and after and is therefore stuck with chicken/egg.
  • Somewhere in this YouTube, he says something that I also have said; that the mutations on which evolutionary theory depends are not random (not accidents), and I want more on that. He indicates somewhere in this YouTube that the closely watched mutations across the past couple of years somehow demonstrate this. How? Fate and subconscious; same thing. Duh.
I think that I want to suggest that he doesn't really follow his own rules of maximum parsimony, derived from Occam's Razor. Yes, physical descriptions of reality will always be incomplete, but not only because of leaving out any adequate function for consciousness. His version of idealism suffers the same limitation without his supplying some more fulsome definition for what mentation actually is.

Sadly for me, there is no way even to attempt to contact the fellow. I'd have to stalk him to conferences, or get him somehow to read my own writing. It feels like the identical problem of getting to the bottom of almost anything these days as you slog past the money and the motivations of the publishing organs to sort out if you're seeing what you want or need to see or simply living out what the powers-that-be want for you to see. That is especially true when a guy like Kastrup relegates me to the need to abide by his "social media policy." Social media?? Are you freaking kidding me?

Look, I am nowhere near as intelligent as Bernardo, nor certainly as educated. I have near zero ability to cite philosophers or to name theories from physics. I am a good troubleshooter and problem-solver in all fields, which include physics and philosophy, but is mostly limited to machines and constructs, including computer hardware and software and especially networks. And I know how to read classical Chinese poetry, which is not exactly nothing, though it may come close. 

If I am right about Bernardo Kastrup, then he may be one among bejillions who might have the capacity intelligently to comment on the following propositions. I hold their truth to be self-evident, and once deployed to offer a far more parsimonious approach to understanding than Kastrup's unitary Idealism.
  • There is no meaning to the question of which comes first, mind or matter.
  • That is partly because of the impossibility to define time in purely physical terms, but more fundamentally because our linguistic usages prevent us from a coherent understanding of narration, which is the basis for time and causality in the context of universal mentation.
  • Concepts are the primitives for the ideas of Kastrup's idealism. He calls genes something like 'physical information' in implicit accord with his insistence that there is nothing to be gained by distinguishing mentation from physical processes.
  • Just as do the so-called "particles" of the standard model of physics, the component parts of static concepts move apart or together, but without the necessity for force to do so. Force in the physical sense is a function of the exchange of "smaller" particles. Movement without force is emotion. This cannot occur in a unitary material world, nor in a unitary ideal world. It's always both/and.
  • Emotional connections, which are not mediated by forces, define simultaneity. (Physical simultaneity is meaningless by analogy to the precise position or mass of a "particle". Waveform collapse defines the boundary.)
  • Particles are realized by implication with other particles and ultimately with consciousness as that which collapses them from conceptual waveforms.
  • At least two "alters" are required for emotional impingement and for simultaneity. This is the only cosmic meaning of "contact." Ditto physics, where contact is not possible. Entanglement is not yet contact. (Kastrup's description of Quantum Entanglement - Dick and Jane simultaneously - is as incoherent as most descriptions of the Twin Paradox. He doesn't provide any definitions for such basics as what simultaneity means, or distance, or how consciousness at either end is connected)
In brief, there is no irony about Bernardo Kastrup's cosmology/philosophy. Irony is the fundament of everything, or as I responded to my son-in-law in my skepticism before starting my witness of the YouTube:

I read thousands-page books, while two hour YouTubes may be a challenge, though I’m intrigued. At the outset I will impudently say that the fellow seems too utter in his idealistic philosophy. My own view tends more toward irony - both/and. Once time is idealized, before and after, like chickens and eggs, collapse into the same eternal present which we mistakenly sometimes think is compatible with physical reality. Time is an emotional concept, felt directly by universal mind, while perceptual reality is always distant and felt at the remove of physical distance prior to being narrativized by mind, which means in time and space, and which is the only meaning of causality which is not a physical reality. Now is only emotively real, and physically impossible. All cognition is, therefore, precognition (ironically!). Cognition conditions understanding which provides the basis to act. All who act are conscious. Maybe not plants. 

Gobbledegook for sure!!
CODA updated 5/11/22

Materialism is tested by what it enables humans to do by virtue of understanding. Science has moved far beyond mechanism to descriptions of things and processes which we can only describe and never understand nor often embody, the way that we can with mechanism. Perhaps we can realize some implementation of all of the fundamental forces of nature by way of our technologies, in just the way that we might realize some new techniques for encryption based on our understanding of quantum physics. Anyhow, it all comes down to agency for most humans, no matter how well-read.

My own contribution, if it is a contribution, would be to describe what Kastrup calls mentation by way of some redefinitions for things and processes that we only think we understand. We are far too busy learning to exploit our understanding of the material world to turn our attention to the more fulsome world of emotive consciousness. Emotion may goad action, but it also redefines agency. There is no starting point for emotion; no place to lever from. It takes at minimum two. Emotion defines simultaneity. 

This is even while those at the extremes of our society exhibit ever more serious psychoses. Emotional disturbance. We have homelessness and QAnon on one end, and insanely manic consumption and self-promotion on the other, without any way to challenge these realities, though they spell our collective doom; what most of us would consider to be the end of agency.

So, to reiterate, here are my redefinitions:

Time is not divided between forward and backward, but rather between the entropic time of material physics, and the lived time of life's evolution, which direction is defined as love. There is no physical force which drives it, which might be what we mean by random. History is neither teleological nor progressive, but is, rather, a description of socio-emotional alignments as these tend toward or away from life as a cosmic and primordial process. The tendency of current history is neither destruction nor apotheosis. It is our choice, collectively, and so why not make it apotheotic? 

Deliberate love is not love. Falling is not the same as choosing.

Just as Freud might have alluded, there are no accidents and there is no random except as defined by materialist physics and gambling, whose usages are solid as far as they go. 

Viewed from the widest possible distance, the processes of evolution move in the direction of love.

It is not scientific to leave moral guidance for behavior beyond the reach of science. Religion as a basis for moral behavior is right out there with QAnon, and not incidentally for that. Scientifically moral behavior, guided by universal understanding, would never allow the likes of Samuel Alito to dictate civic law, nor Amy Coney Barrett to sit as judge for any legal proceedings. I won't elaborate. 

Concepts are mental arrays of conceptual primitives, which may be composed of physical approximations of those primitives, like the pointers of words, for instance. Emotion is defined as the motion toward or away of conceptual primitives which do not entail physical forces; those forces are described by an exchange of still more primitive primitives. Emotions are felt directly by mind, unlike perceptions which are felt at the remove of an extended body. The mind narrates perceptions which have no order without mind. This is trivial to demonstrate given the slow speed of neural transmission. Now is fuzzy until it's felt.

Mine is a literary rather than scientific approach to understanding. Bernardo is utterly correct as to the singularity of NOW - the present - as the ALL that there is. But his ALL is as metaphorically one-dimensional as materialism is. Mind/body sounds like dualism until you take it ironically when it becomes the transmutational dynamic of yin/yang. Mind and body, or perhaps mind and its embodiment are the reductive minimum for any reality at all. Can't have one without the other.

As creatures in the cosmos, humans are consequential. Morally consequential. God has moved from being a guide to being a COPOUT. God is love, and as such is not constituted to tell us what to do or how to behave. We have that in us. We must and will narrate our own future, just as we narrate our pasts, thus engendering time. The cosmos is not mind or mentation, it is God and divinity. 

Blahbeddy blah gobbledegook. I haven't the words to true. But like Robert Wright, I can true bicycle wheels.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Some Cryptic Thoughts on Cryptocurrency

Along with over 150 others and a studio audience of unknown size, I just finished listening to a panel of three experts including its convener Adam Tooze, whose charge was to discuss cryptocurrency. I confess to feeling gratified by the panel's trashing of the validity of the various bitcoinages, though I was also glad for Adam Tooze himself taking on some devil's advocacy.

Meanwhile, not being quick enough to post my questions while struggling to follow the arguments presented, I would like to articulate a concern of mine which wasn't addressed. 

The matter of digital currency was discussed in terms of its equivalency to "actual" currency (in stark distinction to cryptocurrency) without, stunningly, discussing how it differs regarding privacy. I don't know how true my suspicions are about China's digital currency, but it seems unlikely that they won't take advantage of its usefulness to ensure or even guarantee tax compliance, along with the policing of financial fraud.

At least a part of crypto's attraction is based on its imitation of cash in the face of the discoverable digital ledgers which are a part of credit card usage. No one else need know where you choose to spend your crypto money.

I think it is true that China is building in privacy protections to its digital Yuan (e-CNY) along with limits to government surveillance of currency uses, perhaps below certain yuan limits. I haven't taken the time to research this deeply, but I know that it is not true that the Chinese government is or ever has been indifferent to the privacy and civil liberties concerns of its citizens. Digital currency is likely to be far more useful in the surveillance of corporate behavior.

I would still like to suggest that the blockchain technology which is the basis for digital currency should first be deployed in a widespread fashion, especially before any sort of central bank digital currency is legitimized and promulgated over here. Meaning that we first need to have the technology to allow complete privacy for medical transactions, electoral transactions, Internet search history, and that we should deploy such technology to prevent someone else internalizing the externalities of our public (private?) behaviors. 

The medical, political, social networking and search ore only among the biggest within the myriad entities which make up the sector which profiteers from public ignorance about what's at stake.

Crypto currency just simply jumps the shark, racing past any possible objections because nobody can think fast enough. Especially Joe Biden, for whom it apparently seems obvious that crypto is yet another arena where the US must prevail.

At the very top of my concern is the surveillance and related behavioral modification of political activity. My life is gravely taxed by the actions of uninformed idiots in the public arena, and these are assembled and prompted based on surveillance-based manipulations of very public behaviors which technology then allows to be used, as it were, against their very own interests. Especially by the processes which convince them that their interests are what the manipulators want them to be. 

Technology of the sort which bitcoin has enabled fundamentally redefines the distinction between public and private behaviors in a way to put the ironic lie to what libertarianism supposes that libertarians espouse. 

Put another way, when I invest in the securities market I pay an exorbitant tax to the finance expert insiders who control those markets. A properly deployed digital currency could actually prevent insider trading to any degree of refinement that society requests. That would or could be accomplished according to the precise methods now used by Facebook et al to monetize my seemingly private clicks. Traders are registered, and trades are recorded, and money couldn't be proxied out. 

Shoshanna Zuboff worries - with cause - that technology corporations privatize - they steal - my behavior for their own profit. I have no way to do that for myself. And if I did have, it would be worth a dollar two eighty. Billions for them, pennies for me, and so I don't really care. 

But I should care. Social networks should be deployed the way the postal service is deployed. And news organizations should be highly regulated, not for content but for service of the public interest. The test is simple; regulation is inadequate for so long as Fox News gets to exist. Opinion-shaping should never be interchangeable with reporting.

So how do bitcoin and their ilk redefine distinctions between public and private? For one thing price is meaningless without public promulgation. That would include actual price paid in a public market. And the price would have to be stable across some reasonable timeframe in order to be meaningful. If all transactions are fully private, there is then no way to determine price. That evident fact is only made worse by the instability of crypto's value, which is indeed the basis for its attraction at the moment. 

Crypto can become instantly worthless once truth is out about what it is. Right now its still rides on top of techno mystification which harnesses the enthusiasms of get rich quick startup types whose "purchases" of the new coinages serves only the interests of the crypto initiates. That's in approximately the same way that Twitter might become instantly worthless once Elon shows his actual hand. 

Getting beyond these mystifications is my job. And I'm sorry to say that I'm aging out. Oh well, as it ever was.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Tooze Tomes: Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World *and* Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy

We live in a very fraught world. Only some of us worry about that. Not very many of those few share Tooze's ability to track, digest, and diagnose the complexities of macro-economics in a globalized economy, along with the quirks of politics too. These Tooze books are well worth the 1,000-plus page slog to be enlightened. As exhausting as it is exhaustive, the book Crashed, along with his next one, Shutdown, explains so much that reading the daily news becomes that much easier. Save yourself some time!

I think Tooze got his start by explicating the underpinnings of Hitler's Germany in econometric terms. Well, I'm actually not very sure if he explains it in those terms, or if he is more interested in the mindset of the technocrats in Germany who were the first to operationalize a new way to view power through numbers. I'm guessing he was doing the same thing then that he's doing here and now: Questioning the givens and looking under the hood.

Anyhow, I haven't read that first one yet, but I'll bet it provides a deeper dive than the explanations in political terms for Hitler, which are the ones more generally deployed. Like I get a much more grounded sense of the dangers of a Bush or a Trump in the White House from these Tooze tomes than I do from the political or culture wars. They really could do lots of real damage, much of which the rest of us were saved from because they didn't entirely override all the experts, nor replace them all with idiots.

It's almost as though Tooze is telling us that fretting the politics won't get us anywhere now, especially since it has never gotten us anywhere in the past, and that we'd better get in touch with what's real. By the second book's end, he's really only offering up a prayer of sorts. We seem able to scrape through hairy and ugly impasses by virtue of a kind of rapidly deployed technical prowess, and we'd better hope that we can keep on doing that through the upcoming inevitable cataclysms of the ever-widening capitalist-based Anthropocene gyre. 

Tooze still implies plenty of danger from economy-minded neoliberal money mavens taking the reins from those who should be - more legitimately - in charge. While stooges like Bush and Trump don't disrupt the real interests of the real deep state as much as the "fascistoid" (a term Tooze coined, I think) right might like to believe they wanted to, they did veer us close to a very dangerous edge. 

Thankfully, the Hitler analog is never spelled out except to highlight factors of proto-fascism that haven't been engaged in our more recent veering toward the Orbán, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro, Johnson, Putin Trumpian fringe. Anyhow Trump's deep state is not yours or mine. Meaning he wasn't fighting the one he wanted you to think he was fighting. Tooze exposes the real deep state, and it's neither evil nor a conspiracy as it earnestly does its dirty deeds right out in the open. Except that we're too slow to know what's going on. Sleight of hand is always in the timing.

We have never yet quite acquired all the structural features of fascism, but the dangers of our divided and unequal society are well spelled out here. While Tooze's sympathies may tend toward the left, he holds out little hope that we can move that way without triggering worse outcomes than we've already experienced. Or in other words, without a more healthy and robust structure for democracy, any move left would energize the anti-democratic powers of the ideologically free-floating right. The right is where the money speaks. Or is it?

Another way to put this is that the capitalist business and finance leaders who provided the ballast to keep our economy alive align more with Democrats than with Republicans as our two main parties are currently behaving. Irony is, as always, fully in charge. There's dumb money and then there's smart money. The Republicans represent dumb money; the kind that ends the fun. Those money grubbing servants of the real deep state will only ever be bit players, though as dangerous as the mob for that.

Our increasingly bipolar world also now combines China's 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' with American 'capitalism with socialist characteristics,' so called-out by China. That was after we broke all the rules of our supposedly free-market neoliberal capitalist economy to bail out the same banking structures which had caused the 2008 Crash. We had no choice. 

Corporate welfare equals socialism for the oligarchs, I guess. The Republicans now are stooges for the kind of oligarchy which makes football players and rockstars wealthy, runs gambling parlors instead of taxing the rich, and so on and so forth scooby dooby doo-bee. There is the mob and then there is the mob.

What saved us after 2008 was no application of democratic governance, but an abdication of responsibility to the autocratic - or at least autonomous - finance technocrats who had their hands on the proper levers. Someone had to act, and fast. It was the refunding and re-enriching of the already wealthy while leaving the workers screwed which was the political matter that never did get addressed. Even after "the economy stupid" was humming again.

We did it again during COVID-19, only more so. Like three times more so.

Meanwhile, our fascoid politicians - some of them - think that they should tell doctors and educators how to ply their own crafts. Those politicians exploit the public's confusion about the differences between sex and gender, say, or they pander to constituencies which cower from what might happen if minds were actually opened by education. Will there even be a no-choice choice next time? Will there even be a 'whatever it takes' when all experts have been banished? When will it be God's turn, finally? As if it ever weren't.

One main burden of this book is to answer the question of what would have happened were a boss-man like Trump in power during the Crash. Kind of like a surgeon taking instructions from a politican, maybe, or like Biden trying to do what Geithner did. The main thing that we ask of those in charge is that they know who to call on, and then make their decisions based on good advice. Daddy doesn't always know best. In an emergency, you let the experts drive the bus. Although they might need to know where you, as leader, want them to go first.

But the other main burden is what might have happened if Bernie had caught the wave.

Well, I suppose we have to excuse the neoliberals for assuming that there was only one way to go, and that politics could only interfere with that. History progresses, after all. Combining the ideologies according to their teleologies was the real goad for Tooze's own youthful great awakening. History doesn't end, and the arc doesn't bend by itself. Tooze realizes that he's in history, that history - the writing of it -  has ends, and that even just to understand what's happening has a powerful impact on which way things are gonna go.

Of course, education is but one key to a functioning democracy of any sort. Healthcare may be another. While China is no democracy, they do seem to understand the distinctions between politics and craft - at least better than we do - and they may be running a gauge for when the population is sufficiently educated to afford it real power. Our complexity here turns increasingly toward chaos. God's world without us is chaotic. A little piece of Chinese wisdom right there.

Meanwhile, cause of global economics, China is also trapped in the neoliberal project to educate folks to be more productive workers only. Damn the headwinds of political idiocy founded on historical ignorance, full speed ahead with economic growth! We'll provide you with the cartoon versions of what you need to know to be a good citizen. The US and China seem united in that, while Western Europe seems to be falling behind, even though I'll bet they have a better sense of history still. They may think that it is still their history should guide the world. That the West has given us the good and the goods. Ha Q!

Our founding fear of mob rule is fundamentally a fear of emotion overtaking reason when it's not fear of organized crime. Emotion is of a lower order than intelligence and gets attributed to women and blacks and bushy tailed immigrants With Out Papers when they don't think or look like us. Even Tooze summarizes what's wrong with the right by saying that it's too much in thrall to affect.

Tooze still celebrates and therefore doesn't understand social media. What mob means is money fueled algorithms to aggregate and disseminate likes. Emotional organizing on steroids where, as any good fundraiser will tell you, the bad outlasts and outbroadcasts the good five to one. Meaning that what you hate takes you virally farther than what you live and love.

We in the West have a long history of feminizing the East as well. Why can't they be more like us? But thank god for feminism as yet another corrective to our historical, um, gaffes? China has hardly even started down that road. There's a reason that the uniform of China's power-elite - more masculine than even ours - is Western power-suit with boot-black hair. They know us far better than we know ourselves. Despite or because of ideological lip-service to women and minorities. China's lip-service to women.

The tech accelerated economy over here, and now in China too, has long been founded on manipulations of market enthusiasms by our version of propaganda - advertising. With technology now the multiplier, we can steer even the electorate in any way that money wishes, and then we can blame it all on some autocrat 'over there.' As though money could be apolitical. That would be pure libertarian fantasy, which Tooze calls out as dangerous for that. Just like history cannot be told in an apolitical fashion.

What we've been up to is just plain dumb, as Tooze makes abundantly clear. But I come away - both thinking and feeling - that we are about as likely to get on top of this game as we are to stop heating up the environment - or to start to control the weather, never mind handling the climate. 

I once thought it would be productive to apply chaos theory to economics and was thankfully urged by a brilliant mathematician friend of mine that such a move would be a loser. I'd have proven a loser in any case, so no great loss. Now I find that this has become mainstream; the operative term being polycrisis, borrowed from French complexity theorist Edgar Morin. 

As in sure, we can predict the weather, and sometimes we can even predict the politics, but we can't control either. Just to recognize that chaos theory applies equally to both politics and weather though, might help us to get at least some things right. Complex systems just simply aren't amenable to rational control. And you can't even predict them beyond certain horizons. What, Covid? Sub-prime mortgages? Who knew!!??

All of my right-thinking friends and family are being driven nuts by trying to understand why and how all the Trumpers can be so crazy. But they (we?) aren't considering how much work has gone into constructing our own rationalizations about how and why the world works the way it does when it's working so well for us. Sure, we all want to help out the underprivileged - just keep the crazies out of office! We want to use our education for good (after we get rich on rigged rules). Putting the Ivy leaguers in charge hasn't exactly helped, has it? Ivy stives for recognition and rots the brickwork.

Or hey, maybe we just need to elevate emotions to where they belong; large and in charge. Not Bread and Puppets, but at least a moral compass. The Trumpers are hardly all wrong, emotionally. Emotions are hardly secondary to agency either. Our cognitive intelligence is just too slow for making critical decisions, collectively or individually. We choose which of the subliminally assembled narratives to draw on by an emotive process because it's quicker than to think it through. Maybe the same is true for social processes. Maybe there's something there which might apply to politics. It's already far too late if you haven't set some process first. Like don't shoot before you know that you're hitting the right person.

Hell, even God doesn't get the most of His credit for intelligence, omniscient though He may be. For all His unpredictability, God is known best for love. Is it really right to blame the poor and downtrodden for their own shortcomings? Is it really OK for so many of our own fellow citizens to be left out from democracy's bargain? If we don't address these matters politically, then the realpolitik of what's already happening will keep on keeping on. Crisis just accelerates what's already taken for granted. We will want the end when it does come.

As my son-in-law reminds me that Larry Lessig says; getting the money out of politics may not be the most important issue, but it's the first issue. If we can't get that done, we can't get anything right. It's the economy stupid, until the world melts down (paraphrasing Tooze here, I think). Meanwhile we need a functioning government to be prepared for what might happen.

So let's be charitable and say that the right wing's main flaw is that they think that they already know what's right. If you know what's right, then anything goes when it comes to politics. That could explain a lot, apart from the basic disgrace of saying that you know God better than I do. And anyhow, it can't explain away the stench of money-loving power-loving politicians, left, right and center.

Now please excuse me while I enjoy the process of purchasing a new car, decorating my McMansion, screwing the young secretary that I hired from Tik Tok, watching a really amusing Doctor Strange with my kids, all while sipping a well-aged bourbon. Now isn't that what life is all about? I wonder how things are going over there in Ukraine. They seem like really nice people. I want to help, click click. Now back to reality TV. I'm glad I'm not over there.

I mean, really?!? Is that all there is to life on the planet Earth? I guess I'm the one who's living in an alternate reality. Rock on!

Monday, April 4, 2022

Review: When We Cease to Understand the World

When We Cease to Understand the WorldWhen We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The very first sentence and paragraph reads easily and smoothly. I am drawn forward. I want to read, and I know already that this book will be finished in a single sitting. Would that all books would read that way!

I have a very distinct memory of carrying a long piece of lumber from the stack to the basement window when Dad was building a fallout shelter as we were urged to do back when nukes were suddenly all too real. I remember steering the plank around a curvy trajectory. I didn't know about momentum, but my body did.

What I really remember is much later learning about momentum and relating the knowledge to the mystery of what I'd accomplished in all ignorance earlier, when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. How had my body known? Only later would I crash boards around corners, having grown, perhaps, too conscious.

I used words in the same way, with a kind of confidence, even though I later learned that I couldn't formally define many of the words that I deployed. Still, I communicated well enough. No understanding required. It was a social thing, and trivial.

I think I might have given this book a full five stars except that I couldn't find the literature there. This is a simple narration of the complex ironies engaged by those we consider to be our greatest thinkers. Those who invented the bomb from a new and fundamental understanding of physics. Those who could handle abstraction so abstruse that they couldn't even follow their own proofs after exit from their rapture. Who only knew that there was something missing by a kind of intuition formed in a universe they inhabited in their minds and of which the rest of us remain largely unaware.

The awesome strangeness of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory is made to feel both mundane and impossible. In just the same way, we can't differentiate between the drive for fame and the more religious-seeming drive for ultimate understanding among the book's 'protagonists'. We have no way to tell who will catapult to public adulation and who will disappear.

The book describes irony on a cosmic scale, and I think that's why, in the end, I didn't really care for it all that much. There was no character development; these characters were taken mostly intact from history. Their sexual foibles distinguished them from almost no-one, which made their heroics look shrunken as well. The plot was interesting just because some brilliant soul could be directly responsible for mass calculated murder and still care for the overall life on the planet. It is an exceedingly interesting read. But I'm not sure that I cared. I couldn't quite identify with any motive.

And by books end we are left actually believing that the lives we lead exist in the same abstract whorls that physicists describe, perhaps only to themselves, which can disappear in a massive poof. Dommage et tant pis, henh?

Knowing it all is the same as ending it all, and an author is mostly made up of the poses made for the marketing tour. One must look the part more than anything. We know intelligence when we see it. It has privileged understanding. Undefinable.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Consciousness and the Brain


Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our ThoughtsConsciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts by Stanislas Dehaene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent survey of that particular area of brain science at the forefront of which Dehaene is working. The bibliography alone is worth the purchase, and the narrative recognizes the work of a large group of direct colleagues, all of which provide some indication of how important his area is.

I was surprised to find Julian Jaynes referenced, which makes the second (after Dawkins) respectful nod I've seen from a respected source. He also pulls in Dennett and even Chalmers by the end, though Chalmers in a pretty dismissive way. I guess what I'm saying is that here is an exceedingly thoughtful and well-read scientist who had earned my solid confidence.

I do have to confess that his placing himself among those who ascribe to the 'brain in a vat' school of consciousness theorists puts me off. This also, obviously, means that he supposes that artificial consciousness is possible. While he takes pains to distinguish his model for consciousness from those which deploy computer metaphors, he still operates strictly within a fully empirical model, no spooks allowed.

No spooks allowed to my thinking either, but while I give him full high marks for his excellent science, I do believe that he operates within an obsolete paradigm. I say this mostly because he doesn't even consider emotion as a part of consciousness. I would guess that all the believers in 'brain in a vat' suppose that emotions are some low-order epiphenomena whose existence will drop out once the hard problems are resolved. And this hard stuff is really still mathematical and computational problems as presented here, metaphor or no.

In part, I'm buying the claim for a new paradigm staked out in another recent read: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Barrett (no mention in this book's bibliography). That book lays out a more constructivist view of reality, to be distinguished from the perceptually based theory of consciousness here. Everything about Dehaene's theory supposes a fixed and subject-independent external reality which correlates to whatever goes on in the brain.

Dehaene takes pains to distinguish those aspects of his experimental evidence which provide correlation without demonstrating causation or real findings. This is the bugaboo of all statistically-based investigation, which is most of science now. Long gone are the days of either/or billiard ball physics. All mechanism has now been replaced with either/or digital teasing out of a hidden reality (the reality beyond what we can perceive - the real real) which is so far from perception as to stretch credulity about the proof of a boson's existence, say, to almost the extent that social science might want you to see cultural relativity in the way that we construct most of our more mundane realities.

Lisa Barrett starts with how emotions are culturally grounded (not universal and inborn, as they have often been assumed to be) and constructed, like language is. Her bedrock is emotional concepts, which are also shared, often as a part of language, just as all reality is. I believe that Dehaene would agree about the language connection. He may even have been informed by Jaynes!

One way to distinguish emotional from perceptual "feeling" is that emotion is felt directly "in the mind" while perceptual feeling passes through the body, to be felt - perceived - at a distance. Indeed, one might suggest (I sure would) that most of the evidence described in this book - which relates to neuron-based brain activity as captured by varieties of instrumentation descended from fMRI and EEG - might reference more what is felt by the mind than is allowed here by its transmutation into 'readings' on the sort of instrument which stands-in for perception.

I am asking the question whether things which come to consciousness are ever emotion-free. Surely we must admit that most of what determines who we are - including our consciousness - is derived from a series of accidents more than it is derived from personal agency. Just try being born black (as has been related in ways that I fully trust).

Or in other words, much of what Dehaene defines as consciousness might be more emotive than empirically based. We can also read emotions by interpreting facial expression or heart-rate, but that doesn't mean that we've learned anything about what emotion essentially is.

To be fair, Dehaene is putting subjective reality fully front and center in his research. To be conscious is to be able to report what one is conscious of, which would include hallucinations, delusions, trompe-l'oeil, and more unreal stuff.

Dehaene provides a brilliantly comprehensive look at how most of the perceptual data which the brain receives is combined, conditioned, organized and conceptualized at the subliminal pre-conscious level. Consciousness is the coming into being of what feels to me like a kind of standing wave in a feedback loop. One of his great accomplishments is progress toward the detection of consciousness in a damaged brain, removed from bodily interaction from the world about.

Evidence for consciousness is made when all the subliminal unconscious Bayesian conjectures attempting to match what's actually "out there" with the raw perceptual data coming in finds a good match from memory 'within'. He describes the "ignition" of consciousness as happening when there is feedback from the conscious regions of the brain to where the subliminal stuff is happening. Contact!

There is a kind of match, or what I would call a kind of standing wave of resonance between subliminal constructs and what deserves or requires conscious awareness and attention. I would call it that because it might have the quality of emergence, like a snowflake, whose structure cannot be predicted from knowledge about its component parts, and their interactions. Emergent qualities put the lie to our current beliefs about causality, almost as though what emerges is a kind of primordial concept on the order of a Platonic idea. Or life itself, which is an emergent quality of matter.

In much the way that our eyes must constantly move about so that our brain can form a smooth reality in which we might navigate, this subliminal neural conjecture also jitters about on its own; not simply waiting for information to come in. Massive amounts of perceptual data turn into conscious awareness of some important 'thing' depending on our conscious attention and arousal. The subconscious mind already narrates - strings together in time - worthy candidates for conscious claiming. Consciousness is always slow to the game, taking credit for what the unconscious mind already put together from low-speed interconnections of disparate workings of the brain. Conceptualization is synchrony, where narrative builds across time. Aha!

Along with Lisa Barrett (I believe), I would call this coming to consciousness an emotive event. Like a lot of consciousness researchers, Dehaene looks for correlates in the brain for what is present to our conscious awareness. This sounds to me very much like what I would consider to be the mistaken notion that our brain contains a more or less complete "image" of the world around us. I would rather call these often so-called images what they really are, which is a collection of concepts.

One forms a concept of, say, a lion, by experience with several such creatures, likely preloaded with a name; a word from one's shared language. When confronted by an actual instance of the lion concept, and when that fills front and center of conscious awareness, we don't choose what to do about it based on conscious anything before being energized by the powerful feeling of fear.

Calling up what we think is a mental image of the lion might simply be reliving prior perceptions which are "stored" in our brain as delayed - endlessly looping - actual perceptions of actual things. This insight derives from the Spread Mind theory of Riccardo Manzotti (also not referenced in this book).

Manzotti comes from the field of artificial intelligence and not from neurology, and so is likely considered a flake from the perspective of serious brain scientists. Ironically enough, Manzotti seems to agree with me that there will be no such thing as artificial intelligence; at least not that would replicate human intelligence.

The big advantage of the Spread Mind theory as a basis to understand consciousness is that one doesn't have to decide whether objective reality is constructed. This is the same collapse that quantum physics realized, where subject can never be teased out entirely from object; where objects are a construct of probability until detected into reality. One is looking in the wrong place if one is looking for quantum features of the brain as a basis for "free will." They are already out there.

Intelligence is no more contained in and by a brain than a gene without its proper niche can describe a living host. By definition, the niche is as complex as the projected creature. Context and object, concept and percept, standing waves and particles, emotive and motive forces, conspire together for reality to emerge.

Artificial intelligence is not impossible because human intelligence is so very special. It's not. And I really doubt that human intelligence has gone very far toward what intelligence could be. Which is just another way to suggest that natural evolution isn't done yet. But what I am saying is that there would be and can be no intelligence at all without the whole of life on the planet. And I don't mean must life as it "led up" to us, but life as it is all around us. "Brain in a vat" is metaphor for intelligent life on an artificial planet or in virtual reality. Neither are possible.

(The living and conscious brain of a person who's lost their brain stem proves only the same thing that consciousness in a baby proves - neither is any way to live a full life)

Why is artificial intelligence not possible? you ask. Well, it is possible and it's all around us, but it will never be conscious.

OK, so here's my own little flaky contribution to the science of consciousness: emotion is not just in the mind, it's also out there, along with all that we perceive. Surely you might agree that lots of animals have emotions, but that's not the limit to what I mean. I mean that emotion is elemental in just the way that subatomic particles and forces are. We think the latter are what composes reality, but we know them directly only as our bodies interact with them.

Turns out that our interactions are determined by a hidden, non-perceptual reality which is only accessible by way of the conceptual gymnastics of a living mind in a living body which can handle the instrumental tools for discovery. These concepts are also shared, and not contained "inside" our minds. Gravity is the boundary between particle-mediated forces and the emotive prognostications of impingement among emergent beings. Both are equally real. Particles and concepts both pop in and out of nothingness. Reality is irony writ large.

Consciousness, even as it exists in a lizard or maybe a spider, allows us to navigate - to move - in the real world as it actually is, and even to make it more as we wish it to be, once we become human - a work still very much in progress. Our imagination helps with that. We are more intelligent in our interactions with reality, apparently, than is any other creature. That's especially so once language enters our picture and we can conspire together, as this book so powerfully demonstrates. Indeed the brain here is presented almost as a hierarchical ordering of a community of billions of otherwise independently clustering and firing neurons. It is presented as a metaphor for how society and civilization have accomplished so very much, so singularly as a social species. We are not conscious alone.

Navigating the world is, of course, directional in time and space. Our behaviors are based on the collective predictions of our neurons and our society. For physical reality, time is defined by entropy. The running out of a clock; the wearing of rocks in a river; the death of any individual life. Life moves the other way and has since the beginning of time.

In the beginning was the concept; a replicable structure for matter otherwise blowing apart. Atoms, molecules, structures, and the universal replicators of genetics. The anti-entropic direction for life - forward in time - is composed of the chance recombination of the raw stuff of physics into persistent conceptual structures. Their recombination in the direction of life makes a prognostication for the future. There are no physical forces which move us collectively that way. There is only emotive attraction and repulsion which no instrument will ever measure directly.

Emotion is what binds us to all of "creation." Emotion is what connects us to all that is alive. I mean this is the same technical sense that is meant when you call out a proton, please. I know we don't give a shit for the whales or the wolves, or even for each other based on the evidence. But that doesn't mean we're not connected. It does mean that to conceive of the cosmos as built of zeros and ones means to conceive of a cosmos in a vat, disconnected from anything else.

There is more to life than we can know by instrumental science. A mind confined to a brain - the brain in a vat, or the butterfly in the diving bell - is but a correlate to a mind and not the real thing.

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Thursday, March 17, 2022


One evening after dinner

I crave a sweet
Next day I load up
Treats indiscriminated
Deprecated by number
I crave wine
To also chug out of its
Time unappreciated
I lose my friend
I have passed
The End

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

World War III "It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us."

Fiona Hill says that WW III has already started, and we're in it. Remember her? She was a truth talker at Trump's impeachment hearings. She got a makeover before appearing on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She didn't look so Soviet grim, and her rhetoric was trimmed of all the incendiaries. 

My long-distance one-way correspondent Indi says the oxygen in the coal mine has already gone, and that his people on Sri Lanka are the canaries. No wonder we don't think twice about driving our cars Indi, when the global military dwarfs civilian desecration.

Jonathan Franzen is vilified for suggesting that since we're not going to do anything about global warming, we should at least do those things that we can and maybe will do, to save some birds, some habitat, some bits of nature which many of us still require. 

I sure won't do anything. What is there to do when you still have to slog past weirdly happy advertisements to see the newreels from Ukraine? That's just way too much cognitive dissonance for me to bear.

There is no point in trying to change minds. Humans won't be doing anything different. I know I won't. I wouldn't know what to do. I'm tending toward the Marcuse camp; woke to the fact that being presented with pre-steeped-in-money choices does not a democracy make.

But it's far more than that. Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin cross in the arena of aesthetics. Marcuse' One-Dimensional Man describes a life desublimated, where the transitive value of a concept has been reduced to the fixed, denotative, and even imperative nature of noun as thing, embedded not in an aura of contingency, but in a rational cosmos of fixed meanings.

Marcuse struggled mightily, and likely failed, to rid Marxist Dialectic of the trap that history would always be written in a progressive direction. As if history would move with the same inevitable progression that global capital does. He replaces the inevitability of progress with the built-in draw of concepts, which belong to the province of thought, toward a future where actual things remain free to move toward essence, if not toward ideal.

And yes it is mechanical reproduction writ large and populating even thought, which enacts the desublimation. Marcuse' nightmare is an instrumental world where 'what is' gets replaced with 'how to.' 

Along with Marcuse, we remain in the thrall of authenticity, now projected onto NFTs and the blockchain, as though that doesn't demarcate the final solution and never something ameliorative. It is the end and not the beginning when highest trust is also mechanical.

You must protect and own your passcode, which Trumps your identity. Your identity, authentic or not, can only exist in that aura of contingency; those know you who can identify your body after death. And even then there must be circumstance for habeas corpus. It was never your body that mattered. It was your body enlivened in the direction of life.

There is only the concept of number which requires desublimation. There is no essence to number but the number itself. And now our rational oppressively administered world is defined by digital everything. Our freedom is complete. History ends. 

It is not science which is indifferent to ought in the place of is. Only nature is indifferent. And we must not cheer for the lion or the lamb. Nature is not God. God is love, which is also the direction for life's evolution in nature. This is not something to cheer. It is something that we must align with, as with the flow of a river, or the wind which fills our sails. 

Instrumental or mechanical rampage against nature can only inflame the fight, and when we turn to the art of war, war as art, the battle is already lost, for we have become irrelevant. No different from any other species disappearance.

I don't and won't do Facebook for a bejillion reasons, some political, some as protest about how its business model lives on the corpse of our political system, but mostly because it has replaced all personal contact. I'd rather be stark raving alone than to be forced into that fake public space.

I'm certain that my problem with Facebook is that expressions of emotion always seem performative to me. Facebook changes the performance, in at least the sense that real emotions - the kind you simply can't hold back - will never appear on Facebook. You post there after bouts of extreme joy or sadness or terror. Real emotions require real contact.

The limits to what you may say on Facebook precisely disallow improper condolence or snark against a "friend." And this is precisely what allows you to forward and promote falsehood. If science is neutral, then so is falsehood. And I will not be shamed for my ignorance of the sanctioned ways.

Nature will do its thing, in any case. I know I should have embraced Zoom meetups during the depths of the pandemic, but it just reminded me of what was missing. I try not to drive my car, but sometimes I just have to. And when I do walk, which is most of the time, I'm still almost the only one on the street. Although the airport parking lots have filled again. What? The virus has won. Just like Al Qaeda had already won when we went all military on their demand. Performative emotion cubed. Dubya said we had no choice but to be enraged, and Hilary cheered.

When I observe that private cars will be gone within ten years, folks think I'm nuts or just plain cranky. I'm not reading any tea leaves; I'm just stating the obvious. The earth won't stand for it. I mean, I gaze at the vehicles passing by and wonder which one I should buy next, to support the mobile lifestyle that I miss. I'm right in there will all the others that the ads target. I'm just not as excited as the ads make me think I should be. As I guess everyone else is about buying shit.

The only place and time I see books advertised is when I'm reading on my Kindle. At least they don't interrupt my reading. Just sayin'

I'm not watching for what to do any other more than the Ukrainians were watching out for what they should be doing when Putin would inevitably send his forces in. Now they're just doing it, as we all will be doing it when nature sends the forces in. It's not like I'm really OK with that, but I guess I have to be. I try to be at least mentally prepared.

I don't want to get involved in debates about what nature means. Artifice versus nature kind of thing. Art versus schlock. Nature doesn't mean anything. Nature just is.

In my usage here, nature means the real. The real is that part of understanding that science might approach but will never reach. The real is what's always beyond us, but always there. Pretty much by definition ignorance will exceed knowledge, no matter how instrumentally powerful our science makes us feel. And science barely touches people, politics, and the weather when those move at world-changing pace and scale.

Humans have quite simply exceeded any proper scale in our homebuilding. Escape velocity leads only to the end of us.

I suspect the changes will happen a lot faster than we could ever anticipate. Faster even than the results of a nuclear war - that is if we manage to avoid nuclear war. China may be our truest friend if it comes to that brink, but somehow the only thing that both sides of our two-party political system agree on is the singular assessment that China is our greatest threat. As if being handed pre-cooked choices defined by money about whom to elect defines democracy. Sheesh.

We would and will know what to do if nuclear war breaks out. We declare emergency and then work like hell to retrieve whatever we can that comes closest to what we now have, before the fall. 

But there are also possibilities for the reconstitution of both scientific and political/social understanding which are, collectively, far more powerful than any bomb or any virus. Understanding of Einstein's equation of mass with energy enabled us to realize the release of 'mass quantities of energy' in only a few short years of engineering implementation. We still struggle to contain and make that energy useful. That also is both a political and scientific struggle for engineering to accomplish.

We won't know what to do when the economy fully collapses. Based on climate change, or a new pandemic, or mass migrations, or crop collapse or sea level rise, there won't be any going back to normal, and we have no models for a new normal.

Nuclear war would also be force majeure, an act of God, an act of nature. Just as I am at fault for all my inaction, humanity will feel our failure. We will feel that this has been an act of man, and we will perform our grief before nothing but God. Nothing less can be worthy to accept our contrition.

And anyhow how would fighting in the direction of forcing humans to do what they should and even must do make one virtuous? I wonder how many Chicken Littles were running around Ukraine last year? Our Chicken Littles call out China, because no harm can come from that, or at least the harm is minuscule compared to the political gains for whatever upcoming election. What does bankrupt mean again?

I'll tell you what the new normal had better be. It had better be us getting back together as families and as a people not as a nation. It had better be the scrapping of the style of capitalism that triggered our collapse. Where we drive off the edge of the earth like a self-driving car that's lost its electronics. Capitalism, as we've allowed it to craft us, is running on automatic and it won't stop before it ends.

That's not a prediction. That's a fact, and we'd better prepare for it. But we won't. 

Thing is that it's hard to know what to believe and even harder to know what to do. The QAnon Trumpers are my exemplar of the nightmare of waking up and realizing that you've bought a pack of lies. It could happen to any of us. Which is why we, right alongside the QAnon nutjobs, need the insurance of agreeing with those closest to us. They can't all be wrong. That's pretty much how politics works anymore. You elect someone who's willing to say out loud in public from a position of power something which reinforces a set of beliefs that you know somewhere in the recesses of your mind might not be true. Or it might be actually insane. But you need them to keep your belief alive that the other side is insane.

That something in you wants or needs it to be true, just to end your confusion. We're all insane together now. In unison across the globe.

The biggest comeuppance of all would be to realize that your version of God was never true. That priests are not good, or that scientists can sell out as easily as any class of people. 

It has long since been the case that the scientific method demonstrates that humanity must take responsibility for reality or perish. Not by engineering implemented according to what we can prove that we do actually understand. Rather, by being chastened by our more recent understanding that as subjects, we are part of and not apart from what is out there.

Obama worked for the Oligarchs as a semi-closeted neoliberal. Says the Maoist from Austin Texas fighting on the Russian side against the Ukrainians who are just working for Obama too. Then Bratton Tweets this:

How is one even to parse this? Posted just before Bratton's Strelka Institute is shuttered in solidarity with Ukraine. Couldn't the same quote apply to Trump? Is that how Bratton meant it?

We are living in a simulation, and we're glad we had it for how it helped us to survive COVID-19.

But I, for one, don't want to live in a simulation, I want to live in the real. Just not so real as where that guy from Austin is living. Just not so real that God is my copilot. I just don't want to be duped. No matter how powerful are the powers that be, they are drunk with their power and I won't be duped.

So I'll keep as quiet as I can. Until someone else notices that the truths we all live by are no longer true. Nature, so called, will give the lie. Nature is also within each of us. The boundaries shall dissolve.

We've crossed a line with what we think it means to understand something. We know what understanding means when it guides our actions and the result of those actions is what we wanted. When we take it to the vast abstraction of "living in a simulation," there's absolutely no chance that we will prove our understanding.

I'm not denigrating Zelenskyy. He has inhabited his role and become real. May it happen to each of us before it is already too late.