Tuesday, December 26, 2023

I've Been Thinking, Daniel C. Dennett

I've been thinking too. 

I just outed myself as a cosmologist, and so I'd better try, in outline form, to sketch out "my" cosmology for what my Spanish teacher used to call the "umpteenth" time. It evolves, I evolve, but I am now, indeed, losing my mind. Not in the nutjob sense, just in the decay sense though there may be room for debate. 

I am almost speechlessly grateful that Professor Dennett has been so generous as to provide his admirers, of which I count myself one, with some detail about his personal history. Though I must say that for me, he describes a life unattainable by almost anyone else, and certainly not approachable by the likes of me. So my grateful inspiration is tempered by a kind of very self-centered discouragement.

What is my deficiency, I sometimes wonder. I'm intelligent enough, I've had the right background - not all that far removed from Dennett's. I was admitted to all the best universities, though it is true that while Dennett made it there leading up to the cusp of administrative overreach, I slid down just the other side of that sharp divide. Metrics for merit. Blech. Not to mention the insurmountable expense obstacles that have kept piling on.

Once upon a recent time, there weren't so many hurdles so well defined if you were outwardly gregarious, evidently multi-talented, and not timid about approaching beautiful and accomplished people, and, obviously, white. Dennett had and has these qualities in spades. 

Except for being white, these are all graces which I lack. I mean I'm perfectly comfortable around important people, and can pull a pretty good game of name-dropping if I have to, but I suffer a distinct deficit in capitalizing. On anything. 

I'd like to claim that this is because I'm after bigger fish. Bigger than a career. Bigger than renown. Bigger than credentials or even income. But the likely fact is that I'm vaguely agoraphobic, manifestly cynical, and tend, socially, to isolate. Plus, I'm not quite the polymathic multi-talent Dennett is. I quit before I get ahead, just about as soon as I know the limits of what is possible for me. He doesn't seem to know limits or run short on enthusiasm.

I sail, but not to his level. I play the guitar, but would never venture up on stage. I can't even wildly imagine attempting a sculpture out of marble, though I have considered certain of my mechanical accomplishments to approach a kind of art. But dang, I just don't have as much fun as he does.

Well, enough of that! I insist on being lifted by Dennett's inspiring life rather than to be dispirited by my own deficits.

So here you go: I began with a mild "eureka" when I was but a lad of 27 or so. That eureka happened in and through writing, and you can find it here. The very thing itself. 

That start, easily diagnosed as a manic episode while living in winter on a sailboat I'd rebuilt, led me to a conviction that emotion is an aspect of cosmos. I had some crazy notions to go along with that, most of which I've let go, but I can't quite shake the fundamental realization. I have tried.

To bookend the whole thing, my most recent addendum to my original theorizing has regarded time. Time being that (at least quasi-) dimension which goes along with the other basic three of length, width and depth. Each of these can be measured, and together they provide the minimum basic ingredients for any brand of materialism. 

Like Dennett, I am fundamentally materialist, though I'll confess up front that I differ with him about godhead and most forms of determinism. Or in other words, I'm not sure that emotion is distinguished  by virtue of measurement deficit from those more conventional descriptors of physical objects, in a cosmic sense. Materialism doesn't cover everything.

My unsettling got its start with relativity theory, which demonstrated that length, width and depth are all a function of time and motion in the direction of their extension. Which is to say that parallax is true - is required to true - in all dimensions. Then came general relativity and the equivalence of gravity and acceleration. Space-time "curvature." And then the Zeno paradox of measurement was unsettled by the wave/particle dualism of quantum physics. Meaning that beyond a certain scale, there is no stable precise meaning for measurement. 

We are never standing still in any dimension from all perspectives, but if we're alive there is conspiracy along the dimension of time. Along that dimension, there is no living thing that can be out of our present, which extends at least all around the thin layer of life on this planet, and possibly throughout our solar system if humans find it so important to expend that much time and energy to find out.

This is not so very different from the obvious and evident fact that there can be no conspiracy beyond the distance of some interval for perceived simultaneity in any dimension. Go to far away, and you don't count.

Time is interesting. Physics makes it seem much more "rigid" and durable than the other dimensions. It can be measured with accuracy across thousands if not millions of years now by virtue of metering atomic decay. It's not so trivial to distort. 

Decay is the operational term, from my cosmic point of view. Sand through a precise aperture in glass, a spring winding down against sufficiently large "forces" of momentum (in a pendulum or flywheel - periodic acceleration, gravity), the decay of an ordered atomic structure by the processes of radiation.

Against these measures of entropy are the processes of life. The Darwinian stuff of DNA formation and preservation depend for their reality in our contemporary meaning for materialism upon an odd definition for random. The same randomness of atomic decay, in the aggregate, is what makes for the background radiation of evolution.

If you hold a variety of conditions constant - like temperature and motion relative to large masses, then the frequency of radiation emanating from, say, cesium at near absolute zero after the radiated particles are sufficiently distant from the originating cesium so as not to be influenced; that frequency can "measure" time to an accuracy within a second across millions of years.

Indeed, the main usage for this is to keep the globe's communication systems in synch - within, of course, the cloud of indeterminacy created by the earth's rotation, gravity, and the distances involved. The same accuracy is also determinable for any given dimension, if the same environmental conditions are held constant. Where we once kept platinum measures stored in controlled conditions, we can now define the measurement and take it, more or less, at our leisure. But since we want to stay in synch, we must actually keep time, metronomically if you will.

It was once, oh so recently, sufficient to measure time by the motion of earth relative to sun, and still achieve your navigational objective.

The mistake we make very early on is to assign the quality of meaninglessness to random. I'm not sure I have time left in my life to conduct a proper survey of what philosophers mean by meaning, so I'll tell you what I mean. 

If we are communicating, each of us will want to know what the other means, to be accomplished with what we say (or gesture, or pantomime) about something. Meaning is, in this case, understanding. When it's important, you might have to ask for clarification, but we eventually get there. Meaning is, in this reductive case, a kind of meeting of minds.

In that sense, meaning is not unlike what happens when we recognize an apple as an actual apple, and by extension when there is some representation of that apple which is sufficient for everyone who apprehends it to agree that it represents an apple. Ditto with so-called qualia, I'd say.

We relate meaning to understanding, and so according to the methods of material science, we might understand something when we can predict an outcome on the basis of a stipulated set of conditions at some outset. 

But do take note that I can "get" your meaning without being able to understand you at all. We, collectively understand electricity pretty well, and use it effectively all the time, but it doesn't mean anything. It's useful, it works for us, and we understand how to make it so, but it has no meaning in and of itself. 

Similarly, I may understand you perfectly well and decide that you are meaningless or even evil. In that sense you mean nothing. You might be nuts or you might be malevolent and so I might get what you mean and still not understand it. Meaning seems to require understanding first. 

I think maybe Tesla thought that electricity had meaning, which didn't stop him from finding ways to make it useful. Many of our stories revolve around the moral boundaries faced in the calculus of survival or the protection of our intimates, where we might choose local evil over global good, and when we do, we generally know the meaning of what we do. 

Already, we have been dragged away from the common sense usage for "meaning." To understand some process and its entailments doesn't feel very similar to understanding what another person means. Though such predictions do mean that the processes and their outcomes can reliably be shared. Whatever result I get from the transformation of a given set of circumstances over time will be the same result that you would get were you to replicate what I've done.

Now this feels a bit more like the meaning we get by way of social intercourse. As with synchronization of time, we may begin to share a materially rational understanding of how things work.

One of the problems of our time involves, absent a shared God, the messy disagreements which are entailed by all of our planetary synchronizations. It has gotten so bad that prominent people might even become prominent by outright denying the material realities which we ought, by reason of meaning-making, to accept. This is the kind of mind-decay which I disclaim for myself. Though I do confess that it's hard and thankless work to stay abreast of what is demonstrably true and what is obviously false. 

Anyhow, there are, evidently, material advantages to the denial of meaning. You may, all to easily, become rich and powerful once unmoored from meaning.

Scientifically inclined minds would like to banish the kinds of feelings which are at the base of our disagreements about what is true and what is real from the processes and procedures used to establish agreement. Mistrust in science is sometimes labelled as an emotional wanting of something which just simply cannot, materially, be. There are so many idiots wanting reason. A rational person might be defined as someone who understands when and what must be agreed to, within what limits, regardless of emotional preference. 

You can see the problem here, right? Predictions depend on forces and measures which remain constant over time. But if reality is always relative to some stipulated conditions for constancy of measurement, then there must be plenty of material processes which cannot be determined accurately. Which are beyond the limits built into material physics, and material science more generally.

In medicine, we might cover these under "placebo" effect, to account for the mysteries of the mind/matter connection - at least insofar as we cannot quite reduce human animals to reliable physics. So, is there a placebo effect in physics? I'd say that there is certainly always a threshold beyond which predictions become unreliable for any describable condition.

There is an interesting confusion between the indeterminacy posited by the principles of quantum physics and the implied determinacy of the so-called "butterfly effect" of chaotic systems, where "chaos" turns into a very precise physical term having almost nothing to do with what we colloquially mean by chaos. Chaos here defines a "deterministic nonlinear system" whose outlines take the form of a fractal, which looks a lot like nature. Except that there is almost nothing about nature that is deterministic. 

The chaotic divergence of systems based on minuscule differences in stipulated starting conditions might be a way to define the threshold for prediction. A different way might be by way of quantum effects, which directly inject a kind of random into any physical process. Random here means a kind of material unknowability, rather than a kind of exaggerated difference over time. 

I might suggest that as quantum effects become significant only at an extremely attenuated scale, the butterfly effect disappears as the scale reduces. These two approaches to indeterminacy effectively cancel each other out, and of course there is no real meaning to the butterfly effect in "reality" (no flapping butterfly "causes" any hurricane) just as there is no real impact on most scientific investigations in the macro world which require taking quantum theories into account.

In either case, random doesn't and can't reduce to meaningless. It only reduces to the absence, in principle, of any possibility to understand. Any mind has limits. But for certain, my personal relation to the slings and arrows and joys of existence is emotional. Random is meaningful to me almost every time. I know that Daniel Dennett must praise his lucky stars almost all of the time.

But Dennett, along with all the other four horsemen, considers our "agent-alarm" system to be mistaken when there's not an agent there. We insert God where he doesn't belong. If it's not a tiger crunching that gravel, though the gravel crunched at a significant time based on my internal state, then to attribute meaning to the crunch would be nuts. Except that many of us experience such synchronicities, as Jung called them.

While I would agree that it's a massive error and probably dangerous (anymore) to insert any kind of God in there, I wouldn't go so far as to remove these events from meaning. They certainly can't be understood. However, if I do have a theory of mind, it would start by the declaration that decision-making is the result of emotive certainty. Rationality need not apply. In either case - rational or emotive - correctness is never guaranteed. 

I have to stop here. This will amount to a confession. I'm still reading Dennett, and still enjoying learning about his rather amazing life. Now, within a few short recent pages, he let's the reader into a couple of seemingly minor secrets. The first is that philosophers live by cutting each other down, in apparent defense of their own strongly held certainties. This being in the context of vague reference to some sort of work on beliefs, which, as reader I must be expected to be familiar with. But he seems to be exposing philosophers as holding to beliefs before they are demonstrably true.

So confession one, I do believe that this argumentative habit of philosophers is that they hold too strongly to beliefs as though they were certainties. My confession is that I often consider philosophy to be a bogus pursuit. I should say 'to have become' a bogus pursuit. By the time we're doing artificial intelligence as though it might approach human intelligence, to conduct thinking in the guise that thinking in and of itself might be conducted with sufficient rigor to exhaust all possible ways of knowing has become patently ridiculous. 

By contrast, Dennett points out, the scientists - in this case computer scientists - listen eagerly as colleagues present their work, looking for ways to help or that they might be helped in their own conjectural and more experimentally based pursuits. Score for scientists, duck's egg for philosophers.

Of course I, and any good scientist, assumes that these argumentative differences will be resolved the instant that a more comprehensive theory comes along. I'm not sure Dennett is in the right to call out those he calls intellectual bullies, no matter how well he documents his careful avoidance of bullying. His stature is such that he can overshadow those who disagree with him, which might excuse what he calls bullying. The bully is the one who commands the floor.

And then, confession number two. After I find out that among all else that he does so much better than I can ever hope to do, he's also a SCUBA diver. But he has no clue as to the physics and physiology of SCUBA diving, making ill-informed comments about his fellow corpulent academic having to loosen his weight belt because he'd had to tighten it under compression. Or that exhaling upon ascent was necessary to prevent being, essentially, blown up by expanding air. My confession is that I gloat on this miniscule arena where mine is the superior mind. It's only the lungs which might compress (or explode) and the actual danger is from gases dissolving under pressure in the blood, where, dissolved, they don't shrink or grow the body. Well of course the fat fellow's guts were likely full of gas, which I would be far too woke to suggest. 

So why is he the superior sailor? Well, I was young and stupid too, and would go out in anything on a boat largely of my own reconstruction. I'm older and wiser now is all. But young enough, I guess and hope, to still have two sailboats at the moment, and three if you count a canoe. Wait, I also have an inflatable kayak, which was necessary when my sailing dinghy and canoe were quarantined in Canada during Covid.

Back to the limits of the mind (which will never be told (or dreamt) in anyone's philosophy). I do believe that mine is the more scientific, inquisitive and open-minded approach. The trouble is that I haven't the skills to convey what I've discovered as knowledge, and not just as a belief.

Anyhow, the proof that random is meaningful is in the progressive results of evolution. I know that to use the term progressive here is fraught, but there is time's arrow in play, which I maintain is not a physical property, but which resides, instead, among what Dennett seems to refer to as . . . damn! I can't locate the paragraph in which he outlines his replacement for the meaningless term qualia, so beloved by so many philosophers. Something about manifest "primary" mechanistic properties versus secondary dispositional properties. I believe he coined a pair of terms. Oh well, I hate technical terms anyhow. 

Whoops! Found it in Wikipedia: illata for the real hard stuff and abstracta for the stuff tending in the direction of what others, in contention with Dennett, call qualia.

Random is also meaningful to each of us. If you haven't experienced an uncanny coincidence, you haven't lived, man! Anyhow, most of what's significant in our lives, good or bad, is made up of happenstance.

Back again to this divide on either side of which Dennett and I thrived or failed to. I arrived at Yale in the face of rather new challenges for me. The first was that I was meant to be an engineer, which relegated me to a cohort apart from Yale's sophistication. In high school, I could fake it. I could never regain my balance. 

Related to this deficit were the computer terminals helpfully installed in the library on which I was expected to operate without any experience or instruction. Those same prep-school privileged students who enabled me to palpate the sophistication I lacked also populated the engineering classes with their experience on computers. Double bind for me!

Anyhow, back to cosmology (as distinguished by now in this bit of writing, I hope, from philosophy). My difference with Dennett, as with Dawkins, might come down to their shared and to me extreme atheism. The headquarters for their brand of atheism happens to be here in my home town, Buffalo (call it Amherst which calls itself Buffalo when convenient). As footnote, my former student was once its executive director. Name drop. Well, OK, person drop.

The trouble with the godhead is that there are no limits. There can be no dialectic. There can be no meaning, no knowing. I take Dennett's colleague Edelman's word for it that the complexity - or at least the raw number - of possible interconnections in the brain is on a scale with the number of particles in the known cosmos. To me, that means that we are, each of us, candidates for microcosm in that reductive sense of quanta.

And furthermore, I find that Dennett participates in attempts to understand the workings of the brain and of language in evolutionary terms. Bravo!

But here's where confusion between meaning and understanding takes sharp hold. The godhead is surely beyond the limits of understanding, but may yet be the terminus for meaning. As in the be-all end-all shouldn't-have-a-name limit. This stance is subtly but importantly distinct from the double-D's stance of atheistic materialism.

Why does that matter, you might ask? Well, you know, because the godhead is the font of meaning, beyond which we can't get. Ever. 


What I come down to is the meaning of random. I certainly don't dispute mathematical usage for random, especially in statistics. I shall never expect to beat any odds, except by chance. Meaning that my intention would be meaningless.

But if, in the aggregate and over time, random adds up to a progressive direction for life's evolution, then it can't be meaningless. This is, I believe, a categorical leap impossible to make. The cosmos is meaningless without life. 

I would go even another step further to suggest that just as we can't move beyond godhead to understand this meaning, it is the same thing that happens in our minds when the evolutionary forces which determine which among the forceless changes in the configuration of our mind lead to aha! Now I understand. Now I know the meaning. This is what identity means, for that matter, and identity can't be had without boundaries. Without limits. 

One basic limit is our skin, which I have often referred to as the metaphoric divider. Along with Dennett, I differ with Chomsky about his grammatical black box. He, along with Dennett now, ignores the body in the main when he considers mind and language. Watch a child learn to communicate and you can see the guts of the Chomskyan black box in action. It's the body, stupid. Grammar is emergent.

But our personal boundaries don't define any sort of absolute distinction from our surroundings. In a trivial sense, we are what we perceive and what we make of that, Remove our environs and there is no there there for identity.

In a more complex sense, never going so far as Roger Penrose does in his Chinese finger-puzzle trap of quantum mechanism (which should be a contradiction in terms) for remote contact, we are not severable from anything in cosmos. It all always resonates, though it does so far far beyond our ken. 

Which might even mean that personal happenstance - meaningful coincidence - is not only likely; it's inevitable. Most of what we mean by metric merit is a mistake for personal fortune. It's never enough to be born with the measurable good stuff (of intelligence, of beauty, of musical, artistic, athletic prowess). One must still make something of it. I am a kind of exhibit A here. I was always called "Hardluck" for short. 

But here's the final kicker. It's the morals that matter. There is a direct correlation at Yale and like places between the transition from wealth as the mandatory quality for admission, to the measurable difficulty of admission based on "merit." Admissions once was trivial for the likes of Dennett and me. Wealth once had its obligations. Merit has none. No applications were expected or solicited from the hoi polloi. Now all are welcome, but admissions is a lottery play once some artificial boundary for merit is exceeded. 

While admissions might be more fair, were they to be run as a literal lottery, wouldn't it be more fair to the rest of the world if there were some evidence for compliance with and completion of moral obligation. 

Given the expectation as outcome for wealth and power and preferably both, we can expect cheating on both moral and intellectual quizzing. Toss out the moral dimension and earthly values quickly rise to infinity. Just look at Yale's record for dirty power. Dubya, Hawley, Scalia, Thomas, Vance and so many more. Or do I mix up Yale and Haavaad? Difference with no distinction.

Now please don't get me wrong. I am not claiming to be any sort of moral giant. I'm a pretty lazy feckless n'er do well. Obsessed with something that I discovered and often wish I hadn't. I don't claim any invention, though I am mildly shocked that I have remained and still do remain alone with this discovery for so long. The world keeps transforming at an ever accelerating rate while we hold tight to obsolete philosophies. My thinking would displace lots of powerful people and institutions, which makes a sufficient explanation to me for why lots of false truths are left alone. 

Or in other words, we're collectively getting away with shit. In nature, in life, in the long run, nobody gets away with anything. If you want to make your life a flash in the pan, do as the single-named people do and live for yourself alone. Build private empires behind guard towers on Hawaii so that you can behave as a normal person?? Cosmic impact requires love. Requires companions. Requires grit.

I've written at length previously about how unlikely it is that you'll ever love a robot the way that I love my granddaughter, say. Which doesn't even come close to the way my daughter loves her. My love is easier, being removed as it is from any of my daughter's daily challenges. 

But I do get to watch my granddaughter as she becomes conscious, learns to imitate, learns to communicate and now at just over one year old she clearly recognizes many words and knows a question when she hears one, even dutifully taking her first step upon verbal and bodily encouragement.

Before you jump to the conclusion that I might jump to and declare that you too shall never love a robot, consider how far removed we already are from being human. Not to hold you in suspense, but we've squeezed out nearly all the good stuff with our mapped and ordered and playacted world now. Our issues not only won't be resolved by technology, but they are affirmatively all political and social. Our design must return to being human, which would abolish just about anything Big Box; retail, churches, schools, you name it. Would abolish weaponry beyond spears and knives. 

But I get ahead of myself. I simply didn't wish to be coy here with what I'm about. 

So what would we want in machine intelligence? Some sort of radical honesty? Dependability? Absence of emotion for sure; emotion just invites lying and cheating and even selfishness. I don't think that the pursuit of AI is somehow inherently evil. I'm sure it's interesting. But we're far enough along the way now to consider what will always be missing, and then to see if we're also missing something cosmic which could point us in other, more evidently productive, directions. 

It is almost certain that our distraction from life as induced by the draw of gizmos and games and movies and all sorts of fun fun fun is also a distraction from truths we don't have the energy to face. Like what has really been going on in the Middle East all these years, and can it be distilled to fossil fuels? Pipelines? Economic imperatives which don't have time for truth or decency, where there will always be some Kissinger or Cheney to take the reins.

Now back to physics. I vaguely remember leaving that pursuit upon the homework requirement to calculate the probability wave to locate a human with precision. (the answer is trivial. Humans are fuzzy) As with Chinese, one doesn't really want to take a break with Math, if one expects to pursue it academically. These pursuits require a kind of constancy that I have always squandered. So I quit physics for Chinese and then left that for education and so here I am.

I was later distracted by the Twin Paradox, which has apparently been resolved to any physicist's satisfaction, though never to mine. Reduced to two objects, the twins leave each other's cosmos pretty quickly. So the question becomes, what holds us together?

Well physically there are forces which describe toward and away, forward and back, among the three canonical dimensions of space. These forces are, in turn, defined by the exchange of meta-particles. I can't quite get my mind around either phonons and qualia, though I'm sure I should. I take comfort in Dennett here.

These three dimensions are surely as accurately describable as time is. And they are as relative. 

My work has been, post math and post Chinese, in the definitions. I'm defining a static arrangement - an arrangement sans forces - as a concept. In my usage, this is vaguely related to the word "idea" except without the inception part. I don't think ideas originate in the mind. I'm an uncarved blockhead myself, meaning that there has to be perception first. 

Intention and free will are fine, but these are always impelled by emotion. Emotion is defined as forceless forward and back. Meaning the kind of motion which happens in the mind. The kind that Artificial Intelligence will never muster. Emotion and meaning are bound by bodies. 

The godhead, if you will, is skinless. Meaning no meta, no metaphor, no outering, no innering. We all partake (in the cannibalistic rites, right?).

It is my contention, though I am happy to be unseated, that none of these redefinitions undermines any of science, math, statistics or anything else we might hold dear. But it does keep me from being the type of atheist that Dennett and his pal Dawkins are. In that regard, I think that they lack imagination. And only in that regard. 

Meanwhile, my definitions cause a world of hurt to religion, which I hardly consider to be a bad thing. Those institutions have discredited themselves beyond recognition, though I don't think they have to jettison their essence.

I'm looking for clarity is all. And I'm looking for the limits of objective knowledge. A space for morality which is no longer quite so relative. Some return of Truth and Beauty, if you will. 

Well, I'll do more better some day soon, maybe. If at first you don't blah blah blah.

And then, in the midst of working this out, Mom dies. Her mind had attenuated, and her short-term memory was gone, but she maintained a happy, well-dressed, and loving presence, and would recognize all her loved ones, converse with them, and be sure that we felt loved. A fibrillation caused a clot which caused a stroke, or maybe it was the other way around, but eventually her heart beat itself to death not pumping enough blood to suffuse her starving brain. And yet the there is still there. She lived alone, but well cared-for. Adieu.

Metaphor is embedded in Western literary traditions. Chinese has couplets. Inert bodies imitating the quick, or the other way around. Literary language looks beyond the literal to find meaning. There is so much that shall remain forever beyond words, though words may provide inception. I batter mine. 

Apologies for Christmas!

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