Tag Archives: Philosophy

Short Review of "A Culture of Conspiracy"

A Culture of Conspiracy” by Michael Barkun is by far the most coherent, scholarly material I have ever read on the contentious issue of “stigmatized knowledge.”

It is not a book written to “expose of the TRUTH” about the hidden reality of… whatever. It is also not a debunking of the conspiracy theories that abound about everything. The problem with the fringe, as I have said, is that the stuff out there is contradictory, so at best one of the competing voices is right… and it’s a lot easier to generate that crap than it is to debunk it. A definitive volume that debunks every conspiracy theory would be impossible. And the people to whom it would be the most use would denounce it as more propaganda from the conspirators anyway.

Barkun’s book is a sort-of natural history of crazy memes. The results are fascinating. The world views that people hold are… amazing, really. There are people in our midst battling literal demons in the moments leading up to the end of the world. That’s right now. Not fiction. They are living it. And it feels important to them.

Barkun sums up nicely: “A growing number of people believe that a super-conspiracy commonly referred to as the New World Order is on the verge of consolidating world domination, possibly in collaboration with malevolent aliens.” Or, I would add, in collaboration with the Devil. “The conspirators allegedly operate through so wide ranging a network of confederates that they have co-opted authority figures in every sector of life. Through this control, in turn, they shape the information available to the general public and thus conceal the conspiracy’s existence and activities.”

Well, that presents some epistemological/metaphysical problems for the rest of us.

Dean argues that there is no longer a “consensus reality” according to which contested questions of fact can be resolved.  She suggests that on such subjects as alien abduction and political conspiracies, there are multiple contending realities, which keep contested issues from being decided…Dean’s position, while extreme in its suggestion of epistemological anarchy, is sufficiently reflective of the material considered here that it must be taken seriously.

So, can we all live in radically different parallel realities? Do we need a consensus reality? Who would get to enforce it if we do need it?

That’s the real philosophical question at the heart of this strange stuff. It underlies the “culture wars” and C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. I think it’s an issue we’re going to be dealing with a lot over the next century. What I’m afraid of is that the conspiracists and the orthodoxists (I just made up a word!) will get the limited attention of the intelligentsia and the fundamental issue will get overlooked. Or, worse, The Jester is right and nobody cares at all.


The End of Hob: Dresden Codak, IEEE and the Singularity

The Hob Series at Dresden Codak seems to have resolved. I can tell you that it is a good story because I am still thinking about it. It’s funny that it would resolve today. Coincidentally, I was thinking about the Simpsons quote which I remember imperfectly:

Flanders‘ son: “What do taxes pay for, Daddy?”

Ned Flanders: “Why, taxes pay for all kinds of things! Roads, sunshine, the air we breathe, and all those people who just don’t feel like workin’, lord love em’.”

So, here’s the question (mostly hypothetical): If we could make a largely automated system that could provide basic needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, basic medical needs) to everyone with only 1% of the worlds population working (a volunteer force, effectively) would that be a good thing? There would still be lots of places for people to have gainful employment – entertainment, service, luxury goods, etc. But nobody would have to work at all if they didn’t feel like it. Would it be a better world, or a worse one?

When I was younger, I thought that would be a better world. I am not so sure any more. Utopia seems a lot more oppressive than it used to.


Dresden Codak’s Hob is a 24 page graphic novella. The author, Aaron Diaz, explores themes of futurism and psychology. The way he weaves his characters’ subtle family drama and childhood baggage into the story is quite remarkable. Of the whole story, this quote struck me as most poetic “[the thinking machines] can give you anything you want, save relevance.”

The futurist vision is the new synthesis of occult dreams and new science. The promise is whole new worlds and the time to explore them. Infinite wealth and immortality.

It is as abhorrent to some as it is seductive to others. IEEE spectrum wrote up a while issue on it; it’s not as fringe as you might think. They call it the Singularity. Will we ‘evolve’ to become one with machines? Will organic humans still be relevant? Relevance is the question on my mind when I read this. What makes people relevant?

I think it’s different from the things that make people “good” or “worthy” or “interesting.” Those don’t have the same grim connotation. People can lack any of those qualities and still we would keep them around. But what about irrelevance?

They say the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. That’s why I don’t trust Utopia anymore. I’m not sure that many of us could survive not being needed.


Unconscious thought and an aritcle on the Unseen Mind

I’m back! I’ve just read a perspective over at Science that made me think of Blink.  I have mentioned Blink before. It’s even linked over in the sidebar. It’s a book I like to think about. Some have denigrated it as anti-intellectualism, but I disagree. In fact, I think the mistake is revealing.

An MRI of a human brain: how much is below the threshold of self consciousness

I will explain. The subject of Blink is intuition and unconscious thought. It turns out we have a lot of unconscious processing going on all of the time. The world we ‘see’ is a necessarily greatly filtered. If you had to deal consciously with facts like the number of spokes in every bicycle wheel that passed you or the color of the shoelaces on each stranger’s feet, or the smell of every room you entered, it is doubtful you could stay sane.

Our brains have mechanisms for dealing with these stimuli (‘inconsequential’ sights, sounds and smells). The filter is very effective, but not perfect. That is to say, sometimes it ignores things that are consequential, and other times it flags trivial things as important.

The point of Blink is that we can train these parts of our brain (the parts of which we are not consciously aware) to make them more effective. People do it all of the time. Sports coaches often can read subtle cues about an athlete’s movement that the average person couldn’t notice. And they may not even be able to express consciously exactly what it was that they noticed. But by being ale to see, they can help the athlete refine their skill anyway.

Intellectuals think that this is counter to rational thought. It’s a cop-out, they say, to rely on unconscious parts of your brain. People who see Blink as anti-intellectual have the notion that reasonable, intelligent people don’t have to resort to such mystical clap-trap to solve problems. Thinkers, they suppose, will rely on their conscious rhetoric and careful analysis just like they always have. But this misses the point. It only reveals that these intellectuals see a false division between their rational selves and their more intuitive unconscious faculties.

The truth is that nobody can avoid relying on these parts of their brain. We rely on unconscious parts of our brain whether we like it or not. The part of us that is our ‘self’ is not just the part that is narrating the internal monologue. It is an indefensible claim that the whole of our body including these lower parts of our consciousness is only present to get our higher cognitive faculties to meetings. The unconscious is as much a part of the whole as the conscious.

The part of me that is ‘me’ is more than the narrator of my internal monologue. Buddhists, who (arguably) have made the longest running investigation of consciousness, have known this for a long time. Science is finding it, too: “Studies such as that by Galdi et al. are documenting how the adaptive unconscious works and people’s limited introspective access to it. As these studies become more widely known, people might realize that … their conscious thoughts and feelings are but a small part of the workings of their minds.”


Some people are more Flexible than others

I’m still in Germany and I’m having a great time. Writing the dissertation is a slow, but steady process. I think I’m done processing the data for which I worked so hard last month. It lines up nicely.

I read an interesting article in Newsweek on Monday that I wanted to share with you all. The notion was that scientists (Frank et. al. 2007 ) found evidence that there is a genetic link to a person’s ability to learn from mistakes. I honestly don’t know how controversial that is. It seems pretty common-sense to me. Some people will be more able than others to discern when they have made a mistake, and upon realizing this, some people will be more able than others to change their own behavior.

If anything, the controversial issue (and the thing that is the subtle beauty of the proposition) is that this in not trained. It seems intuitive to think that if someone doesn’t learn from their mistakes, they could be trained to do so. This result, if true, suggests that the degree of trainability is, itself, variable.

I imagine this has implications for parents everywhere. Take a child who is less capable of intuiting that a repeated mistake will have repeatable consequences. That child should be reared differently than one who immediately modifies behaviors in after making a mistake. A child who responds immediately might be allowed to make some mistakes so that he will learn limits on his own before mistakes are life-threatening. On the other hand, such mistakes will be less useful experiences for the child with this newly identified genetic condition.

But what about the subtle implications? This also suggests that the degree of “habit plasticity” is variable among the population. It suggests that there are outliers on both sides: people who need external structure and limits to survive, and people who will immediately adapt their behavior to the social structure around them. Furthermore, I would venture to guess that this won’t correlate with intelligence or other personality traits (e.g. introversion/extroversion). In fact, it is more like a meta-trait.

Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It has 4 dimensions along which a person will score somewhere on a continuum. People who score any given way on the test will tend to have certain preferred modes of living. What this new result suggests is that, for some people, this preference is more fixed than others.

If nothing else, it’s a caveat on any predictions based on most psychological tests.


Are our fates determined by our genes? I doubt it. It’s not that simple even for worms.

I have done some work with the C. Elegans model organism. They are fun little bugs, and the PETA doesn’t get all up-in-arms when you shoot their brain with a laser. Here are some fun C. Elegans Facts:

wikimedia commons: adult caenorhabditis elegans

They are about 1 mm long at maturity
They are transparent
They have about 300 nerves
Their genome was sequenced in 1998
They can hunt down food on a plate
They have forms of memory and learning

Here are some things I have noticed: When illuminated with a blue laser, they panic and squirm all over the place. When you use a UV laser to blow up a portion of their outer cuitcle, they practically turn inside-out due to internal pressure. Some of the strains available through the WormBank have single nerve cells that express fluorescent protein, so that not only do their brains glow, but only the part you might be interested in glows.

Why are these critters cool? Well, despite being really small, they share a lot of biochemistry with humans. Their neurons function in the same way and the cellular processes that allow the worm to grow from an egg into a larva and from a larva into an adult are all analogous on a cellular level to changes in human development. But if you do an experiment on a worm, you can see what happens in a few days instead of months (rats) years (monkeys) or decades (humans). Also, there are some ethical constraints with humans that don’t apply to worms.

Here’s a new fact just released in Nature: they seem to have a sleep-like state. “Lethargus is a Caenorhabditis elegans sleep-like state” by Raizen et. al. “Conserved effects on sleep-like behaviour of homologous genes in C. elegans and Drosophila suggest a common genetic regulation of sleep-like states in arthropods and nematodes. Our results indicate that C. elegans is a suitable model system for the study of sleep regulation.”

They sleep, they eat, they learn (sort-of), they have lots of sex with themselves (they are hermaphrodites) and they make eggs. And they do it all in 3 days. And despite the fact that we know the fate of every cell in its body from birth to death – where it comes from, what it becomes and where it goes – we still don’t know how it manages most of its behavior.

I’d like to point out that this leaves very little hope for a reductionist perspective on psychology.  We know every connection of every nerve in this worm’s body and the thing is still a mystery. I wrote a post recently about how foolish it is to make sweeping assertions about genetic differences. Just to reiterate the big upshot: even in the simplest case, our understanding of the causes-and-effects that make up psychology is limited.  To think that a human being is perfectly predictable is… well… just plain dumb.