August 6, 2014
One of my favorite websites, Closer To Truth, has just underwent a major revision. There you can find several television episodes, as well as indepth interviews from some of the world’s deepest thinkers.
So what sorts of things will you find? Some topics explored include the following:
– What are the fundamental building blocks of reality?
– What are the limits of physics and physical theory? Are there things which can’t be explained by our theories of the physical world?
– What is time and space?
– Is time real or is it an illusion?
– Can a person time-travel?
– What is quantum physics?
– Why is quantum gravity so important?
– What is complexity, emergence, and self-organization?
– Is mathematics eternal?
– Is information the foundation of reality?
– Do we live in a simulation?
– How big is the cosmos?
– Did the universe have a beginning or has it always existed?
– What does the expanding universe mean?
– How significant is an expanding universe?
– Are there multiple universes?
– How did matter form in the early universe?
– Why are black holes so interesting?
– What does a fine-tuned universe mean?
– Is life and mind inevitable in the universe?
– What is the far future of the universe?
– Are science and religion at war?
– Can science explain God?
– Should science even discuss religion?
– Can science provide ultimate answers?
– What is the ultimate reality?
– What are the ultimate questions of nature?
– Are the laws of nature always constant?
– Does cosmology provide meaning?
– What is causation?
– Why is there anything at all?
– What is the mind-body problem?
– Can all mind operations be explained by computation and brain operations?
– What do brains do?
– How do brains malfunction?
– How are brains conscious?
– What is self-awareness and memory?
– Is consciousness an illusion?
– Is consciousness fundamental and irreducible?
– Is consciousness unified?
– Is consciousness emergent, and if so, from what?
– Is consciousness rooted in quantum computation?
– What are altered states of consciousness?
– What is enlightenment?
– Why do we sleep and have dreams?
– Does consciousness lead to God?
– Must the universe contain consciousness?
– What things are conscious?
– What is truth?
– What is the “self”? What is the “I”?
– What makes personal identity continue?
– Is death final?
– Is there an afterlife?
– What would immortality feel like?
– Do people have souls?
– Can science explain beauty and aesthetics?
– How do belief systems work?
– How do belief systems affect believers?
– What is free will? Is it an illusion? Do we have it?
– What are the problems of free will?
– What is synchronicity? Does it exist?
– What is God? Do any of our ideas about God make sense?
– Why should a person believe in God?
– Can many religions all be true?
– Does philosophy inform religion?
– What is evil? Can there be morality without God?
August 4, 2014
Back when I was a teenager, I remember first reading Plato’s works. I was completely puzzled trying to figure out how abstract thinking worked. Take our ability to think of general concepts. We know that women and men are both human beings and that all human beings have arms, legs, mouths, and noses. It’s effortless for us. It happens automatically within a few milliseconds and feels instantaneous.
Or think about something else. Say I was a mad scientist and took you down to my lab. I had built a brain scanning machine and I was going to strap you down and steal your memories. How would I do it? How does your brain store your memories? What format are they in? How are they organized? Believe it or not, I pretty much know the answer! But back when I was a teenager, I had no idea how this worked.
I never knew how my brain could recognize, categorize, and label objects. Take walking into a kitchen. We always see particular tables, and each table is different from one another, but somehow our mind has some abstract concept of a “table”, and can look at objects in the world around us and say, “Yes, that’s a table.” The same applies to animals. We see beagles, bulldogs, and golden retrievers, but we know they’re all “dogs”. What is a “dog”? How does our brain do it?
Plato used to theorize that there was some ideal “dog” in another invisible dimension and somehow all particular dogs were a copy of that, in some inexplicable way. That never made any sense to me and I doubt it does to anyone else either.
But nowadays we’re making huge breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and we’ve cracked the code for how the brain does it. Using biologically inspired algorithms, AI researchers can now write computer code which is able to do this same sort of abstract thinking. Take Microsoft’s Project Adam for instance. You can go out into your backyard with your smartphone and snap a picture of your dog. Their software can then analyze the image and tell you exactly what type of dog it is, even more accurately than the best human dog experts.
Once I studied how these sorts of algorithms work, I immediately understood what abstract concepts are and how they’re stored in our brains. I don’t know whether to begin with our brains or with the computer algorithms. If you understand one, you immediately understand the other. We’ll begin with our brains.
Basically, abstract thinking takes place within our neocortex which is like a thin layer of neurons which sits on the outer layer of our brains. This is simplifying things a bit, but it consists of layers of neurons wired together into vertical columns. The columns themselves have cross-connections, wiring them to other columns.
It works like this. Let’s just talk about identifying things we’re looking at with our eyes. Light beams make their way into our eyes which then stimulates photo-receptors in our retinas. This creates small electrical signals which are then sent to the “bottom” layers of the neocortex. That’s when a very simple pattern recognition process starts.
Basically the bottom-most neuronal layers identify patterns, then the next layer of neurons “above” those identify patterns within the patterns. The layer “above” that identifies patterns within the pattern’s patterns. And so on. It forms this hierarchy of patterns within patterns within patterns … within patterns.
So let’s talk a little more about Microsoft’s Project Adam. How does it tell the difference between a dog and a cat? Well, all you have to do is show it a bunch of images of cats and tell the software that all those images contain cats. Then you show it a bunch of images of dogs and tell the software that all those images are dogs. The software will build this hierarchy of image patterns within patterns within patterns. Low levels begin with raw sensory data, such as colored pixels. The next level will be patterns of colors, such as a small splotch of black and brown next to one another, or white and brown next to one another, etc. As you go higher up this hierarchy, you’ll come to “tails”, “mid-sections”, “noses”, “eyes”, “floppy ears”, etc. Then at the even higher levels, you’ll find “dog”, “cat”, and “human”.
We’ve been discussing patterns within images, but there are also patterns within sounds. Instead of finding patterns within colored pixels spatially spread out over your retina, your brain also uses the exact same system to identify temporal patterns.
Say you find a cover song by a random person on Youtube and they’re playing their own rendition of a popular Beatles song. How do you know it’s the same song? If it’s really bad, you may not. But if there is a good resemblance, your brain finds temporal patterns, within patterns, within patterns, of sound intensity based on pressure waves which vibrate your ear-drums, which in turn creates similar sorts of electrical signals for your brain.
This is related to language as well. Nouns are consistent high level patterns, such as those discerned from images. Verbs are their temporal patterns over time. You’re linking up the sounds and symbols of the words (themselves high level patterns), to the high level patterns from sensory experience over time.
So what is the ideal table? Does it exist in another dimension? No. The ideal “table” doesn’t look like anything. It’s just a type of information pattern. It’s hard to describe what it is because it doesn’t look like anything, or sound like anything, or exist in any sort of space. It’s just a type of encoded information.
If you’d like to hear about this process in even more detail, I’d recommend watching the neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins explain all of this in the video below. In the tech world, this AI technique is called deep learning. The topic begins at around 10 minutes.
I’ve slightly simplified this discussion a bit though. Our brains are even cooler than this. The information doesn’t just flow upward, it also flows downward. When you study how the neurons are laid out, as your brain is trying to figure out what it’s looking at, it’s also making predictions about what it should see in the future. If there’s a match between what your brain thinks will come next and what does come next, you unconsciously say to yourself, “Ah, I know what this is.” If your brain’s predictions do not match what you experience next, there’s a shift in your attention.
For example, if you’re looking at your pet dog and all of the sudden it stands on its back legs upright and starts talking to you like a human, you’re totally taken back, in shock, and your attention is completely focused on your dog. That’s because it doesn’t match the patterns stored in your brain and we’re wired up to say, “I don’t understand this. This is new. I need to pay attention to it.” It may also generate fear, etc. So it’s more complicated in us humans, but abstract thought and object identification is built on this process.
If you showed Project Adam a fake video of a talking dog standing up on its legs, since it has no emotion, all it would do is say, “new pattern”, and create new nodes in this hierarchy of patterns. But with us, our object identification process is directly tied into emotional centers which trigger a more complex response.
So as the mad scientist, if I was wanting to read your mind, it’d be very difficult. It’s not like the information is stored in the same way in each person. It’s totally different in each brain based on what you’ve experienced. The pattern hierarchies are all laid out differently.
In short though, your memories are temporal sequences of hierarchical patterns. It’s not like there’s a movie-clip I could access and playback with perfect clarity. The brain also discards most of the raw sensory information we experience. So that’s going to be a problem.
For fun, I could ask you to think about your wedding, and once I found out where the high-level patterns were stored, I could trace down your tree and try to produce a movie of you walking down the isle. Maybe, I’m not sure. If I had sophisticated enough equipment and you’re willing to let me cut your skull open, I’d be more than willing to give it a try! *giddy grin* Then again, it may be better just to search your attic for the DVD or VHS tape!
One of my biggest interests in this subject is trying to understand what numbers are. I feel quite certain they’re rooted in this same process. The number one is some sort of high level pattern in our sensory hierarchy. The same with two, three, four, five, and maybe six. We intuitively understand small numbers because they actually exist within this hierarchy in our mind. I’ve seen two glasses on a table, two books on my desk, and two buttons on a computer mouse. There’s some common pattern within all of them which we’d label “2”.
Higher numbers are probably just symbols linked to logical rules for manipulating them. We don’t have any intuitive sense of the difference between a billion and a trillion stars. It’s too much for our minds to comprehend. In other words, imagine the resolution an image would need to distinctly contain a billion separate objects. There’s not enough pixels on the back of our retina to contain such an image no matter how tiny you made each object individually. You could try to link the word symbol “a billion stars” to lots of tiny dots flying by in some temporal sequence, possibly. Or maybe you could say something like, “Imagine dropping a thousand pennies in a jar each day. Each penny will be a star.” Then the person goes and does that for a single day, one thousand pennies. “How long would we have do this process before we’d counted a billion stars? It would take you over 2,700 years to count that many stars!” Little tricks like that help to grasp numbers, but you really have to think hard to come up with those things. It’s tricky to have any intuitive sense of large numbers.
Bertrand Russell struggled to define numbers in his Principles of Mathematics. I’m not really sure if this conception of numbers is correct though. Still, I’m pretty sure you could show Project Adam lots of different pictures with just a single object in them and then tell it, “1”. Then do the same for images with two objects in them, etc. I think you could get it to grasp the first few numbers. There’s scientific evidence that animals understand the first few numbers. For example, if an animal is trying to escape a group of predators, and the predators run into a cave and then exit, one by one, the animal seems to know when they’re all gone. If there were three predators but only two have left the cave, the animal knows to remain hidden. It must have some basic conception of number.
August 3, 2014
PBS produced a documentary on the war in Iraq, chronicling its beginnings up to the present, and what a nightmare! There have been hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, several thousand American troops have been lost, we’ve spent over two trillion dollars, and everything we fought for is now unraveling as ISIS rolls in and takes over. It’s been a total waste. Nothing has changed, the world is angry at us, and we’re buried in debt. Even worse, this new ISIS group is bad news. They’re well funded, well armed, and very dangerous. They’re far scarier than Bin Laden ever was.
It’s even worse knowing it was all doomed from the start. There really isn’t any need for me to get into it. Just watch it all for yourself.
Before the war began, all of the generals were telling President Bush, “Why are we doing this? This war is a bad idea.” But the president had filled his administration with neoconservatives like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and they they had been busy devising plans for the middle-east since the 1960s. They found themselves a gullible cowboy who’d listen to them, and so off we went, and once we got involved, there was no easy way out.
It was clear that nobody knew what they were doing. Those appointed to run things had little knowledge of the region, Iraqi culture, or their people. Those who did weren’t listened to, or even worse, they were kicked out. There were constant changes in leadership and a severe lack of intelligence. The Bush administration kept asking, “Why can’t we wrap things up?”, not even realizing what they had started.
As for President Obama, he’s wanted nothing to do with Iraq ever since entering office. He wanted to pull out immediately but had to honor an agreement set in place by the Bush administration just before Bush’s second term ended. Obama’s cabinet broke contact with the fledgling Iraqi government and he gutted a lot of the resources dedicated to managing the war. This left the Iraqi prime minister on his own and he’s frightened. He’s been consolidating power, eliminating political opposition, and restructuring the government. This has led to violence, corruption, and a large portion of the population being disenfranchised. Protests have been breaking out everywhere. It could be argued that Obama’s inattentiveness to everything going on has led to ISIS and their buildup. With these new jihadist radicals running around, it looks like we’re being pulled back in. They’re dangerous but we’re broke. I’m not sure what’s going to happen.
August 2, 2014
A question has been on all of our minds — well, maybe just few people’s minds — will Hitchbot be able to hitchhike its way across Canada?
Researchers have built a robot with an ambitious plan. It will attempt to bum rides across Canada, all on its own. If successful, Hitchbot will travel coast to coast, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, all the way to Victoria, British Columbia.
As it bums electricity from your cigarette lighter, it will read you poetry, discuss the news, and share its vast knowledge with you. In fact, it’s pre-loaded with all of Wikipedia.
So far, it’s halfway there. After receiving publicity from local news stations, people have been on the lookout for this robo-hobo. It needs a lift!
I would totally give it a ride. You can follow its progress at www.hitchbot.me.
July 31, 2014
In my more recent posts, I’ve mentioned that after a person’s basic needs are met, we human beings seek out relationships with other people. We long for a place where we belong, where we’re accepted, and where we’re a part of the group. We search for an important role to play, where we depend on others and they depend on us. We want to matter. We desire respect, crave self-esteem, and strive for greater ability at our “thing”, whatever that may be. We desire to be a part of a family, where successes and failures are shared. These are the sorts of things I mean when I say we crave a world beyond ourselves, a state of greater connection with the world. In other words, we want community, but what is that exactly?
A few years ago, I was reading a blog post by a scientist and he was sharing his view that sports are a total waste of time. To think that people would spend hours and hours throwing a ball through a hoop! What a waste! They need to be developing their minds, not kicking a ball around. I don’t think he realizes what they’re really about.
While academics are important, that’s not all there is to the world. I saw a video on Youtube where the comedian Russell Brand introduces us to a youth sports league he sponsors. Take a look at it.
Listen to one of the young boys tell his story. His father left their family, and he lives with his mother and little brother. From a very young age, he felt he needed to be a role model for his little brother, considering his father wasn’t around. He dealt with anger issues and his temper would flare up. A little while after joining the team, all of that went away.
And pay attention to what they liked about playing on their team. You may think that it’s the thrill of dominating the other team, or kicking some amazing goal to win the championship, or impressing cute girls who watch the games. After all, they’re just kids, right? But what is it that they actually like about the team, in their own words? Just listen. They feel they’re a part of a family. They also like the atmosphere where success is encouraged, but nobody is too judgmental. They’re encouraged to be their best, but they’re loved and accepted, regardless. Nobody is turned away. That’s something to think about. I thought the coaches seemed like good people. They’re creating a very positive environment.
Over and over they stress, “we are a family.” They train together three times a week and they’ve been working together for over five years. That’s a lot of time spent together. What do you think that place is for them? The reason I bring it up is because it’s everything I mentioned just a moment ago. Within that team, on that field, kicking that ball around, they have a place where they’re respected. They have a means to develop self-respect for themselves. They’re a part of something larger than themselves. They share a common goal with a group of people. They learn to be a team player. They get to have the experience of sharing successes and failures with their team, their family. Lifelong friendships and bonds form. It’s a wonderful thing.
The other day I was out with my friend Greg, and we were questioning where in the modern world you can find community. Outside of some churches, religious organizations, the military, sports teams, clubs, and a few other small pockets here and there, most places are devoid of this sense of greater connection with people.
Thinking of these kids and their lives, school is a very isolated place. Helping one another on tests or homework is considered cheating. You’re all on your own. There’s not going to be any sense of community in that place outside of friends they may make. But even then, the only real quality time they can spend together is in extra-curricular activities, not so much school itself. And many find these things wasteful, so schools struggle to keep extra-curricular programs funded.
It can be tough being young. So much of your life is controlled and dictated by whatever life choices your parents have made. If your home-life is a mess, you don’t really have any place to escape it unless your school offers programs like these. But when programs like this sports team exist, kids have a positive place to spend their time, even if their home with their biological family is a terrible place to be. Once they get old enough, they can go off to college and leave their messed up homes behind them. It gives them options and a choice. They can still go home if they want to, but there’s all these other things they can do if they want as well. I think it’s much better for these kids to learn to play instruments in a band, or play sports, or participate in a science club, etc., than spend hours in front of their computers and Playstations.
When they graduate they’ll enter the corporate world where most people find themselves expendable, plugged into some machine where they are easily replaced. The mindset isn’t, “you’re a seminal piece and valuable team member”, it’s more, “be thankful you have a job at all.” Success certainly isn’t shared. All the money goes to shareholders who they’ll never meet. I guess they do share failures though. They all get chewed out if things go south. They can expect to be worked thirty-nine hours a week so that their corporate employer doesn’t have to pay benefits. That sort of thing doesn’t make you feel valued. You’re a cost of doing business, and if they can save money by cutting you out of the picture, they’ll do it.
I think one of the hardest things in life is to find these “pockets” of community, where you feel you’re a part of something. And even if you do find them, they don’t last forever. We all desire it, but I wonder how many people find it? Finding it and making it all work out is difficult. It requires people with certain values and commitments such as friendship, loyalty, a dedication to excellence, a shared vision, and other things like that.