Category: biology

Lucifer on the Beach

glowwormsI picked up a whitebait pizza while stopped along the West Coast of New Zealand tonight. Whitebait are tiny little swarming immature fish that can be scooped out of estuarial river flows using big-mouthed nets. They run, they dart, and it is illegal to change river exit points to try to channel them for capture. Hence, whitebait is semi-precious, commanding NZD70-130/kg, which explains why there was a size limit on my pizza: only the small one was available.

By the time I was finished the sky had aged from cinereal to iron in a satire of the vivid, watch-me colors of CNN International flashing Donald Trump’s linguistic indirection across the television. I crept out, setting my headlamp to red LEDs designed to minimally interfere with night vision. Just up away from the coast, hidden in the impossible tangle of cold rainforest, there was a glow worm dell. A few tourists conjured with flashlights facing the ground to avoid upsetting the tiny arachnocampa luminosa that clung to the walls inside the dark garden. They were like faint stars composed into irrelevant constellations, with only the human mind to blame for any observed patterns.

And the light, what light, like white-light LEDs recently invented, but a light that doesn’t flicker or change, and is steady under the calmest observation. Driven by luciferin and luciferase, these tiny creatures lure a few scant light-seeking creatures to their doom and as food for absorption until they emerge to mate, briefly, lay eggs, and then die.

Lucifer again, named properly from the Latin as the light bringer, the chemical basis for bioluminescence was largely isolated in the middle of the 20th Century. Yet there is this biblical stigma hanging over the term—one that really makes no sense at all. The translation of morning star or some other such nonsense into Latin got corrupted into a proper name by a process of word conversion (this isn’t metonymy or something like that; I’m not sure there is a word for it other than “mistake”). So much for some kind of divine literalism tracking mechanism that preserves perfection. Even Jesus got rendered as lucifer in some passages.

But nothing new, here. Demon comes from the Greek daemon and Christianity tried to, well, demonize all the ancient spirits during the monolatry to monotheism transition. The spirits of the air that were in a constant flux for the Hellenists, then the Romans, needed to be suppressed and given an oppositional position to the Christian soteriology. Even “Satan” may have been borrowed from Persian court drama as a kind of spy or informant after the exile.

Oddly, we are left with a kind of naming magic for the truly devout who might look at those indifferent little glow worms with some kind of castigating eye, corrupted by a semantic chain that is as kinked as the popular culture epithets of Lucifer himself.

Non-Cognitivist Trajectories in Moral Subjectivism

imageWhen I say that “greed is not good” the everyday mind creates a series of images and references, from Gordon Gekko’s inverse proposition to general feelings about inequality and our complex motivations as people. There is a network of feelings and, perhaps, some facts that might be recalled or searched for to justify the position. As a moral claim, though, it might most easily be considered connotative rather than cognitive in that it suggests a collection of secondary emotional expressions and networks of ideas that support or deny it.

I mention this (and the theories that are consonant with this kind of reasoning are called non-cognitivist and, variously, emotive and expressive), because there is a very real tendency to reduce moral ideas to objective versus subjective, especially in atheist-theist debates. I recently watched one such debate between Matt Dillahunty and an orthodox priest where the standard litany revolved around claims about objectivity versus subjectivity of truth. Objectivity of truth is often portrayed as something like, “without God there is no basis for morality. God provides moral absolutes. Therefore atheists are immoral.” The atheists inevitably reply that the scriptural God is a horrific demon who slaughters His creation and condones slavery and other ideas that are morally repugnant to the modern mind. And then the religious descend into what might be called “advanced apologetics” that try to diminish, contextualize, or dismiss such objections.

But we are fairly certain regardless of the tradition that there are inevitable nuances to any kind of moral structure. Thou shalt not kill gets revised to thou shalt not murder. So we have to parse manslaughter in pursuit of a greater good against any rules-based approach to such a simplistic commandment. Not eating shellfish during a famine has less human expansiveness but nevertheless caries similar objective antipathy,

I want to avoid invoking the Euthyphro dilemma here and instead focus on the notion that there might be an inevitability to certain moral proscriptions and even virtues given an evolutionary milleu. This was somewhat the floorplan of Sam Harris, but I’ll try to project the broader implications of species-level fitness functions to a more local theory, specifically Gibbard’s fact-prac worlds where the trajectories of normative, non-cognitive statements like “greed is not good” align with sets of perceptions of the world and options for implementing activities that strengthen the engagement with the moral assertion. The assertion is purely subjective but it derives out of a correspondence with incidental phenomena and a coherence with other ideations and aspirations. It is mostly non-cognitive in this sense that it expresses emotional primitives rather than simple truth propositions. It has a number of interesting properties, however, most notably that the fact-prac set of constraints that surround these trajectories are movable, resulting in the kinds of plasticity and moral “evolution” that we see around us, like “slavery is bad” and “gay folks should not be discriminated against.” So as an investigative tool, we can see some value that gives such a theory important verificational value. As presented by Gibbard, however, these collections of constraints that guide the trajectories of moral approaches to simple moral commandments, admonishments, or statements, need further strengthening to meet the moral landscape “ethical naturalism” that asserts that certain moral attitudes result in improved species outcomes and are therefore axiomatically possible and sensibly rendered as objective.

And it does this without considering moral propositions at all.

A Critique of Pure Randomness

Random MemeThe notion of randomness brings about many interesting considerations. For statisticians, randomness is a series of events with chances that are governed by a distribution function. In everyday parlance, equally-likely means random, while an even more common semantics is based on both how unlikely and how unmotivated an event might be (“That was soooo random!”) In physics, there are only certain physical phenomena that can be said to be truly random, including the probability of a given nucleus decomposing into other nuclei via fission. The exact position of a quantum thingy is equally random when it’s momentum is nailed down, and vice-versa. Vacuums have a certain chance of spontaneously creating matter, too, and that chance appears to be perfectly random. In algorithmic information theory, a random sequence of bits is a sequence that can’t be represented by a smaller descriptive algorithm–it is incompressible. Strangely enough, we simulate random number generators using a compact algorithm that has a complicated series of steps that lead to an almost impossible to follow trajectory through a deterministic space of possibilities; it’s acceptible to be random enough that the algorithm parameters can’t be easily reverse engineered and the next “random” number guessed.

One area where we often speak of randomness is in biological evolution. Random mutations lead to change and to deleterious effects like dead-end evolutionary experiments. Or so we hypothesized. The exact mechanism of the transmission of inheritance and of mutations were unknown to Darwin, but soon in the evolutionary synthesis notions like random genetic drift and the role of ionizing radiation and other external factors became exciting candidates for the explanation of the variation required for evolution to function. Amusingly, arguing largely from a stance that might be called a fallacy of incredulity, creationists have often seized on a logical disconnect they perceive between the appearance of purpose both in our lives and in the mechanisms of biological existence, and the assumption of underlying randomness and non-directedness as evidence for the paucity of arguments from randomness.

I give you Stephen Talbott in The New Atlantis, Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness, wherein he unpacks the mounting evidence and the philosophical implications of jumping genes, self-modifying genetic regulatory frameworks, transposons, and the likelihood that randomness in the strong sense of cosmic ray trajectories bouncing around in cellular nuclei are simply wrong. Randomness is at best a minor contribution to evolutionary processes. We are not just purposeful at the social, personal, systemic, cellular, and sub-cellular levels, we are also purposeful through time around the transmission of genetic information and the modification thereof.

This opens a wildly new avenue for considering the certain normative claims that anti-evolutionists bring to the table, such as that a mechanistic universe devoid of central leadership is meaningless and allows for any behavior to be equally acceptable. This hoary chestnut is ripe to the point of rot, of course, but the response to it should be much more vibrant than the usual retorts. The evolution of social and moral outcomes can be every bit as inevitable as if they were designed because co-existence and greater group success (yes, I wrote it) is a potential well on the fitness landscape. And, equally, we need to stop being so reticent to claim that there is a purposefulness to life, a teleology, but simply make sure that we are according the proper mechanistic feel to that teleology. Fine, call it teleonomy, or even an urge to existence. A little poetry might actually help here.

Informational Chaff and Metaphors

chaffI received word last night that our scholarship has received over 1400 applications, which definitely surprised me. I had worried that the regional restriction might be too limiting but Agricultural Sciences were added in as part of STEM so that probably magnified the pool.

Dan Dennett of Tufts and Deb Roy at MIT draw parallels between informational transparency in our modern world and biological mechanism in Scientific American (March 2015, 312:3). Their article, Our Transparent Future (related video here; you have to subscribe to read the full article), starts with Andrew Parker’s theory that the Cambrian Explosion may have been tied to the availability of light as cloud cover lifted and seas became transparent. An evolutionary arms race began for the development of sensors that could warn against predators, and predators that could acquire more prey.

They continue on drawing parallels to biological processes, including the concept of squid ink and how a similar notion, chaff, was used to mask radar signatures as aircraft became weapons of war. The explanatory mouthful of the Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) with dummy warheads to counter anti-ballistic missiles were likewise a deceptive way of reducing the risk of interception. So Dennett and Roy “predict the introduction of chaff made of nothing but megabytes of misinformation,” designed to deceive search engines of the nature of real info.

This is a curious idea. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a whole industry that combines consulting with tricks and tools to try to raise the position of vendors in the Google rankings. Being in the first page of listings can be make-or-break for retail vendors, and they pay to try to make that happen. The strategies are based around trying to establish links to the vendor from individuals and other pages to try to game the PageRank algorithm. In turn, Google has continued to optimize to reduce the effectiveness of these links, trying to establish whether hand- or machine-created content with links looks like real, valuable information or just promotional materials. This is, in some ways, the opposite of informational chaff. The goal is not to hide the content in plain sight, but to make it more discoverable. “Information scent” was a concept introduced at XeroX PARC when I was there and it applies here.

But what of chaff? Perhaps the best example that I can think of is the idea of “drowning in paper” that lawyers occasionally describe, on TV or otherwise, where huge piles of non-digitized materials are dumped in the hopes that the criminal or civil needle-in-the-haystack will be impossible to find. This is highly dependent on the temporal limitations of individuals to ingest the materials, and is equally countered by OCR and scanning services to produce accessible forms of data. Dennett and Roy point out that more sophisticated search engines (and I’ll add other analytic tools) can counter efforts at chaff.

More broadly, though, we get to the issue of whether evolutionary metaphors provide us with any new insights into the changing role of information in an interconnected and digitized society? I’m not altogether sure. It is routinely argued that the existence of early computing machines led to cognitive science as we have known it, conflating problem solving with algorithms and describing the brain’s hardware and software. Is evolutionary adaption equally influential in steering weapon’s designs or informational secrecy strategy? I think we are probably cunning enough (thanks evolution) about proximate threats and consequences that there might not be much to learn from metaphorical analysis of this type.

Evolutionary Optimization and Environmental Coupling

Red QueensCarl Schulman and Nick Bostrom argue about anthropic principles in “How Hard is Artificial Intelligence? Evolutionary Arguments and Selection Effects” (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2012, 19:7-8), focusing on specific models for how the assumption of human-level intelligence should be easy to automate are built upon a foundation of assumptions of what easy means because of observational bias (we assume we are intelligent, so the observation of intelligence seems likely).

Yet the analysis of this presumption is blocked by a prior consideration: given that we are intelligent, we should be able to achieve artificial, simulated intelligence. If this is not, in fact, true, then the utility of determining whether the assumption of our own intelligence being highly probable is warranted becomes irrelevant because we may not be able to demonstrate that artificial intelligence is achievable anyway. About this, the authors are dismissive concerning any requirement for simulating the environment that is a prerequisite for organismal and species optimization against that environment:

In the limiting case, if complete microphysical accuracy were insisted upon, the computational requirements would balloon to utterly infeasible proportions. However, such extreme pessimism seems unlikely to be well founded; it seems unlikely that the best environment for evolving intelligence is one that mimics nature as closely as possible. It is, on the contrary, plausible that it would be more efficient to use an artificial selection environment, one quite unlike that of our ancestors, an environment specifically designed to promote adaptations that increase the type of intelligence we are seeking to evolve (say, abstract reasoning and general problem-solving skills as opposed to maximally fast instinctual reactions or a highly optimized visual system).

Why is this “unlikely”? The argument is that there are classes of mental function that can be compartmentalized away from the broader, known evolutionary provocateurs. For instance, the Red Queen argument concerning sexual optimization in the face of significant parasitism is dismissed as merely a distraction to real intelligence:

And as mentioned above, evolution scatters much of its selection power on traits that are unrelated to intelligence, such as Red Queen’s races of co-evolution between immune systems and parasites. Evolution will continue to waste resources producing mutations that have been reliably lethal, and will fail to make use of statistical similarities in the effects of different mutations. All these represent inefficiencies in natural selection (when viewed as a means of evolving intelligence) that it would be relatively easy for a human engineer to avoid while using evolutionary algorithms to develop intelligent software.

Inefficiencies? Really? We know that sexual dimorphism and competition are essential to the evolution of advanced species. Even the growth of brain size and creative capabilities are likely tied to sexual competition, so why should we think that they can be uncoupled? Instead, we are left with a blocker to the core argument that states instead that simulated evolution may, in fact, not be capable of producing sufficient complexity to produce intelligence as we know it without, in turn, a sufficiently complex simulated fitness function to evolve against. Observational effects, aside, if we don’t get this right, we need not worry about the problem of whether there are 10 or ten billion planets suitable for life out there.

Spurting into the Undiscovered Country

voyager_plaqueThere was glop on the windows of the International Space Station. Outside. It was algae. How? Now that is unclear, but there is a recent tradition of arguing against abiogenesis here on Earth and arguing for ideas like panspermia where biological material keeps raining down on the planet, carried by comets and meteorites, trapped in crystal matrices. And there may be evidence that some of that may have happened, if only in the local system, between Mars and Earth.

Panspermia includes as a subset the idea of Directed Panspermia whereby some alien intelligence for some reason sends biological material out to deliberately seed worlds with living things. Why? Well, maybe it is a biological prerogative or an ethical stance. Maybe they feel compelled to do so because they are in some dystopian sci-fi narrative where their star is dying. One last gasping hope for alien kind!

Directed Panspermia as an explanation for life on Earth only sets back the problem of abiogenesis to other ancient suns and other times, and implicitly posits that some of the great known achievements of life on Earth like multicellular forms are less spectacularly improbable than the initial events of proto-life as we hypothesize it might have been. Still, great minds have spent great mental energy on the topic to the point that elaborate schemes involving solar sails have been proposed so that we may someday engage in Directed Panspermia as needed. I give you:

Mautner, M; Matloff, G. (1979). “Directed panspermia: A technical evaluation of seeding nearby solar systems”. J. British Interplanetary Soc. 32: 419.

So we take solar sails and bioengineered lifeforms in tiny capsules. The solar sails are large and thin. They carry the tiny capsules into stellar formations and slow down due to friction. They survive thousands of years while exposed to thousands of rads of interstellar radiation without the benefit of magnetic fields or atmospheric shielding. And once in a great while (after all, space is vast) they start a new ecosystem. Indeed, maybe some eukaryotes are included to avoid that big probability barrier to bridging over to multicellular organisms, specialization, and all that.

The why of all this is interesting. Here is the list from Section 9 of the paper used to create an ethics of “Life”:

  1. Life is a process of the active self-propagation of organized molecular patterns.
  2. The patterns of organic terrestrial Life are embodied in biomolecular structures that actively reproduce through cycles of genetic code and protein action.
  3. But action that leads to a selected outcome is functionally equivalent to the pursuit of a purpose.
  4. Where there is Life there is therefore a purpose. The object inherent in Life in self-propagation.
  5. Humans share the self-propagating DNA/protein biophysics of all cellular organisms, and therefore share with the family of organic Life a common purpose.
  6. Assuming free will, the human purpose must be self-defined. From our identity with Life derives the human purpose to forever safeguard and propagate Life. In this pursuit human action will establish Life as a governing force in nature.
  7. The human purpose defines the axioms of ethics. Moral good is that which promotes Life, and evil is that which destroys Life.
  8. Life, in the complexity of its structures and processes, is unique amongst the hierarchy of structures in Nature. This unites the family of Life and raises it above the inanimate universe.
  9. Biology is possible only by a precise coincidence of the laws of physics. Thereby the physical universe itself also comes to a special point in the living process.
  10. New life-forms who are most fit survive and reproduce best. This tautology, judgement of fitness to survive by survival itself, is the logic of Life. The mechanisms of Life may forever change, but the logic of Life is forever permanent.
  11. Survival is best secured by expansion in space, and biological progress is best assured by adaptation to diverse multiple worlds. This process will foster biological and human/machine coevolution. In the latter, control must always remain with organic- based intelligences, who have vested interests to continue our organic life-form. When the future is subject to conscious control, the conscious will to continue Life must itself be forever propagated.
  12. The human purpose and the destiny of Life are intertwined. The results can light up the galaxy with life, and affect the future patterns of the universe. When the living pattern pervades nature, human existence will have attained a cosmic purpose.

Many of these points can be scrutinized for both logical entailments and, yes, for a bit of fun. OK, let’s get started. The paper deals effectively with any complaints about teleology in 3-5 by using an argument that the appearance of purpose-like outcomes is equivalent to purposeful outcomes and therefore not necessarily the same. Fair enough. Teleonomy is a fine term to deploy in these circumstances.

So then we get to 6. Couldn’t we equally say that the purpose of human life is to safeguard human life to the exclusion of other life forms. Deploying the Red Queen Hypothesis concerning the evolution of sexuality, for instance, would mean that we should be engaged in a carefully orchestrated battle against parasites that continuously lay siege to us? And, indeed, we are, with just today minor victories against Ebola. What would our Red Queen alternative to 6 look like? Maybe:

6. Assuming free will, the human purpose must be self-defined. From our identity with Life derives the human purpose to forever safeguard Life such that it maintains the highest order of achievements by living things and their preservation against contending living organisms. In this pursuit human action will establish Life as a governing force in nature.

This might be argued is too limiting because the advanced state of human existence is necessarily tied to the panoply of parasitic threats that we evolved “around” and therefore should be embraced as part of the tough love of life itself, but such an ethics among humans would be considered ridiculous and cruel. Propagate the Ebola virus because it holds a seat among the host of heavenly threats?

Among other problems with this list (and they are manifold) is 11, whereby survival, being a good thing for Life (capitals per the original), is best promoted by expansion in space. It’s a kind of biological Manifest Destiny: go up, young biome, go up! This assumes there is nothing really out there, for one. Our life, though possibly seeded from space, is clearly vastly different, having been magnified through multiple probability lenses into the aggressive earthly forms of today. It could wreak havoc on indigenous forms already out there in a kind of infectious plague against the natives. If we value Life, shouldn’t we also value existing Life?

And we get down to the overall goal in 12. Is a “cosmic purpose” a desirable goal for human life? It sounds good at the surface, but we generally regard more narrowly focused goals as ethical goods, like building better societies for our children and eradicating those pesky biological parasites that used to wipe them out in large numbers. If we have a cosmic purpose, built upon our strivings in this universe, it might be best served by survival, true, but it might be best if that survival is more intimately human than the spurting of our seeds throughout the undiscovered country of the future.

Just So Disruptive

i-don-t-always-meme-generator-i-don-t-always-buy-companies-but-when-i-do-i-do-it-for-no-reason-925b08The “just so” story is a pejorative for cultural or physical traits that drive an evolutionary explanation. Things are “just so” when the explanation is unfalsifiable and theoretically fitted to current observations. Less controversial and pejorative is the essential character of evolutionary process where there is no doubt that genetic alternatives will mostly fail. The ones that survive this crucible are disruptive to the status quo, sure, but these disruptions tend to be geographically or sexually isolated from the main population anyway, so they are more an expansion than a disruption; little competition is tooth-and-claw, mostly species survive versus the environment, not one another.

Jill Lapore of Harvard subjects business theory to a similar crucible in the New Yorker, questioning Clayton Christensen’s classic argument in The Innovator’s Dilemma that businesses are unwilling to adapt to changing markets because they are making rational business decisions to maximize profits. After analyzing core business cases from Christensen’s books, Lapore concludes that the argument holds little water and that its predictions are both poor and inapplicable to other areas like journalism and college education.

Central to her critique is her analysis of the “just so” nature of disruptive innovation:

Christensen has compared the theory of disruptive innovation to a theory of nature: the theory of evolution. But among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation. (“Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it,” the organizers of FailCon, an annual conference, implore, suggesting that, in the era of disruption, innovators face unprecedented challenges. For instance: maybe you made the wrong hires?) When an established company succeeds, that’s only because it hasn’t yet failed. And, when any of these things happen, all of them are only further evidence of disruption.

But her critiques of Christensen are not actually of modern start-up culture and its celebration of disruption and failure (except obliquely and culturally). Instead, Lapore is mostly concerned with steam shovels, 3.5″ disk drives, and mass transit.

And that’s where the evolutionary comparison comes in again. Where multiple experimental tests can be applied to a problem or, as economists put it, a need, minor variation is the standard mechanism (as Lapore asserts). Major variation is the exception and small tweaks like externalizing new businesses (Kresge’s Kmart, etc.) are inconclusive in their effectiveness. But in start-up world, everything is externalized from risks to rewards.

So is there a take-away from the filtered and refined view of innovation and reinvention? Perhaps only that disruption may be best handled through complete externalization of the innovation process; make strategic investments and nurture businesses based on their own market opportunities. The best we may be able to do is play a volume game where we do exactly what the venture capitalist does and accept that only 1 in 10 investments will thrive or excel. We don’t need just so stories then, just a realization that we can’t read the tea leaves of the past as just so stories for the future.

Trees of Lives

Tree of LifeWith a brief respite between vacationing in the canyons of Colorado and leaving tomorrow for Australia, I’ve open-sourced an eight-year-old computer program for converting one’s DNA sequences into an artistic rendering. The input to the program are the allelic patterns from standard DNA analysis services that use the Short Tandem Repeat Polymorphisms from forensic analysis, as well as poetry reflecting one’s ethnic heritage. The output is generative art: a tree that overlays the sequences with the poetry and a background rendered from the sequences.

Generative art is perhaps one of the greatest aesthetic achievements of the late 20th Century. Generative art is, fundamentally, a recognition that the core of our humanity can be understood and converted into meaningful aesthetic products–it is the parallel of effective procedures in cognitive science, and developed in lock-step with the constructive efforts to reproduce and simulate human cognition.

To use Tree of Lives, install Java 1.8, unzip the package, and edit the supplied markconfig.txt to enter in your STRs and the allele variant numbers in sequence per line 15 of the configuration file. Lines 16+ are for lines of poetry that will be rendered on the limbs of the tree. Other configuration parameters can be discerned by examining, and involve colors, paths, etc. Execute the program with:

java -cp treeoflives.jar:iText-4.2.0-com.itextpdf.jar com.treeoflives.CAlleleRenderer markconfig.txt

Humbly Evolving in a Non-Simulated Universe

darwin-changeThe New York Times seems to be catching up to me, first with an interview of Alvin Plantinga by Gary Cutting in The Stone on February 9th, and then with notes on Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis in the Sunday Times.

I didn’t see anything new in the Plantinga interview, but reviewed my previous argument that adaptive fidelity combined with adaptive plasticity must raise the probability of rationality at a rate that is much greater than the contributions that would be “deceptive” or even mildly cognitively or perceptually biased. Worth reading is Branden Fitelsen and Eliot Sober’s very detailed analysis of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), here. Most interesting are the beginning paragraphs of Section 3, which I reproduce here because it is a critical addition that should surprise no one but often does:

Although Plantinga’s arguments don’t work, he has raised a question that needs to be answered by people who believe evolutionary theory and who also believe that this theory says that our cognitive abilities are in various ways imperfect. Evolutionary theory does say that a device that is reliable in the environment in which it evolved may be highly unreliable when used in a novel environment. It is perfectly possible that our mental machinery should work well on simple perceptual tasks, but be much less reliable when applied to theoretical matters. We hasten to add that this is possible, not inevitable. It may be that the cognitive procedures that work well in one domain also work well in another; Modus Ponens may be useful for avoiding tigers and for doing quantum physics.

Anyhow, if evolutionary theory does say that our ability to theorize about the world is apt to be rather unreliable, how are evolutionists to apply this point to their own theoretical beliefs, including their belief in evolution? One lesson that should be extracted is a certain humility—an admission of fallibility. This will not be news to evolutionists who have absorbed the fact that science in general is a fallible enterprise. Evolutionary theory just provides an important part of the explanation of why our reasoning about theoretical matters is fallible.

Far from showing that evolutionary theory is self-defeating, this consideration should lead those who believe the theory to admit that the best they can do in theorizing is to do the best they can. We are stuck with the cognitive equipment that we have. We should try to be as scrupulous and circumspect about how we use this equipment as we can. When we claim that evolutionary theory is a very well confirmed theory, we are judging this theory by using the fallible cognitive resources we have at our disposal. We can do no other.

And such humility helps to dismiss arguments about the arrogance of science and scientism.

On the topic of Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis, I remain skeptical that we live in a simulated universe.

Contingency and Irreducibility

JaredTarbell2Thomas Nagel returns to defend his doubt concerning the completeness—if not the efficacy—of materialism in the explanation of mental phenomena in the New York Times. He quickly lays out the possibilities:

  1. Consciousness is an easy product of neurophysiological processes
  2. Consciousness is an illusion
  3. Consciousness is a fluke side-effect of other processes
  4. Consciousness is a divine property supervened on the physical world

Nagel arrives at a conclusion that all four are incorrect and that a naturalistic explanation is possible that isn’t “merely” (1), but that is at least (1), yet something more. I previously commented on the argument, here, but the refinement of the specifications requires a more targeted response.

Let’s call Nagel’s new perspective Theory 1+ for simplicity. What form might 1+ take on? For Nagel, the notion seems to be a combination of Chalmers-style qualia combined with a deep appreciation for the contingencies that factor into the personal evolution of individual consciousness. The latter is certainly redundant in that individuality must be absolutely tied to personal experiences and narratives.

We might be able to get some traction on this concept by looking to biological evolution, though “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is about as close as we can get to the topic because any kind of evolutionary psychology must be looking for patterns that reinforce the interpretation of basic aspects of cognitive evolution (sex, reproduction, etc.) rather than explore the more numinous aspects of conscious development. So we might instead look for parallel theories that focus on the uniqueness of outcomes, that reify the temporal evolution without reference to controlling biology, and we get to ideas like uncomputability as a backstop. More specifically, we can explore ideas like computational irreducibility to support the development of Nagel’s new theory; insofar as the environment lapses towards weak predictability, a consciousness that self-observes, regulates, and builds many complex models and metamodels is superior to those that do not.

I think we already knew that, though. Perhaps Nagel has been too much a philosopher and too little involved in the sciences that surround and enervate modern theories of learning and adaption to see the movement towards the exits?