A Function for Consciousness

One of the biggest open questions for naturalistic science is, “What function does consciousness serve?”. If evolution is true, it would have been far more efficient to endow persons with consciousness-like behaviors without having to resort to actual consciousness. This was the point of Chalmer’s zombie thought experiments. Philosopher John Searle considers consciousness to be so unlikely under naturalism, that he concludes instead that dualism is true! The Peter Watts novel, “Blindsight“, suggested that consciousness might even be a harmful parasite, due for extermination by a less conscious (and therefore, more efficient) rival.

Most naturalists don’t even try to explain consciousness. Perhaps the best attempt was by Daniel Dennett, in the aptly-named “Consciousness Explained”. Or maybe we should look to Drescher’s “Good And Real”, which elaborates on Dennett’s “Cartesian Theater” idea. But these are just attempts, and all too often, naturalists resort to eliminativism, declaring that self-awareness is simply an illusion. Raw eliminativism is weak sauce, though, because it doesn’t explain what function the illusion provides. Consciousness might be an illusion, but you haven’t yet explained what utility the illusion provides — “Was nützen mir das?”.

As I said, this is a BIG problem, and I’m always looking for plausible answers. In this recent interview, Bryony Pierce suggests one potential answer:

My view is that [consciousness] has the function of acting as an interface between cognitive and affective processes, enabling goal-directed action that is sensitive to both needs and opportunities, and grounding reasons. Practical rationality requires interaction between two things: means-end reasoning (cognition), and affective responses (in a loose sense that encompasses all feelings and sensations with motivational force).

Emotion and sensation provide information about physiological states and needs, whereas cognitive processing deals with information about opportunities in the external world. Needs are continually changing, as are opportunities to satisfy those needs, so interaction between the systems responsible for monitoring bodily states and the environment is needed if our bodies are to be able to coordinate the two. This requires a common currency, which consciousness provides.

I mentioned the grounding of reasons, too. Affective responses provide that grounding – the way we feel about anticipated outcomes is sufficient to convince us that we have reason to pursue certain courses of action. Without affective responses, we get an infinite regress of ‘why’s – there would be no reason to prefer one state of affairs to another.

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?

Dylan Thomas

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

From “In My Craft or Sullen Art” by Dylan Thomas.

Or try:

Fear not the waking world, my mortal,
Fear not the flat, synthetic blood,
Nor the heart in the ribbing metal.
Fear not the tread, the seeded milling,
The trigger and scythe, the bridal blade,
Nor the flint in the lover’s mauling.

From “All All and All the Dry Worlds Lever“.

Atheists are Cheats and Liars

Robin Hanson shares the results of a new survey showing that people distrust atheists, while they don’t distrust other groups which are often targets of discrimination (such as teh gays). Then, he shares experimental evidence showing that atheists are, indeed, more likely to cheat and lie.

I am utterly shocked by the results. The paper suggests that people mistrust atheists (and atheists cheat) because the atheists do not fear God’s judgment. But I doubt that this is the case.

My theory is that people mistrust atheists because [they believe] atheists are too naive and simple-minded. The world is built on hypocrisy and deception, and you want leaders and colleagues who are expert at lying when necessary, and who tell the truth at just the right time. Fighting against a being you believe to be imaginary, while most of the people who profess belief in that being do not even follow any of that being’s commands, is evidence of poor judgment. It’s evidence of a person who doesn’t know how to pick his battles.

This, I believe, is consistent with the evidence showing that atheists actually cheat more. In the studies, the cheating was always a very simple-minded sort of cheating. It’s the sort of cheating you would expect from someone who is bad at picking his battles. My theory should be easy enough to test empirically. For example, you could see if people prefer religious folks in jobs that require subtle duplicity, such as politics and diplomacy. I think the answer would be “no”. And you could test to see if atheists cheat more frequently in more sophisticated scenarios where hypocrisy is an advantage. Again, I suspect the answer is “no”.

Walpurgis Nacht

One of my favorite passages in all of literature is from Faust:

Das ist die Welt;
Sie steigt und fällt
Und rollt beständig;
Sie klingt wie Glas-
Wie bald bricht das!
Ist hohl inwendig.
Hier glänzt sie sehr,
Und hier noch mehr:
“Ich bin lebendig!”
Mein lieber Sohn,
Halt dich davon!
Du mußt sterben!
Sie ist von Ton,
Es gibt Scherben

It is spoken by the alpha ape in the witches’ kitchen, and means roughly:

The world is a ball;
See it tossed and rolled,
See it rise and fall;
It rings like glass!
See it break, alas!
‘Tis hollow, and resteth never.
How bright the sphere,
Still brighter here!
Now living am I!
Dear son, beware!
Nor venture there!
Thou too must die!
It is of clay;
‘Twill crumble away;
There fragments lie.

For much of my life, I’ve treasured the image of a leering man-ape proclaiming the world to be a ball of glass, just before it breaks. Because I always knew that this would happen. The image of a glass globe is modern, while the image of life disintegrating into fragments of clay is ancient. Men and apes. Goethe is genius.

Today, the unthinkable happened. A German bond auction failed. And we only just learned that the doom is global; this will be worse than the 2008 collapse. It’s simultaneously terrible and beautiful.

Schopenhauer in love

Schopenhauer famously argued that the fundamental reality of the universe is Will (with a capital W), and that our individual wills are just phenomena of this Will. He was a major influence on Nietzsche, and appeals to people who are fascinated by power, such as people who engage in S&M, cocaine addicts, and politicians.

Schopenhauer’s view is exactly inverted, though. The fundamental reality of the universe is Love, and its reflection is Praise.

It was this inversion of reality, in fact, which cost Schopenhauer his friendship with Goethe. Goethe was a regular visitor to Schopenhauer’s mother’s house, and the two became friends and collaborators when Schopenhauer became an adult. But when Schopenhauer stubbornly clung to his belief that Will is the noumenon, they parted ways. Goethe is reported to have written in Schopenhauer’s notebook, “If you want to enjoy your own worth, you have to give the world some as well”. Of course, if someone is blind to the nature of Love, it doesn’t do any good to rub it in his face, and appealing to utilitarian motives doesn’t help. But I’m convinced that Goethe was genuinely worried about his friend and was frustrated that he couldn’t give him sight.

To Schopenhauer, love was just a mechanism. In his essays on love, he cited Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” approvingly, claiming that Goethe has admirably used the suffering of love to produce knowledge. Of course, this “compliment” was passive-aggressive, since Goethe would be the last person in the world to endorse using love as a tool of the will, and Schopenhauer knew it.

Schopenhauer’s inversion of love presages Aliester Crowley’s famous maxim, “Love is the law, love under will”. Crowley was once mentored by Yeats, and they parted ways for essentially the same reason that Goethe and Schopenhauer parted ways. Like Nietzsche, Crowley was not exactly original.


I recently read “The Quantum Thief“, by Hannu Rajaniemi, based on the recommendation of a friend. It was truly delightful. In just the first chapter, the author adapts ideas from at least 5 projects from the Santa Fe Institute, and there are references to cutting edge math, science, economics and philosophy topics on almost every page. The references are not gratuitous, either; Rajaniemi imaginatively extends the concepts in ways that I’ve sometimes thought of when reading on the topics, and has a number of creative spins that were completely new to me.

Many of the technical references will be lost on most readers, since the book doesn’t have footnotes, and not everyone is obsessed with complexity theory and deception. But it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless. Even his treatment of the romantic relationships in the story was more rich and layered than the typical sci-fi, suggesting that the author has lived some life.

I read the book on my Kindle, highlighting passages that were particularly thought-provoking and adding notes. The Kindle has a feature that shows you passages that a large number of other users have highlighted. My suspicions about the book being above most readers’ heads were strengthened when I saw the passage in the book that has received the most highlights so far. The passage is “Hell is where all the interesting people are”, spoken by the protagonist in a Han Solo moment.

I was flabbergasted. Now, when someone tells me that he loved the book, I’ll be wondering “Are you one of the people who thought that ‘Hell is where all the interesting people are’ is the most profound line?”. It’s mildly clever, but has been better said by Friedrich Nietszche, Oscar Wilde, and many poets and songwriters since. Apparently the set of people who read “The Quantum Thief” on Kindle do not intersect with the set of people who are well-read. The other popular highlights were equally depressing; making me suspect that many people read the book purely to signal affiliation with a specific subculture.

I wonder if Rajaniemi is depressed when he sees which parts of his story appeal to the reader. The book is full of brilliantly quotable lines and meaty topics that could engage further discussion. It has got to be depressing to put so much work into such an imaginatively constructed set of problems and have people latch onto trite ancillary phrases.

It seems that Bill Vallicella often encounters the same. The few times that I’ve read second-hand academic books, I’ve found myself agitatedly wishing I could track down the previous owner to explain how he completely missed the point in a marginal note. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like second-hand books, and I’m afraid that Amazon’s “shared highlights” suffers from the same defect.


I can’t claim to be the 99%. I have done very well since America’s mortgage crisis ignited the world. But I support the Occupy movement. If the global situation were as it is today, back when I was entering the work force, I would have been burning things down. An entire generation has been robbed of a future while another cohort has been tossed into a ditch, and I’m surprised that the unrest didn’t start sooner, and that it has been as civil as it’s been. The leaders on both sides of the aisle are inept clowns, and I don’t see how things will get better without the young people tearing the whole system down and starting over.

The Occupy movement is just the latest scene in a play that has been unfolding for many years. As a result of being raised around “left behind” dispensationalists, survivalists, and spooks, I’ve always had a keen interest in the end of the world. I first became aware of the unfolding story sometime around 1992, when I read George Soros’s “Financial Alchemy”. Almost as an afterthought near the end of the book, Soros shared some perplexing data about an historic shift in the structure of global capital flows. It didn’t fit well with the rest of the book, and he didn’t really expound too much on it, but it made a huge impact on me. It was as if Israel had finally rebuilt a temple in Jerusalem, and nobody was talking about it. I was convinced that the world was going to catch fire at any moment, and I started learning everything I could.

Not long after, I worked for one of the companies profiled in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. Among other things, I built some economic models used to make policy decisions about public works projects and military projects in the U.S. and a few other countries. A few times, we found huge errors in the models after the policy decisions had already been made, and I learned that the model was often mere justification for a decision that was pre-ordained. Although I was devotee of Ayn Rand, I was also a pragmatist. I knew that the economic order was going to collapse, and I liked the idea that the impending global collapse would be backstopped by Western diplomatic and military power.

Later, George Soros raped Southeast Asia and Russia, and I became especially interested in his criticisms of free market “religion”. I couldn’t figure out if he was just posturing so that he could wash his hands of financial engineering’s crimes before the collapse, or if Ayn Rand’s philosophy was truly bankrupt. Then the Internet bubble started to inflate, and we were surrounded by libertarian cheerleaders and irrational exuberance. Every now and then, something would almost persuade me that the conventional wisdom about a bright tomorrow was true, and that I should leverage up to ensure the future. But I kept going back to the data on international capital flows, and it just didn’t add up. There was a tsunami coming, and the Internet bubble was a sideshow.

The first crash was a good start, but seemed tiny in the grand scheme. When 9/11 happened, I saw the subsequent militarization as an opportunistic (and wise, I thought) pretext on the part of Western powers to revert to diplomatic and military projection of power before our financial engineering weapons were spent. To my naive mind, the militarization seemed very proactive.

But things weren’t over yet. Chinese mercantilism inflated the mother of all bubbles in the West, and the good times rolled on.
My visibility into the system had improved over the years, and my friends and colleagues were all more established as well. Everyone knew how the movie was going to end this time. About 18 months before the collapse, I was having drinks with some officials from a couple of the world’s largest banks, and the topic turned to the mortgage situation. The consensus around the table was that the collapse was overdue, and would take out hundreds of banks. In hindsight, they identified the banks that would fail with surprising accuracy. I explained that I had been trying to convince my wife to sell the house and rent for a couple of years, so that we could buy back the house with cash at a large profit after the collapse. My comrades heartily endorsed the plan and offered to help persuade my wife. She ultimately refused, but my calculations of the net profit turned out to be fairly accurate (and the loss of equity in the house was ultimately offset by other gains).

A month or two ahead of the collapse, it became obvious that this was going to involve a lot more than mortgages. I was able to pull out of the markets before the collapse started. I had read Nassim Taleb’s scathing criticisms of Bear Stearns, so their collapse wasn’t a surprise to me, but it took a long time to sort out the rest of the contagion. I had already lost all faith in the authorities after Katrina hit; I’ve now learned to believe especially what is officially denied: Europe’s disintegration is even less surprising than the mortgage collapse was, and a slowdown in China followed by (or coinciding with) a sovereign debt crisis in the U.S. seem like very safe bets.

To be clear, everyone I know is richer than me, I’ve been wiped out completely in the past, and I fully expect to blow up again sometime in the not too distant future. And the point isn’t to applaud my foresight; I had very little visibility compared to many others. The point is that we all knew what was going to happen. The people who have profited relative to the 99% (or relative to the 99.9%, as Paul Krugman valiantly tries to establish in true Billy Goat Gruff fashion), knew what was happening. And the officials and talking heads continue to lie about it and spread misinformation. We are living in an increasingly interconnected world, and increased network effects mean increased information asymmetry, power law distributions, and winner take all effects.

Both left-wing and right-wing media continue to get Occupy completely wrong, but that was to be expected. As things get worse, and as the politicians continue to try to either demonize or co-opt the movement, we see who the ringers are. And we’re only going to learn that they’re all ringers. Jim Quinn puts it this way:

Over the last six weeks I’ve watched as the young protestors around the country have been called: filthy hippies, losers, lazy, coddled, socialists, communists, spoiled college kids, parasites, useful idiots, and tools of the left. Most of the wrath being heaped upon these young people for exercising their Constitutional right to free speech and freedom of assembly has been from the Baby Boom Generation, who are at the peak of their power in our society.

The disdain and contempt for these Millenial protestors flies in the face of the facts about this generation. They use drugs at a lower rate than their parents did at the same age. Teen crime rates and teen pregnancies have declined. They will have the highest level of college education in U.S. history. They were protected during their youth as organized sports taught them teamwork. They are the most technologically savvy generation in history. They volunteer at higher level than previous generations. They have been more upbeat and engaged than their predecessors (Gen X). And they are much closer to their parents than Boomers were at the same age. They reject the negativism and cynicism of their parents and believe positive change is possible in our society. They have shown respect for authority up until the last six weeks. They were primed to be led by Boomers that could articulate a positive vision of the future based on reality and a better tomorrow. They were ready to make sacrifices in order to create a brighter future. But a funny thing happened. The Boomer generation failed to deliver on their part of the bargain.

I don’t expect the Occupy movement to continue as just a protest movement. It will adapt, splinter, and morph. But overall social unrest will continue to grow. I believe that this is just the beginning, and that things will get much worse. Most of the protesters are directing their rage at the wrong targets, and most of them are economically illiterate. Many of the victories they win will just make things worse. But that, also, is to be expected. How could we expect the unemployed and misinformed masses to have a clear picture of the situation, when the elite have been profiting from the ignorance of the masses? I think it’s too late to raise up the disposessed in an orderly manner, and the revolution will proceed like all revolutions must. Messy and painful. But how else will we move forward?

It’s interesting to note that GK Chesterton, writing just before World War I tore Europe apart, observed many of the same imbalances and problems that we see today. An economy increasingly controlled by the oligarchs, with much of society left behind with no future. His thoughts about the French revolution are interesting for today.

Bang & Bach

When I bought my new car, my only two requirements were that it have good merging power and a great stereo system. I want to hear all of the details when listening to Dopplereffekt, Dieselboy, or Dylan Drazen. I ended up going with the Bang & Olufsen system, and it’s exactly what I wanted. One thing I wasn’t prepared for, though, was Bach. I have about 200 Bach recordings out of 4,000 songs in rotation on my iPod, and whenever Bach comes into rotation, I’m captivated. I’ve been driving the car for a bit more than a month now, and the effect is still the same. No other music compares; I have plenty of Mozart and Beethoven, but it just doesn’t sound the same. It’s like switching from a black and white video to full color; the details are so crisp and vivid. I’ve never experienced Bach like this; it’s as if he wrote his music specifically for B&O.

How to Die: Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery has become commonplace. I have several acquaintances who have had operations, and we jokingly refer to the cougars at the local hot spots as “50/50 ladies” (50 years old and 50 percent plastic). It’s no longer just the older people; one of my colleagues died from complications of plastic surgery at the age of 23, and it seems like the girls in China and Korea are now competing to see who can get the most plastic at the youngest age.

I don’t have a problem with orthodontics or other mainstream cosmetic treatments, so I might be accused of hypocrisy for having a problem with plastic surgery. But I fear there is something terribly wrong in this obsession with youth. Life shouldn’t be about clinging to youth as long as possible — life is about growing old and dying gracefully.

Around age 12, one of my favorite poems was Yeats “When You are Old”:

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

What kind of person would trade Yeats’ vision of graceful aging for plastic? Yeats had advice for those who rejoice in youthful beauty in “To a Young Beauty”:

DEAR fellow-artist, why so free
With every sort of company,
With every Jack and Jill?
Choose your companions from the best;
Who draws a bucket with the rest
Soon topples down the hill.

You may, that mirror for a school,
Be passionate, not bountiful
As common beauties may,
Who were not born to keep in trim
With old Ezekiel’s cherubim
But those of Beaujolet.

I know what wages beauty gives,
How hard a life her servant lives,
Yet praise the winters gone;

There is not a fool can call me friend,
And I may dine at journey’s end
With Landor and with Donne.

Around 200 BC, a Greek sculptor created a statue of a “Dying Gaul“, which has ever since been a symbol of how to die. Upon seeing the statue of the dying Gaul, still a dead ringer for Yeats’ countrymen, Lord Byron was inspired to write:

I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one..

Rather than being a celebration of youth, the dying Gaul shows the wisdom of Montaigne’s advice:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

He doesn’t try to prolong his youth any longer than is given to him. Montaigne examines this topic in his essay 17, “To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die“, as well as a few other essays.

I recently read through “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer“, in which the author collects Montaigne’s thoughts on life, death, and much between. It’s not fantastic, but not bad, and I’m convinced that Montaigne would share my same misgivings about plastic surgery.

Remembering Boredom

A few days ago, I had a strange vision (I wasn’t sleeping, and no drugs were involved). I was just sitting there, allowing my mind to drift, when suddenly my mind was flooded with images of memories from my past. The memories seemed to be sequential, starting at about 4 years old. The first memory was of sitting in a shopping cart at Hamady’s (a local grocery store) as my mother shopped. The next was sitting in the back of the car waiting for my father to finish buying something at the store — I was small, so my visibility was limited to the sky and some portions of a roof and a sign. Then came a memory of sitting bored on the couch while my parents socialized with their friends at some strange house. The images came rapidly; hundreds in all, and a few seconds per image. I just let it happen, curious to see what it would show.

The images were all still images, attached to an emotion. The emotion was always some sort of emptiness, boredom or hopelessness; and the images were washed out, like old Polaroids of beach scenes. As the images flashed past, I knew that the emotional memory was accurate — these were all times in my life when I felt a terrible despair and empty boredom. It was quite unpleasant, since I haven’t felt that way for at least 15 years. I had forgotten what it was like.

Despite the unpleasantness, I avoided the urge to break my attention. I knew I had to stay passive if I wanted to understand what was happening. And I noticed something interesting. Those moments were very common in early childhood, but became less and less common as time went on. I also noticed that the strong negative emotion had washed off on many things in the environment. To this day, I don’t like certain colors, certain types of party mix treats, certain shapes of end tables, and so on. These were all present during those moments.

Soon I became anxious. If these memories were so prevalent in my distant past, and had been suppressed for more than a decade, was this a sign that my life would soon feature these sorts of experiences again? Was it purely luck that banished those moments, and now my luck was running out? The thought was almost unbearable.

I quickly dispelled the anxiety, though. I’m a very different person today, and I can easily keep my mind occupied in any environment. Ability to keep mentally occupied is like a muscle, and I am no more likely to lose my mental muscles than I am to lose my physical strength and revert to a 4 year-old level.

Next, I realized that these moments accounted for a huge portion of my childhood, but the memories had been suppressed. I suspect that this is true for most children. More than half of their lives are occupied with a terrible despairing boredom, but when they get older, they suppress these memories and only remember the high points. This is utterly fascinating to me. Life would be miserable if we remembered all of these moments as vividly as we remember the high points. People often act as if selective memory is a bad thing, but I suspect that selective memory is not only inevitable, but a very good thing.

Some other interesting questions arise:

  1. If it is that bad at age 4, what about age 3? If we extrapolate backwards, it would seem that 90% or more of a two year-old’s life is pure suffering. But perhaps there is some cognitive phase shift that happens, before which it is impossible for children to suffer in this way? It’s well-known that children don’t remember things before a certain age, but is this simply because it is 90% suffering and they suppress the memories? Or is the lack of memory formation actually the thing that prevents the suffering from even being experienced in the first place?
  2. Long term memory formation requires a level of attention and arousal that causes a glutamate response. Why did these specific events trigger a glutamate response?
  3. Although I’ve lived more than a decade without experiencing this sort of boredom, and don’t expect to experience it anytime soon, what about when I’m older? Do elderly people revert to this childhood condition, and does it worsen as we age? Does the default state evaporate as we age?
  4. My escape from the despair happened largely accidentally. Is it possible (or even advisable) to accelerate this process in children? Is is possible to improve beyond the point where I am now; even a new phase level that would make my current mentality seem like suffering in retrospect?