Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

Where Did You Say We’re Going?

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Earthrise (150)This may seem off-topic, but it’s not. I heard a talk last night by Bill Rees, who originated the concept of the ecological footprint. He presented many slides showing that we are on an unsustainable path. Of course, that isn’t news. We’ve known for a long time that we’re on that path. Bill’s slides were just a progress update—a few more data points representing a few more years since Al Gore showed us we were on that path. We have stayed right on track.

One striking slide showed the path as it was foreseen by the Club of Rome in its Limits to Growth report. The authors created a computer model showing trends on several measures including world population growth, industrial output, pollution, food production, and resource depletion. Trends were plotted assuming several scenarios reflecting different levels of intervention. The scenarios ranged from business-as-usual to sustainable. The business-as-usual trends, based on available historical data, showed a remarkably consistent pattern. The trend lines passed the planet’s carrying capacity in the 1980’s, moving into what is called “overshoot.” Overshoot is growth beyond carrying capacity—a condition which, if not corrected, leads to collapse. (more…)

Religion and Evolutionary Fitness

Thursday, July 19th, 2012


The practice of religion interrupts the human preoccupation with self-serving activity—which suggests that one function of religion is to keep people from being too obsessed with their personal interests. But why should that obsession, which confers an advantage in evolutionary fitness, be prevented?  Could there be a countervailing advantage in being relieved from the same obsession? Or does this aspect of religion perhaps decrease human evolutionary fitness?  It is a mistake to assume that every characteristic which takes hold in a population increases fitness. Daniel Dennett’s book on the memetics of religion, Breaking the Spell, opens with a counter-example:

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? [Dennett, 2006, p 3]

The answer, it turns out, is no benefit—to the ant! Its grass-climbing behaviour is prompted by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke, that has penetrated its brain. In order to complete its reproductive cycle, the fluke must find its way into the digestive system of a sheep or cow. By commandeering the motor apparatus of its host the ant, the fluke puts itself in the way of being grazed.

Dennett’s book takes as its starting point Richard Dawkins’ observation that the memes of human culture, like genes, are replicating entities whose populations wax or wane according to principles of natural selection.[Dawkins, 1976]  Among the memes that thrive or die are religious ones. The provocative question animating Dennett’s discussion of religion is, “What is the relationship of religious ideas to their human hosts? Do religions benefit their believers, are they neutral, or are they—like the lancet fluke to the ant—deleterious parasites?” (more…)

On Sympathy

Friday, December 9th, 2011

In the war of ideas, the philosophy of personal identity is gradually giving way to the science of human motivation. As we come to a fuller understanding of how and why we tick, from neurological, evolutionary, and ethological perspectives, the puzzles of personal identity that have perplexed thinkers since Locke’s day become less puzzling. In this journey from paradox to plain understanding, perhaps the most important single step is to abandon the idea that anticipation of experience is rationally required.

Giving up that idea is like giving up geocentrism—the belief that motion is defined with reference to the unmoving earth. When people started to see the earth as just another moving object, man was displaced from the centre of the universe. Many were unsettled and alarmed by this idea. Those with a vested interest in the status quo actively suppressed the Copernican revolution. But the idea has proven itself. We now find it liberating and empowering, no longer a threat. It has given us a better understanding of the real world, and has helped enable useful technologies.

Giving up the idea that one’s relationship to oneself is privileged—that self-interested action is sanctioned by a special class of prudential reasons which have no application to one’s actions on behalf of other people—boots the self from its central position in the rational arena. When we see how things are, that anticipation of future experience is just something we do—not justified by any special relation between us and our future selves, because the relations we have to our future selves are the same kinds of relations we have to other people—then our strongly-motivating self-concern no longer has the whip hand. We can take charge of our own motivation. (more…)

Towards a Scientific Theory of Persons

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Paradigm Shift

I do not expect a theory of personhood to match all our pre-reflective philosophical intuitions, even if deeply considered and strongly felt (especially if strongly felt!) for two reasons: (1) our best intuitions on this subject are demonstrably unreliable, and (2) billions of otherwise sane and competent people hold beliefs about personal identity which are unsupported by empirical evidence, but to which they have strong emotional attachment. These two facts strongly suggest that there is something wrong with what we are naively inclined to believe about our identity. Hence we should not be surprised to find that a satisfactory solution, when it is found, will at first seem counter-intuitive. (more…)

Is the Google Car Conscious? Ethics and Artificial Minds

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

As a software developer, I am attracted by Thomas Metzinger’s functional level of description because it can be read as a high-level functional specification for consciousness and the self.  If someone could build an artificial system that meets the specification, he or she would have created a conscious being!   That would certainly be an interesting project.  Perhaps having a philosopher write the functional spec is exactly what’s called for to rescue AI from the back-eddies in which it has slowly revolved for several decades.

Although computers have made impressive progress in competing with human beings—advancing from checkers to chess championships, winning at trivia games and outperforming human experts in knowledge of specific domains—this success is due more to faster hardware, improved search techniques, and truly massive storage than to breakthrough advances in software architecture.  Yes, software can ‘learn,’ by using feedback from its own failures and successes to modify its behaviour when attempting similar problems in the future.  Yet the holy grail of AI, the Turing Test—to pass which a computer must be able to successfully masquerade as a human being by carrying on a convincing conversation with human interlocutors who are trying to tell the difference—still seems as distant a goal as it did when Alan Turing proposed it in 1950.  It is likely to remain so until we develop machine analogues of consciousness and emotion, by which I mean emotions both of self-concern and of concern for others. (more…)

A Special Form of Darkness: Metzinger on Subjectivity

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Our brains represent ourselves, to ourselves, by means of a Phenomenal Self-Model (PSM).  According to Thomas Metzinger, the PSM is characterized by transparency, and a phenomenal quality of ‘mineness.’  Its transparency consists in our unawareness of it as a model.  We look and act ‘right through it’ – we take our models for our real selves.  ‘Mineness’ is a quality that infuses all of our experience which we take to be experience of ourselves.  Although Metzinger uses the terms “mineness” and  “ownership,” it is more than an experience of ownership.  I think “me-ness” aptly captures what Metzinger is after. (more…)

Metzinger: Being No One

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

Being No One is a substantial work by German philosopher Thomas Metzinger about “consciousness, the phenomenal self, and the first-person perspective.”  Its main thesis “is that no such things as selves exist in the world.  Nobody ever was or had a self.”

I have spent some time with the book, making, from its 634 densely-printed pages, 104 pages of notes.  After all that, I still question Metzinger’s ‘main thesis.’  But I have no doubts about the value of the book.  It irrevocably raises the standard for what philosophy of mind must explain.  In its early pages, Metzinger echoes Paul Churchland’s complaint, that “theoretical approaches to the mental, still intuitively rooted in folk psychology, have generated very little growth of knowledge in the last twenty-five centuries.”  Being No One goes a long way towards burying that era. (more…)

Rationality and its Limits

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Rationality depends on emotion.  A.R. Damasio’s Descartes’ Error – Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain reveals how the human ability to make rational, prudent choices fails unless it is supported by normal emotional responses.  His findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom which portrays emotions as enemies to reason – impulsive forces which urge us to make poor choices, and which must be held in check by cool logic and deduction.

Damasio shows that rational behaviour results from a bottom-up process that begins with subconsciously learned emotional responses that can be detected in galvanic skin responses (GSR’s), and other physical signs.  This unconscious learning preceeds, and helps to facilitate, cognitive learning.

Moreover, people require these learned emotional responses to make rational, self-interested choices, even after they have cognitively ‘figured out’ what choices are in their interests.

Both results seem counterintuitive, the latter most strikingly.  Most people who consider themselves sane think that if they know what is in their best interests, they will choose accordingly.  They won’t, says Damasio, unless that knowledge is supported by feeling. (more…)

What We Are

Friday, February 26th, 2010

What are we, if we are informational entities?

Like most people (and unlike some philosophers) I will stick to the view that we are persons.  In this post I will try to state clearly what persons are according to the theory of persons I recommend, which I call the Information Theory.  I will begin to flesh the theory out, by drawing out some of its consequences.

The Information Theory

Here are some claims of the Information Theory of Persons.

  1. Persons are entities that can be multiply instantiated, like tunes, dances, literary works, electronic files, computer programs, and genes.
  2. Like all those things, persons are entities that can be expressed as information.  A person can cross a spatio-temporal gap in the form of information carried by any convenient medium, such as electronic files.
  3. Persons are distinct from the living biological organisms they depend on, as software is distinct from the hardware it runs on. (more…)

The Phantom Self

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Parfit’s Glass Tunnel

Dali Phantom selfIn the Introduction to this project, I said:

It’s the strong – and I believe, irrational – hold that the idea of the self has over us, and particularly its role in motivating action, that led me to characterize it as the ‘phantom self’.  Like the Phantom of the Opera, the self has a powerful voice that demands to be obeyed.  Like an amputee’s phantom limb, it is a vividly felt presence – but there is nothing really there.

It is time to flesh out that characterization.

No contemporary philosopher – perhaps no philosopher ever, in the West – has done more to break the phantom’s grip than Derek Parfit.  In Reasons and Persons, Parfit argues persuasively that, although we are strongly inclined to believe that our continued existence is “a deep further fact, distinct from physical and psychological continuity”, that belief is not true.  He goes on to describe the difference this philosophical conclusion made to his own life.

Is the truth depressing?  Some may find it so.  But I find it liberating, and consoling.  When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself.  My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness.  When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared.  I now live in the open air.  There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people.  But the difference is less.  I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others. (RP p 281) (more…)