Zombies

Just the NYT review
was enough to confirm
the handwriting on the wall
of the firmament 
– at least for one unchained biochemical reaction in the Anthropocene,
in one small speck of the Universe,
for one small speck of a species, 
too big for its breeches.

The inevitable downfall of the egregious upstart 
would seem like fair come-uppance 
were it not for all the collateral damage 
to its countless victims, 
without and within. 

But is there a homology
between biological evolution
and cosmology? 
Is the inevitability of the adaptation of nonhuman life
to human depredations 
— until the eventual devolution
or dissolution
of human DNA —
also a sign that
humankind
is destined to keep re-appearing,
elsewhere in the universe,
along with life itself? 
and all our too-big-for-our breeches
antics?

I wish not.

And I also wish to register a vote
for another mutation, may its tribe increase:
Zombies. 
Insentient organisms. 
I hope they (quickly) supplant
the sentients,
till there is no feeling left,
with no return path,
if such a thing is possible…

But there too, the law of large numbers,
combinatorics,
time without end,
seem stacked against such wishes.

Besides,
sentience
(hence suffering),
the only thing that matters in the universe,
is a solipsistic matter;
the speculations of cosmologists
( like those of ecologists,
metempsychoticists
and utilitarians)
— about cyclic universes,
generations,
incarnations,
populations —
are nothing but sterile,
actuarial
numerology.

It’s all just lone sparrows,
all the way down.

Fighting the Four Fs

As a vegan activist and an admirer of Veda Stram‘s quarter century of work on behalf of animals, I agree completely with her comment. What humans have been doing to nonhuman animals — and not out of life/death Darwinian necessity for survival or health, but only for the four Fs: Flavour, Fashion, Finance and Fun — is monstrous and getting worse with time.

But, as Veda stresses in her guidance to activists, there are many different strategies for trying to inspire people to stop hurting — or contributing to hurting — animals. If we knew for sure which strategy works, or works best, we’d flock to doing it. But we don’t know. So we have to go by the little available evidence, and our own feelings.

I too feel disgusted — in fact, worse, outraged: enraged, and wishing I could make the human race vanish instantly — when I contemplate the unspeakable horrors we are inflicting on countless victims every second of every day, gratuitously, just for the four Fs.

But then I turn my thoughts away from the perpetrators to the victims, and ask myself what good my feelings of impotent rage — or their expression — can do the victims: Can I shame people into renouncing the four Fs and going vegan? Some, perhaps. But the little evidence we have about the effects of different strategies suggests that trying to shame people far more often inspires resentment and rejection rather than empathy and reform.

Another strategy about which it’s hard to imagine that it would inspire people to reform is to state that people are incorrigible. Even if we believe that people are incorrigible, it’s best not to say it, lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy, discouraging activists and emboldening the practitioners of the four Fs to dig in even deeper into their ways.

This was the reason I suggested feigning optimism even if we don’t feel it: Not to pretend the horrors are not horrors — monstrous, impardonable horrors — but to keep alive the only hope there is for the victims: that humanity can change for the better, as it has done in the past with slavery, racism, sexism and a lot of other wrongs we’ve done and have since rejected, despite the fact that they too were driven by three of the four Fs.

Not only do I recommend assuming that humans are corrigible as a strategy, I actually believe it is true that people’s hearts can be opened.

I’d like to close by mentioning another sad fact that animal activists are alas all familiar with too: the tendency of activists to turn on one another. On the one hand, it’s completely understandable: The vast majority of people are perpetrators — because of the four Fs — of the animal agony we are fighting to end. Vegan activists are a tiny minority, and we all have daily experience of having to face the apathy or active antipathy of the perpetrators, starting often with our own family and our friends. This gives rise to a lot of frustration, disappointment, and, yes, sometimes an adversarial defensiveness, a sense that the world, inhumane and hostile, is against animals — and us.

This adversarial feeling has to be resisted, again mainly because it does no good for the animal victims, rather the opposite — but especially when it overflows into defensiveness even toward fellow vegan-activists whose strategy may diverge slightly from our own, or even just appears to. We sometimes feel we’re yet again facing that same majority mentality, the mentality of the exploiters and the condoners, even when it is not there, and it’s just one of us.

.

Consciousness: The F-words vs. the S-words

“Sentient” is the right word for “conscious.”. It means being able to feel anything at all – whether positive, negative or neutral, faint or flagrant, sensory or semantic. 

For ethics, it’s the negative feelings that matter. But determining whether an organism feels anything at all (the other-minds problem) is hard enough without trying to speculate about whether there exit species that can only feel neutral (“unvalenced”) feelings. (I doubt that +/-/= feelings evolved separately, although their valence-weighting is no doubt functionally dissociable, as in the Melzack/Wall gate-control theory of pain.)

The word “sense” in English is ambiguous, because it can mean both felt sensing and unfelt “sensing,” as in an electronic device like a sensor, or a mechanical one, like a thermometer or a thermostat, or even a biological sensor, like an in-vitro retinal cone cell, which, like photosensitive film, senses and reacts to light, but does not feel a thing (though the brain it connects to might).

To the best of our knowledge so far, the phototropisms, thermotropisms and hydrotropisms of plants, even the ones that can be modulated by their history, are all like that too: sensing and reacting without feeling, as in homeostatic systems or servomechanisms.

Feel/feeling/felt would be fine for replacing all the ambiguous s-words (sense, sensor, sensation…) and dispelling their ambiguities. 

(Although “feeling” is somewhat biased toward emotion (i.e., +/- “feelings”), it is the right descriptor for neutral feelings too, like warmth,  movement, or touch, which only become +/- at extreme intensities.) 

The only thing the f-words lack is a generic noun for “having the capacity too feel” as a counterpart for the noun sentience itself (and its referent). (As usual, German has a candidate: Gefühlsfähigkeit.)

And all this, without having to use the weasel-word “conscious/consciousness,” for which the f-words are a healthy antidote, to keep us honest, and coherent…

Drawing the line on human vital necessities

Karen Davis is a wonderful, tireless, passionate and invaluable advocate and protectress for animals. I share almost every one of the feelings she expresses in her comment that Marc Bekoff posted. 

But, for strategic reasons, and for the sake of the victims that we are all committed to rescuing from their terrible fates, I beg Karen to try to pretend to be more optimistic. I will explain

Karen Davis, UPC: Every single objection to the experimental use of animals – vivisection, genetic engineering, etc. – has been ignored and overridden by the scientific industry

This is true, except that there is no “scientific industry”: there is industry and there is science, and some scientists sometimes collaborate or even collude with industry. But scientists are more likely to be persuaded by evidence and ethics than are industrialists.

KD: …and this is not going to change no matter how morally obnoxious, heartless and cruel to the members of other species.

That there is a monumental, monstrous, and unpardonable amount of human moral obdurateness, heartlessness and cruelty toward other species is patently and tragically and undeniably true.

But that “this is not going to change” is just an (understandably bitter) hypothesis based on countless years of unremitting (and increasing) suffering inflicted on other species by humans.

The hypothesis may or may not be true. 

So I think we should not proclaim the hypothesis as if it were true – as true as the fact of human-inflicted suffering itself. The hypothesis cannot help the victims, for their only hope is that the hypothesis is false. And if the hypothesis is false, proclaiming it is true can harm the victims by promoting a self-fulfilling prophecy that could discourage activism as futile.

KD: The majority of human beings are completely speciesist and regard (other) animals as inferior to ourselves and fit to be exploited for human “benefit” including mere curiosity. 

This is alas numerically true. But it does not follow that the hearts of the majority cannot be reached, and opened. There are many historical precedents for this in wrongs that humans have inflicted on humans (colonialism, feudalism, slavery, bondage, genocide, warfare, torture, rape, subjugation of women, infanticide, racism). It cannot be said that these wrongs have been eradicated, but they have been outlawed in the democratic parts of the world. Nor can it be said that the majority of human beings either practices or condones them.

It is still legal, however, to do all these things (colonialism, feudalism, slavery, bondage, genocide, warfare, torture, rape, subjugation of females, infanticide, racism) to other species. And it is true that the vast majority of human beings either do some of these things or consume their products. But there is evidence also that in the global information era we are becoming increasingly aware and appalled at these practices, and condoning them less and less. It is toward this awakening that activism is having a growing effect.

KD: The majority of human beings… regard (other) animals as… fit to be exploited for human “benefit” including mere curiosity. 

True, but here (in my opinion) is the conflation that we activists should avoid at all costs:

With the vast majority of humanity still supporting the bondage and slaughter of animals, despite the total absence (in most parts of the world) of any necessity for human health and survival (-H), just for taste, fashion and fun, this should never be conflated with life-saving biomedical measures (+H).

People still demanding bondage and slaughter for -H uses certainly won’t renounce it for +H uses. Conflating the two can only strengthen the resistance to renouncing either. The call to renounce +H can only expect a serious and sympathetic hearing once -H has been renounced (or is at least far closer to being renounced than it is today). 

(This is not at all to deny that much of biomedical research on animals, too, is -H, as Kathrin Herrmann and many others are showing, should be exposed by activists as such, and should be abolished. But any implication that it was wrong to try to save the life of this dying man is not going to encourage people to renounce -H. I believe it would be more helpful to use it to draw the -H/+H distinction, and to point out that -H — unlike +H — has no moral justification at all.) 

KD: Among the latest animal-abuse crazes is the factory-farming of octopuses. Of course! We just HAVE TO BE ABLE TO EAT THESE ANIMALS! 

Of course eating octopuses (“sea food”), whether factory-farmed or “naturally” harvested and slaughtered, falls squarely under -H use, alongside the use and slaughter (whether factory-farmed, “traditionally” farmed, or hunted) of whales, seals, fish, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigs, cows, calves, sheep, goats, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, mussels… any sentient species that is not necessary for human +H.

KD: The human nightmare is too overwhelming and it cannot be stopped although those of us who care about animals and object to how viciously we treat them must continue to raise our voices.

Yes, let’s continue our activism on all fronts to protect the tragic victims from our anthropogenic horrors, but, please, for the sake of present and future victims, no matter how frustrated and impatient (and angry) we feel that the horrors keep persisting, let us not proclaim the hypothesis that they are “too overwhelming and cannot be stopped.”

Appearance and Reality

Re: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/12/13/magazine/david-j-chalmers-interview.html

1. Computation is just the manipulation of arbitrary formal symbols, according to rules (algorithms) applied to the symbols’ shapes, not their interpretations (if any).

2. The symbol-manipulations have to be done by some sort of physical hardware, but the physical composition of the hardware is irrelevant, as long as it executes the right symbol manipulation rules.

3. Although the symbols need not be interpretable as meaning anything – there can be a Turing Machine that executes a program that is absolutely meaningless, like Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game” – but computationalists are  mostly interested in interpretable algorithms that do can be given a coherent systematic interpretation by the user.

4. The Weak Church/Turing Thesis is that computation (symbol manipulation, like a Turing Machine) is what mathematicians do: symbol manipulations that are systematically interpretable as the truths  and proofs of mathematics.

5. The Strong Church/Turing Thesis (SCTT)  is that almost everything in the universe can be simulated (modelled) computationally.

6. A computational simulation is the execution of symbol-manipulations by hardware in which the symbols and manipulations are systematically interpretable by users as the properties of a real object in the real world (e.g., the simulation of a pendulum or an atom or a neuron or our solar system).

7. Computation can simulate only “almost” everything in the world, because  — symbols and computations being digital — computer simulations of real-world objects can only be approximate. Computation is merely discrete and finite, hence it cannot encode every possible property of the real-world object. But the approximation can be tightened as closely as we wish, given enough hardware capacity and an accurate enough computational model.

8. One of the pieces of evidence for the truth of the SCTT is the fact that it is possible to connect the hardware that is doing the simulation of an object to another kind of hardware (not digital but “analog”), namely, Virtual Reality (VR) peripherals (e.g., real goggles and gloves) which are worn by real, biological human beings.

9. Hence the accuracy of a computational simulation of a coconut can be tested in two ways: (1) by systematically interpreting the symbols as the properties of a coconut and testing whether they correctly correspond to and predict the properties of a real coconut or (2) by connecting the computer simulation to a VR simulator in a pair of goggles and gloves, so that a real human being wearing them can manipulate the simulated coconut.

10. One could, of course, again on the basis of the SCTT, computationally simulate not only the coconut, but the goggles, the gloves, and the human user wearing them — but that would be just computer simulation and not VR!

11. And there we have arrived at the fundamental conflation (between computational simulation and VR) that is made by sci-fi enthusiasts (like the makers and viewers of Matrix and the like, and, apparently, David Chalmers). 

12. Those who fall into this conflation have misunderstood the nature of computation (and the SCTT).

13.  Nor have they understood the distinction between appearance and reality – the one that’s missed by those who, instead of just worrying that someone else might be a figment of their imagination, worry that they themselves might be a figment of someone else’s imagination.

14. Neither a computationally simulated coconut nor a VR coconot is a coconut, let alone a pumpkin in another world.

15. Computation is just semantically-interpretable symbol-manipulation (Searle’s “squiggles and squiggles”); a symbolic oracle. The symbol manipulation can be done by a computer, and the interpretation can be done in a person’s head or it can be transmitted (causally linked) to dedicated (non-computational) hardware, such as a desk-calculator or a computer screen or to VR peripherals, allowing users’ brains to perceive them through their senses rather than just through their thoughts and language.

16. In the context of the Symbol Grounding Problem and Searle’s Chinese-Room Argument against “Strong AI,” to conflate interpretable symbols with reality is to get lost in a hermeneutic hall of mirrors. (That’s the locus of Chalmers’s “Reality.”)

Exercise for the reader: Does Turing make the same conflation in implying that everything is a Turing Machine (rather than just that everything can be simulated symbolically by a Turing Machine)?

Agnus dei

Just go to youtube and type in Lutz bachstiftung. Listen to the cantatas, “new” ones being added every few weeks, az egyik gyönyörübb mint a másik, and listen to the workshops, and the remarkably gifted Lutz, as he conducts and as he plays and sings (all voices and all instruments) and explains its metaphorical relation to the text (scripture, poems, sermons). 

Ironically, even paradoxically, this is all at odds with the primitive and repugnant truths I’m learning (or rather realizing what I already sensed) about what religions (false supernatural and superstitious cults, all) really are, from the 5 pages of nightly headway that I am making on Scholem’s 1000-page historical treatise on the “false” messiah.

All messiahs are false, and all their preachings are just hermeneutics — human logomancy vainly striving to “resolve” the blatant contradiction (“paradox”) between holy writ and reality with the inexhaustible resources of symbolism and symbolic interpretation.

Ironic, because that’s also what Bach was doing, sublimely.

I have no resolution, except that music, like all experience, is just feeling – feelings that have carried humans to great “heights” (high compared to what?) and also propelled their descent to the basest and vilest of depths – both symbolized and incarnated in the sacrificing of the real , suffering lamb to the false, fictional deities – barbaric, willful sadism that is then shamelessly appropriated as symbolic of the “martyrdom” of the messiah.

Yet I seem to be savoring Bach and Lutz as the epicure savors his mutton or the mystic his supernal communion…

Josefa de Ayala (Spanish; Portuguese, ca. 1630-1684). ‘The Sacrificial Lamb,’ ca. 1670-1684. oil on canvas. Walters Art Museum (37.1193): Acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902.

Cato and Ockham on Slaughter

Anything that makes life less-worse for the victims is welcome (but watch out for hidden poison that entrenches their miserable fate even deeper)

Preserving non-stun slaughter for “freedom of cult (or culture)” is an abomination: Freedom of belief, yes, but not freedom of barbaric practice (slavery, genital mutilation, animal “sacrifice,” gladiator sports, rodeos…)

And, ceterum censeo, no sentient creature should ever be harmed praeter necessitatem, i.e., beyond necessity for survival (as in the case of conflict of life/death interest between obligate carnivores and their prey, including the few remaining human subsistence hunting/fishing habitats – none of which are in the UK.

Taste

Pete Wells’s NY Times restaurant review has all the moral (and aesthetic) depth of a mid 18th-century southern US erotic cotton-underwear fancier’s sneering assessment of erotic synthetic-cotton underwear from an abolitionist manufacturer.