2006-01-26 Compassion and Complacency, Sympathy and Sociopathy

Could anyone, whether Bishop of Oxford or next of kin, be so self-righteous as to condone condemning someone hopelessly ill to having to struggle to end her misery with pills and a plastic bag and then, failing that, to having to drag her weary bones to Zurich to free herself at last from a wretched fate that’s no one’s to endure or not to endure but her own? Does Reverend Harries truly hold life “precious”? Who can wish for “one of the people I love most in the world” anything but the release she seeks from the pain she can no longer bear?

Providence’s Provenance

Anon: “being religious is probably an ineradicable fact about the human species (one of our apparently characteristic behaviors like music, language, genocide and so on) — not all of us have the tendency but most do, apparently.”

Scott Atran, would agree, but the question is, what is the trait? “Religiosity”? Isn’t that just one symptom of an adaptive tendency toward other-mind-reading, overstretched to animism? plus everybody’s mind/body problem? plus the fact that everyone had omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent god-parents once? and that no one experiences either mortality or eternity? and the rest is just rampant rumor and hearsay (which serves us well where it matters, and otherwise is just a bit of nonfunctional overflow)?

“It is not just a cultural artifact, in other words. I keep pushing this idea but so far get mostly blank stares from people. Glad to see a heavy hitter like Dennett (who looks simply marvelous in the photograph, btw) thinks so too.”

But the devil’s in the details. Earthly totemisms and cults and creeds themselves are not in the genes, just the animism and reliance on (satisfieciently [sic] reliable) hearsay is. You can build both veridicality and voodoo on that self-same foundation: there’s at least as much nonreligious hokum too, flowing from the same fountain.

“But reading the interview and looking at the questions focused another, possibly deeper trait: people for whom it makes perfectly good sense to say that pleasantness (hopefulness) is a better reason than truth to believe in something, and those who think that the only reason to believe something is whether it is true.”

It’s the difference between knowledge and wishful thinking. Not restricted to religion. Smokers, for example, have the syndrome in full bloom; so did Dr. Hwang and his faithful crew; and people who are going postal have it in spades…

“There are a lot of people who not only believe stuff because it is comforting or hopeful, etc. (which of course all of us do until we look critically at ourselves), but who know they do, and see no problem with it. What do you think?”

I think most people think extremely uncritically and unrigorously: “Do I contradict myself? Well then I contradict myself.” The reason it doesn’t matter that much is because most of our believings and thinkings and doings are simply inconsequential. Nothing hangs on them one way or the other. We just need to be rational enough to meet our daily bread needs, and not be led into conflagration (more than once)…

Stevan Harnad

L’anosagnosie envers la mortalité

Nous n’avons pas de catégorie expérientielle désservant le décès de quelqu’un. On a l’absence, la distance, mais pas la mort. On se résigne consciemment au fait qu’on ne verra plus jamais la personne [le « jamais » c’est déjà flou ], et qu’elle n’existe plus, mais on n’a aucun ressenti inné pour cette catégorie, juste le regret, ce qui se dérive plutôt de l’absence que de la non-existence — qu’on ne comprend que chez les objets, pas chez les êtres animés. Reste seulement l’oubli. Mais jamais l’appréciation de la mort, l’inexistence. C’est encore une fois notre célèbre animisme : Une conscience, comment peut-elle ne plus être ? Elle n’est pas physique, matérielle. C’est pour ça qu’il y a le culte des ancêtres. Et c’est ça la provenance de l’idée biscornue de l’âme immortelle et de tous les plaisirs (croisades, inquisitions, djihads) qui en sont l’issue.

The Stem-Cell Saga: In Cumulative Research, Error and Fraud Will Always Out 2005-12-25

Yes, the Hwang truth came out, fast, on the web. But it would have come out anyway, because one cannot build on a fake foundation. It was science’s public, self-corrective nature that triumphed; the web merely accelerated it (as with cold fusion). My guess is that Hwang was not really a conscious, deliberate fraudster, but merely (merely!) incompetent and self-deluded. It is the rapid pace of celebrity and also the (peculiar to biomedicine) precipitate push toward clinical applications (partly for justifiable, partly unjustifiable reasons) that puts biomedical research at greater risk of short-term damage from error or fraud before, inevitably, it is discovered. The only undetected fraud is the harmless kind — the noncumulative, hit-and-run research that no one cares about because it goes nowhere (and serves only to earn a PhD or promotion)…

Southampton Regenesis: Witnessing It All Remotely – 2005-12-02

It feels disingenuous to bear witness to a profound hardship of which one has been largely spared. But how can I not express my admiration and gratitude for the heroic triumph of the commanders and crew of HMS Soton-ECS and Soton over this undeserved and unprovoked assault from Nature? It was indeed reminiscent (again from a distance, to someone spared the tumult) of Dunkirk. And not just reminiscent but a direct embodiment of that same Brit grit that an outsider may perhaps be excused for alluding to directly. Its emblem is always the same (and has already been identified by others): “Oh dear. Never mind. Let’s get on with it.”

Well done. Indescribably, inimitably, well done. And duly, indelibly, noted.

Stevan Harnad

(safely, gratefully following the recovery from the colonies)

Poetastry Cheat Sheet 2005-11-20

Probably better (for human creativity) if no one ever builds them, but surely I’m not the first to think of the following online prostheses for poetasters:

(1) A straight rhyme-grepper (words that rhyme with…)

(2) An alliteration-grepper (words that begin with…)

(3) Combining (1) and (2) with a thesaurus (grep only words that mean something like…)

(4) Metric constraints could easily be plugged in too

(5) And machine-aided metaphor

The reason it’s probably better if would-be poets stay away from such devices is that necessity is the mother of invention, and the brain is such that once it senses that it can off-load a task onto another device, it no longer rises to the occasion. And then versification becomes just a multiple-choice exercise…

Playing By the Rules

Comment on: “Is It Art?” Dan Falk, Saturday, October 15 2005

In 1843, Lady Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada) made her famous objection to Charles Babbage’s prototype computer, “The Analytical Engine,” that it “has no pretensions to originate anything. It can [only] do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”

Harold Cohen (the artist who wrote AARON, the computer programme that paints pictures) agrees that AARON is not “creative” because it is just mechanically following the rules Cohen wrote. (Cohen may be creative, but not AARON.) Yet Cohen thinks his newer program, which is “no longer ‘rule-based’ in the old sense” may be creative because it is capable of modifying itself. But what difference does that make? The self-modifying capability is itself rule-based! And even if a random element were thrown in, that would just be rules plus a bit of random shake-up, and still no more creative than the “malfunctioning toaster [that can produce] a piece of toast with burn marks completely unforeseen by the toaster’s builder.”

In any case, none of this has anything to do, one way or the other, with the “consciousness and intentionality and subjectivity” (all really just synonyms for the same thing: feeling) that Toronto’s cognitive scientist John Vervaeke invokes. The real point is that we don’t yet know the rules underlying most of our abilities, whether creative or uncreative. The paradox will come if and when cognitive science does discover the rules underlying our “creative” abilities, for then there will be no degrees of freedom left for creativity (other than chance).

So perhaps we should focus on “giftedness” rather than on creativity: Perhaps the genius is the one who has the ability to master and play according to rules that none of the rest of us can master,
rather than just the one who can modify them.

Harnad, S. (in press) “Creativity: Method Or Magic?
Harnad, S. (2001) Spielberg’s AI: Another Cuddly No-Brainer.