Apollo’s War

The voyeur thought often of death,

enthralled as Deathless Ones are.

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The face that ended a million lives,

deaths senseless and glorious (as all deaths).

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Mortals dance teetering on the brink of Tartarus,

a slip from the Underworld.

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Why not kill them,

who live only to die?

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A gentle shove to watch them fall,

a relief he would never know.

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Death blisters the heels of life,

but the God of Death does not run the race.

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No light without dark,

no life without death?

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He envied the certainty of their fate,

the God of Oracles can not see his own future.

Music – a memento mori for the moment

Here, for your delectation or detestation, is a thing that I think: “Music is the art best suited to the depiction of impermanence.”

Making such a thought public may elicit several responses: “What?”; “Who cares!?”; “That’s because you’re a musician.”; etc. Fair enough. I’m going to start by addressing the last of these questions, then move on to the second, and after that should be well on my way to answering the first.

Yes, I am a (hack) musician. I’ve studied music in some depth and am thus inevitably biased in its favour. But, I protest, I also write and have studied writing. I also draw and paint a little bit, and am fortunate enough to be married to an incredibly talented and prolific painter. Thanks to my wife Genevieve, to live in our house is to be on intimate terms with the process of creating visual art. So much for my claims to authority – I have none and make no claims to any (“the only thing that I know is that I know nothing…” blah blah). That music, of all the arts, most effectively depicts impermanence is just a thing I think. There are reasons that I think this particular thing, however, and I am ready to defend them.

So who cares? Why should anyone care about this seemingly most esoteric of claims? Just what on earth do I mean by “impermanence” anyway? I’m so glad I asked me! Impermanence, it seems to me, is a characteristic of all existent things. It is what the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was drawing attention to with his famous claim that one can never step into the same river twice. The river is in flux. By the time you take your second step it has changed. It doesn’t matter if you immediately follow each step with the next, or avoid stepping into that river again for days, months, or years. The river is never at rest. Moreover, the “you” that does the stepping is never at rest, not even for a moment. Like the river, you are always changing, always in flux.

The importance of understanding the impermanent nature of both ourselves and all components of the environments in which we live is also central to Buddhist philosophy. No doubt some scholars of Buddhist thought will take exception to this claim, but I consider insight into the impermanence, as well as the interdependence, of all things, to be not only fundamental to Buddhist thought, but also primary goals of Buddhist meditation practices. Consider the Four Noble Truths (my paraphrasing):

  1. Life is characterised by dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness).
  2. Dukkha is caused by primal confusion.
  3. There is a cure for primal confusion.
  4. The cure is the Noble Eightfold Path.

If you consider the form of this teaching, the first the Buddha gave after he achieved enlightenment, you’ll see that it’s pretty important to know what “primal confusion” is. After all, the claim is being made that it is the source of suffering! The Buddhist literature is voluminous and there are diverse interpretations of these fundamental teachings, but the gist seems to be that primal confusion is a matter of believing the world has a different nature from that which it in fact has. This is pretty obviously confusion, and it’s “primal” not only because it affects everything, but because it’s innate – we are being told that the default worldview possessed by humans is mistaken at the fundamental level. What mistake are we making? We think that things exist (or have the potential to exist) independently and permanently. Basically, we think it’s possible to isolate things (any things) from their contexts and we think things (immortal souls perhaps?) can last for ever. We are dead wrong about this. In fact, Buddha claims, the nature of existence is that it is interdependent and impermanent – to exist is to exist in a context with other existents, and existence is intrinsically ephemeral. If we can truly understand and internalise these facts about the world, we will allegedly be freed from suffering.

Impermanence is therefore kind of a big deal. A fairly obvious example of just how big a deal it is rears its head when we contemplate our own death. Our existence is impermanent. It is going to end. I take it to be fairly obvious that for most of us this is kind of a bummer. One only has to consider the proliferation of death-denying mythologising throughout history, from immortal souls living forever incorporeally in analogue heaven, to uploaded consciousnesses living forever digitally in digital heaven (is there really any difference?), to see how important this issue is for humans in general. Accepting the inevitability of your own death, not to mention the death of everyone you love, is difficult. But maybe accepting that all existence is impermanent, that death is the price of admission, can help. And acceptance of death really does help us to live better (at least I’ve got this on good authority, I’m still terrified of death most of the time). The goal of Buddha’s teachings is always soteriological – it is aimed at achieving “salvation” (or liberation – moksha). Not salvation in the afterlife, but the cessation (or at least diminishment) of suffering in the here and now. (By the way, I’m not going to talk about Buddhist conceptions of reincarnation in this piece, maybe another time.)

Now, it’s no coincidence that I’m a fan of philosophers and teachers like Heraclitus and Buddha (and their exegetes). I’m an evolutionary biologist and it is also absolutely central to evolutionary thinking that all things are interdependent and impermanent. I want this to be a short piece, so I’m not going to go into details here, but to consider interdependence just think about the concept of an ecosystem. By definition, “systems” are composed of many elements that interact and “work together”. Sometimes, this coalition really does work together to achieve some tangible goal, but not always. The parts of an ecosystem don’t necessarily cooperate, but they do depend upon each other to achieve stability. In fact, the evolutionary “game” is all about achieving stability in the face of the constant flux which characterises, well, everything. Stability can only be achieved through the formation of coalitions (a solitary quark, for example, is extremely unstable), i.e. through interdependence. Stability is only relative, however, ecosystems change and eventually disappear, mountains crumble to the sea (did I steal that from somewhere?) – everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever, all things must pass (insert song lyrics ad nauseum).

If as a musician I am biased towards music, as an evolutionist I am biased towards impermanence. Why is music so good at depicting impermanence? Because music is the most obviously ephemeral art form. More than any other art form, music draws our attention to the passage of time. It’s not the only art form to do this of course (narrative would be another obvious example), it’s just the most direct. Music only exists in the moment of hearing. Sure, you can write a score for a piece of music, but the score is not the music. It is map, not territory. The same is true of a recording – the grooves in a vinyl record, the 0s and 1s in an MP3; these are not music, they are media through which music may be realised….by pressing “play”.

When music is existing, the fact of its passing, its being in time, is impossible (for anyone paying attention) to ignore. Paintings are impermanent too. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is impermanent too (hopefully I’ll see it before one of us expires). But these works of art do not wear their ephemerality on their sleeves. To experience them is not to experience their transience directly. In this, music is unparalleled. It makes impermanence explicit. In so doing, it draws our attention to the constant flux of the present moment. Perhaps we are able to forget or ignore this aspect of music these days because we are so constantly bombarded by recorded music wherever we go. Music is assaulting our ears from every angle as we move through the world (and indeed we’re often using it to block out the world with our earphones), and most of it is thus relegated to the status of background noise. Listening is different from simply hearing. As Igor Stravinsky remarked, “a duck hears also”. When you really listen to music, its flux, its temporality, is undeniable. You are either with it you aren’t. If your attention waivers, you’ve missed it. That part is now gone. If you were trying to listen to one of Anton Webern’s “5 Pieces for Orchestra”, you just missed the whole piece. Perhaps you heard a few plinks and plonks, but had you been listening you might have had one of the most profound experiences available to human consciousness. (Am I overselling Webern? No.)

Okay, what’s important about this? Music makes explicit something that is fundamental to the human experience. We exist in time and all our experiences are transitory. To get the most out of experience, to get the most out of life, we must be paying attention. All experiences are like Webern’s pieces, both in their potential profundity and in their undeniable transience – blink and they are gone forever. This is pretty obvious, right? But have you accepted it? Have you started to conquer primal confusion? I haven’t. Not really. I still want the good times to last forever and I still think the suffering will never end. I often need to be reminded that pleasure and suffering are equally impermanent, and music is one of the best memento moris for the moment.

 

Painting by Genevieve Jackson, used without permission from artist (she’ll forgive me). 

Having a career in science…and what is “science” anyway?

Episode 15 of the Sympathetic People podcast, in which we discuss careers in science and ask questions about what exactly “science” is anyway.

It’s undeniably a problem that scientific research is underfunded. PhD students represent cheap labour for laboratories and universities, but how many of them can find a job when they complete their degrees? How many young researchers ever achieve job security? How does science stack up against other career paths in these regards?

Another core issue we discuss is what “science” really is. Many people seem to believe that science is fundamentally different from the arts and humanities, but “science” is just an outgrowth of empiricism. Empiricism is a branch of epistemology and epistemology is a branch of philosophy – science isn’t clearly separable from philosophy, it’s part of it! Not only this, but differences between the sciences and the arts, or between science and ancient traditions of myth-making and storytelling are greatly exaggerated.

Enjoy, subscribe, like (if you do), and please comment below with your thoughts!

Ouroborus painting by Genevieve Jackson.

Is consciousness substrate-independent?

Everybody seems to be talking about artificial intelligence. That’s appropriate, I’m sure, because AI is already having a big effect on our lives and its impact is only going to increase. AI researchers and climate scientists are currently vying with each other for the distinction of being members of the field addressing the “most important issue facing humanity today”. My only rejoinder to that is that since all things evolve, all fields of scientific investigation are subsets of evolutionary theory (and that includes physics). Reductionists may put them apples in their pipes and smoke them….so there, nee-nah nee-nah, etc.

Now that we have settled (once and for all) the important question, namely the hierarchy of scientific fields, we can get on to considering whether artificial general intelligences (or superintelligences) are likely to be conscious. Nested insider this question is another – is consciousness solely a property of biological wetware, or is it “substrate-independent”? That is, if we replicate the kind of information processing that goes on in human brains in a computer program, will that computer program be conscious? This is also relevant to the “simulation hypothesis“, which claims that we should consider it more likely that we live inside a simulated universe than that we are the privileged few who inhabit the “real” (original) universe. The simulation argument uses pretty basic statistical reasoning to make this point, but in order to get off the ground it must include “functionalism”, a.k.a. the substrate-independence of consciousness, as one of its premises.

Functionalism is simply the notion that what mental states do is more important than what they are made of. Thus, the argument goes, there is nothing special about wetware and all mental states are realisable in other “substrates” (like computers). The physicist Max Tegmark, in making this kind of argument, has pointed out that we shouldn’t think there’s anything special about “machines made of meat”, because, just like machines made of silicon, they are “fundamentally” composed of up-quarks and down-quarks. The “only” difference between the two is the arrangement of the quarks. Like Tegmark, I am a physicalist monist, so I agree with the factual component of his assertion, but I don’t see it as a strong argument for substrate-independence.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s entirely possible that AGIs will become conscious, I just don’t think the quark argument is particularly relevant. Quite a lot is smuggled into the claim that it’s only the pattern/arrangement of quarks that is different. If we accept that all material things are made of quarks arranged in different patterns, then pattern accounts for rather a lot. If you fully reproduce the pattern of quarks instantiated in a conscious meat machine, you will not only create consciousness, you’ll create meat. So by reducing the “substrate” to quarks, one doesn’t motivate an argument for substrate-independence.

We simply don’t yet know which properties of brains and bodies are important for consciousness. All we know is that consciousness evolves in biological (“meat”) systems as a solution to the design problem of integrating multiple sensory inputs. Some of those sensory inputs are interoceptive – they are not simply the brain’s assimilation of the external world, but also include responses to hormones, blood sugar levels, nociceptors, and the rest. Maybe you don’t need all of that to have consciousness and maybe you do – nobody knows what you can and can’t leave out.

A deep intuition at work behind claims of substrate-independence and functionalism is the belief that we can make “models” of things, typically mathematical/computational models, that actually possess the (salient) properties of the things we are modelling. This is an ancient idea – one name for it is Platonism, but it predates even that venerable Greek. We humans are powerfully motivated to understand things. This is our great evolutionary trump card – the ability to abstract from things to principles so that our knowledge becomes more generalizable and less domain-specific. What an awesome power this is and what an incredible extension of this power the evolution of first verbal, and then mathematical, languages was. I have no desire to trivialise the importance of our ability to model reality in order to understand it better. Heck, consciousness itself is a modelling process. But let’s not get overzealous and confuse map with territory. Maps are a useful guide to territory, but they lack many interesting properties of the things they represent.

In order to know whether consciousness is substrate-independent we’re going to need to know which properties of meat machines are relevant to its emergence. The likelihood seems to be that we are going to create AGI before we fully understand consciousness. Maybe we’ll actually come to a better understanding of consciousness with the aid of AGI, either because it helps us to study conscious meat machines, or because one day it claims to be conscious and we are forced to take its word for it. Personally, I don’t think consciousness is all that mysterious and I’m not a fan of the “hard problem“. Until further notice, however, it seems to be a purely biological phenomenon.

So I guess we’re just going to have to see what happens. Until then, let’s not get too carried away with our assertions of substrate-independence and let’s examine the motivating assumptions behind those assertions. As the philosopher John Searle has pointed out, a computational model of a storm is not wet. If we fully reproduce all the information represented by the arrangement of quarks in a system, we will have recreated that system, not modelled it.

(The painting is Max Ernst’s L’ange du Foyer, I could explain how it’s relevant, but I prefer to let you just enjoy the beautiful art)

A metaphor (throwback Thursday)

This piece – “A Metaphor” – that I wrote a few years ago, closely relates to the themes discussed in our most recent episode (11 – see previous post) of the podcast:

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We are all in a dark room.

We all have torches.

Torches are tools for seeing.

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All our torches are fundamentally the same, but they have different batteries.

Batteries are tools for thinking.

Our choice of batteries affects the brightness of our torches.

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The beams of our torches can be focussed or diffuse.

The more we focus our beam the brighter it becomes.

The brighter the beam, the more clearly we see what we are looking at.

The more clearly we see what we looking at, the less we see everything else.

The more diffuse our beam, the more we see.

The more we see, the less clearly we see it.

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The room is crowded.

We can’t see beyond the width of our torch beam.

We can’t see anyone else’s torch beam.

We often bump into each other.

Bumping into each other is an unfortunate accident.

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The room’s darkness is not absolute.

If we switch our torches off our eyes can adjust.

If we let our eyes adjust we can see everything, dimly.

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Get the best batteries you can.

Vary the width of your beam constantly.

Switch off your torch for a while every single day.

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To what extent do we perceive the world through words?

 

Episode 11, in which we discuss Carlos Castaneda, Buddhism, Karl Popper, science, fallibilism, magic, reality, and all such fun stuff!

To what extent do we perceive the world through words? Can we escape our verbal preconceptions and experience things “as they really are?” Can we do so and remain functional? We agree that it is healthy and productive to “get outside our selves” and attempt to perceive the world in a way less filtered by our preconceptions, but is all perception ultimately theoretical? Haven’t we evolved to perceive “affordances” – things we can use?

We hope you enjoy the discussion – please leave feedback in the comments section, and subscribe on iTunes.

What is the meaning of life?

Episode 10! In a decimal system that is surely a milestone; in any other system of counting maybe not, but we’ll take it!

Tim reads from Sean Carroll’s wonderful book “The Big Picture“, and the intrepid evolutionary biologists (your hosts) discuss the meaning of life, conflict between science and religion on this topic, meditation, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s fun!

Spoiler alert – we don’t really know what the meaning of life is, but as Bill Fay (he’s a musician, check him out) says “like my old dad said, life is people“…..

Listen! We compel you to do so and hope you enjoy doing so. Subscribe on iTunes! Rate us on iTunes! Comment on the blog! Use exclamation marks excessively!!!

Thanks 🙂