The How Of Why: Not Quite A Review (Part II)

by Jochen Szangolies

Is the cosmos conscious, or is it all just in our heads?In the previous column, I took Philip Goff’s latest offering Why? The Purpose of the Universe as a jumping-off point to present some of my own rumination on life, the universe, and what it all means. While that prior installment was mainly concerned with looking outward, into the wider cosmos, here, I’ll turn my gaze inward, to riff on Goff’s case that the reality of conscious experience implies a larger purpose to, well, everything.

Goff’s ultimate conclusion should be attractive to many: rather than being thrown by mere random chance into the cold and uncaring void of the universe, to live out a brief, confused existence and then wink out into the nothingness whence we came, the existence of complex life in the world is due to a larger purpose, an overall arc that bends into the direction of greater objective value. Moreover, rather than going the traditional route and appealing to some omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent creator God that sees to it that everything unfolds according to His divine (and commonly, unfathomable) design, he proposes a way to reap those benefits without all the boring Sunday prayer sessions!

Thus, he breaks largely untrodden ground: proposing a middle way between a scientific, materialist, but ultimately uncaring cosmos, and a world unfolding according to a divine, but irreducibly mysterious, purpose. Just as evolution can give us design without a designer, he proposes meaning without a meaner. If this were a religion, I could well see myself signing up for it—but since it’s not, I don’t even have to do that! However, as also hinted at in the last column, the more alluring the conclusion, the more we have to critically examine the arguments leading up to it. Read more »

The How Of Why: Not Quite A Review (Part I)

by Jochen Szangolies

Is there mind and purpose even at the base level of reality? Philip Goff thinks for anything to matter, there has to be.

I’m inherently suspicious of overt declarations of having arrived at a certain position only through the strength of the arguments in its favor, even against one’s own prior commitments. If that were typically how things happen, then either there ought to be much more agreement than there is, or the vast majority of people are just irredeemably irrational.

There are several junctures in Philip Goff’s most recent book, Why? The Purpose of the Universe, at which we are treated to a description of the author’s intellectual journey, detailing how the force of argument necessitated course corrections. Now, changing your mind in the face of new information is generally a good thing: nobody gets it right on the first try, so everybody who’s held fast to their views probably just hasn’t examined them deeply. But still, very few people arrive at their position solely thanks to rational forces.

Luckily, most of the arguments in Goff’s book really are good ones. And what’s more, they’re presented in a way that’s accessible, without overly sacrificing detail, which he achieves by presenting them in a first pass, and then including a ‘Digging Deeper’-section devoted to clarifying various points and defending against some possible objections. That way, you can first get the gist, and perhaps return later to engage with the subject more deeply. Would that more philosophers, when writing for a non-specialist audience, showed that much consideration towards their audience!

Goff’s main contention is that the best available evidence, filtered through the understanding bestowed to us by our best current theories, does not paint a picture of a meaningless cosmos, as is usually claimed. (In the words of physicist Steven Weinberg, in his account of the creation of the universe, The First Three Minutes: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”) That may have been true in the days of the mechanical cosmos of Laplace, but, Goff holds, is no longer the case.

He marshals two main arguments in support of his conclusion. Read more »

Surfing the Ocean in My Sixties

by Barbara Fischkin

(l to r) Jennifer and Barbara Get Ready to Surf 
Photo by Bob Arkow

Deep Water Background

For an opus on surfing, I recommend Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. I am humbled each time I pick up this book. Four summers ago, at 64, I decided to try to surf. People who do not surf, and even some who do, are impressed when I mention this, as if any day now I will be gliding upright over sky-high waves and onto the shore. The truth: For me this is a very minor undertaking and would not even qualify as a hobby. In other words: It is something to sneeze at. I have yet to stand up on a surfboard.

I can get on two knees, briefly and occasionally crouch on one foot while supported by the other knee. Then splash, I fall backwards into the water. Backwards is the correct way to fall. You can see the board before it bangs you in the head. With any luck you can then grab its rim or use the leash—presumably still attached around your ankle—to pull the board towards you and safely away from other surfers. I congratulate myself for, at the least, being able to fall off a surfboard well.

Finnegan writes that if you want to be an accomplished surfer, you must start by the time you are fourteen, at the latest. The exact quote: “People who tried to start at an advanced age, meaning over fourteen, had, in my experience, almost no chance of becoming proficient, and usually suffered pain and sorrow before they quit. It was possible to have fun, though, under supervision, in the right conditions…”

I agree, with some caveats. Read more »

Never Mind: Straw Arguments Against Panpsychism

by Jochen Szangolies

The only thing worse than a good argument contrary to a conviction you hold is a bad argument in its favor. Overcoming a good argument can strengthen your position, while failing to may prompt you to reevaluate it. In either case, you’ve learned something—if perhaps at the expense of a cherished belief.

But with a bad argument, you’re put in an awkward situation. Since you agree with its conclusion, to the extent that you’re interested in spreading belief in this position, engaging it would not seem to be in your best interest. On the other hand, such arguments always carry the necessary raw materials for the construction of future strawmen within them: bundled together, they only need to then be knocked down with great aplomb to try and dissuade belief in the conclusion they purport to further. Hence, I call such arguments ‘straw arguments’.

Take the case of Ernst Haeckel’s supposed ‘biogenetic law’, which posits that the creation of the individual retraces the evolutionary history of the entire species—‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. Thus, that evolutionary history is manifest in the developmental stages of an individual history, giving direct evidence (of a sort) of this history. The only trouble is, it’s wrong; individual stages of embryonic development do not resemble adult stages of phylogenetic ancestors. Read more »

Exorcising a New Machine

by David Kordahl

A.I.-generated image (from DALL-E Mini), given the text prompt, “computer with a halo, an angel, but digital”

Here’s a brief story about two friends of mine. Let’s call them A. Sociologist and A. Mathematician, pseudonyms that reflect both their professions and their roles in the story. A few years ago, A.S. and A.M. worked together on a research project. Naturally, A.S. developed the sociological theories for their project, and A.M. developed the mathematical models. Yet as the months passed, they found it difficult to agree on the basics. Each time A.M. showed A.S. his calculations, A.S. would immediately generate stories about them, spinning them as illustrations of social concepts he had just now developed. From A.S.’s point of view, of course, this was entirely justified, as the models existed to illustrate his sociological ideas. But from A.M.’s point of view, this pushed out far past science, into philosophy. Unable to agree on the meaning or purpose of their shared efforts, they eventually broke up.

This story was not newsworthy (it’d be more newsworthy if these emissaries of the “two cultures” had actually managed to get along), but I thought of it last week while I read another news story—that of the Google engineer who convinced himself a company chatbot was sentient.

Like the story of my two friends, this story was mostly about differing meanings and purposes. The subject of said meanings and purposes was a particular version of LaMDA (Language Models for Dialog Applications), which, to quote Google’s technical report, is a family of “language models specialized for dialog, which have up to 137 [billion] parameters and are pre-trained on 1.56 [trillion] words of public dialog data and web text.”

To put this another way, LaMDA models respond to text in a human-seeming way because they are created by feeding literal human conversations from online sources into a complex algorithm. The problem with such a training method is that humans online interact with various degrees of irony and/or contempt, which has required Google engineers to further train their models not to be assholes. Read more »

The Mind and the Quantum: Complementary Perspectives

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Result of asking the NightCafe-AI to draw ‘quantum consciousness’: all of the bits and pieces seem evocative and intriguing, but fail to assemble into a coherent whole. A taste of things to come?

Reading the words ‘mind’ and ‘quantum’ in close proximity on the internet rarely inspires great confidence. Indeed, all too often, all this indicates is that you’re about a click away from learning about life-changing techniques of ‘Quantum Jumping’ to a parallel reality where all your wishes come true, using ‘Quantum Healing’ to ‘holistically’ heal the ‘bodymind’, and other What the Bleep Do We Know!?-esque nonsense. Therefore, in writing about the fraught intersection of quantum mechanics and the study of consciousness, one is faced first with the challenge of convincing the reader that there is actually something of value to be gained from investing their attentional resources. So let me first consider arguments against the relevance of quantum mechanics for consciousness.

First, of course, mere woo-by-association does not make a good argument. That people have misused the buzzwords of ‘quantum’, ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’ and the like to promote shoddy self-help strategies does not entail that they can’t be combined in a sensible, and ideally even illuminating, way. But there are commonly-cited objections that deserve serious consideration.

The most common is the ‘large, warm, and wet’-argument. Quantum mechanics is often (if somewhat misleadingly) considered to be the ‘science of the small’, whose effects are typically observed at length scales far removed from everyday sizes, and thus, from brains. Furthermore, quantum effects typically requires systems to be well-isolated from the environment, to not fall prey to decoherence effects. But brains aren’t generally thus isolated—indeed, in a sense, it’s the very point of a brain to interact with the environment. Finally, quantum systems, to limit interaction, often have to be cooled down to a few degrees above absolute zero, something that again isn’t conducive to the proper functioning of a brain. Read more »

The Problem Of The Inner: On The Subject-Ladenness Of Objectivity

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Cutting into a cake does not reveal the interior, but simply creates more—delicious—surface. Image credit: Caitlyn de Wild on Unsplash

Children, they say, are natural scientists (although opinion on what it is that makes them so appears divided). Each of us has probably been stumped by a question asked, out of the blue, that gives a sudden glimpse into the workings of a mind encountering the world for the first time, faced with the impossible task of making sense of it. While there may be an element of romanticisation at play, such moments also, on occasion, show us the world from a point of view where the assumptions that frame the adult world have not yet calcified into comforting certainties.

The questions I asked, as a child, where probably mostly of the ‘neverending chain of why’-sort (a habit I still haven’t entirely shed). But there was one idea that kept creeping up on me with an almost compulsive quality: how do I know what’s inside things? Is there anything, or is there just a dark nothing behind their flimsy outer skin? Granted, I probably didn’t phrase it in these terms, but there was a sort of vaguely realized worry that things might just suddenly go pop like an unsuspecting balloon pricked by a prankster’s needle, exposing themselves as ultimately hollow, mere shells.

It’s not such an easily dismissed idea. All we ever see of things are surfaces reflecting light. All we ever touch are exteriors. Even the tasting tongue, a favorite instrument of probing for the curious child, tastes nothing but what’s on the outside (incidentally, here’s something I always found sort of creepy: look at anything around you—your tongue knows exactly what it feels like).

You might think it’s a simple enough exercise to discover the inner nature of things—faced with, say, the deliciously decorated exterior of a cake, in the best analytic tradition, heed your inner lobster, whip out a knife and cut right into it to expose the sweet interior. But are you then truly faced with the cake’s inner nature? No—rather, you’re presented with the surface of the piece you cut out, and the rest remaining on the cake platter.

The act of cutting, rather than revealing the inner, just creates new exterior, by separating the cut object—you can’t cut your cake and leave it whole. Whenever threatened with exposure, the inner retreats behind fresh surface. Read more »

Incoherent Incoherence: Freedom In A Physical World II

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Statue of Ibn Rushd, author of the Incoherence of the Incoherence, in Córdoba, Spain. Image credit: Saleemzohaib, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahâfut al-falâsifa) is an attempt by 11th century Sunni theologian and mystic al-Ghazâlî to refute the doctrines of philosophers such as Ibn Sina (often latinized Avicenna) or al-Fârâbî (Alpharabius), which he viewed as heretical for favoring Greek philosophy over the tenets of Islam. Al-Ghazâlî’s methodological principle was that in order to refute the assertions of the philosophers, one must first be well versed in their ideas; indeed, another work of his, Doctrines of the Philosophers (Maqāsid al-Falāsifa), gives a comprehensive survey of the Neoplatonic philosophy he sought to refute in the Incoherence.

The Incoherence, besides its other qualities, is noteworthy in that it is now regarded as a landmark work in philosophy itself. Ibn Rushd (Averroes), in response, penned the Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahāfut al-Tahāfut), a turning point away from Neoplatonism to Aristotelianism.

In modern times, most allegations of ‘incoherence’ levied against philosophy come not from the direction of religion, but rather, from scientists’ allegations that their discipline has made philosophy redundant, supplanting it by a better set of tools to investigate the world. The perhaps most well-known example of this is Stephen Hawking’s infamous assertion that ‘philosophy is dead’, but similar sentiments are readily found. While the proponents of such allegations have not always shown shown al-Ghazâlî’s methodological scrupulousness in engaging with the body of thought they seek to refute, these are still weighty charges by some of the leading intellectuals of the day. Read more »

To See A World In A Grain Of Silicon: Why Minds Aren’t Programs

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The IBM 5150 Personal Computer, introduced August 1981. Image credit: wikipedia.

The year 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the introduction of IBM’s first Personal Computer (PC), the IBM 5150. Since then, computers have risen from a novelty to a ubiquitous fixture of modern life, with a transformative impact on nearly all aspects of work and leisure alike.

It is perhaps this ubiquity that prevents us from stopping to ponder the essentially mysterious powers of the computer, the same way a fish might not ponder the nature of the water it is immersed in.

By ‘mysterious powers’, I don’t mean the impressive capabilities modern computers offer, in terms of, say, data storage and manipulation—while it is no doubt remarkable that even consumer grade devices today are able to beat the best human players at chess, and the engineering behind such feats is miraculous, there is nothing mysterious about this ability.

No, what is mysterious is instead the feat of computation itself: a computer is, after all, a physical object; while a computation, say something straightforward like calculating the sum of two numbers, operates on abstract objects. Therefore, the question arises: how does the computer qua physical system connect to abstract objects, like numbers? Does it reach, somehow, into the Platonic realm itself? To the extend that computers can use the result of computations to drive machinery, they seem to present a bridge by which the abstract can have concrete physical effects. Read more »

“The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness” By Mark Solms

by Joan Harvey

For several years I enjoyed discussions about neuroscience with a friend (now deceased) who was a top rock climber. He and his buddies, when not performing solo climbs with torn shoulder muscles and sleeping on cliffside bivouacs, would listen to Sam Harris and talk neuroscience. We have conquered mountains, was their creed; now we will take on the mind. Because of this, and despite the fact that many top neuroscientists are women, and that many neuroscientists come across as gentle and balanced individuals, I got the idea of neuroscience as a slightly competitive macho sport. I grew up among mountains and as a young person I was fond of the Hopkins lines:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed…

Men and women are now fathoming these mind cliffs and, here and there, claiming first ascents.

In the middle of his new book The Hidden Spring, Mark Solms quotes Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” This could describe the thinking behind The Hidden Spring: to make the complex theory within as simple as possible, without dumbing it down so much as to be meaningless. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking—on the one hand Solms is addressing the “hard problem” of consciousness with his own relatively controversial theory; on the other hand he’s trying to explain general concepts of science (falsifiability, Bayesian theory, the free energy principle, Markov blankets, etc.) to a reader who might not know them, so as to guide them through his thinking.

Solms is successful, to my mind, but there remains the question: Who is the general reader (I salute you, General Reader) to whom he says the book is addressed, and whom he advises to ignore the endnotes aimed at academics? I suppose I qualify as a General Reader, as I have neither a math nor a science background, though I did compulsively read all the endnotes. One needn’t be familiar with the arguments of Nagel and Chalmers or Andy Clark’s predictive processing, as Solms summarizes their arguments clearly; on the other hand it probably doesn’t hurt to have some background, and I suspect the “general” reader who comes to this book will do better with at least an acquaintance with these things. Read more »

Translating Descartes

by Leanne Ogasawara

1. The philosopher and the translator

It was probably the most interesting translation job I ever had. Hired directly by the philosopher himself, my task was to translate into English a series of talks and papers he would be delivering in the US and Europe in the coming year. Philosophy being what I studied as an undergraduate, I had high hopes for the job. But my Japanese philosopher quickly became frustrated with me.

Leanne-san, is it possible for you to forget Descartes while you translate my papers? He wrote superciliously in a style of Japanese designed to be condescending beyond belief.

Well, this took me by surprise! Was it possible that I was guilty of an unconscious Cartesianism? Surely, he must be joking; for had I not studied at the feet of the great Heidegger scholar, Hubert Dreyfus, who had made it his mission to demolish Descartes in front of our very eyes –before turning to Heidegger? In all my philosophy classes, in fact, Descartes (always referred to as “the father of modern philosophy”) came up again and again–mainly in the form of other philosophers’ reactions to some aspect of his work.

So much so, that sometimes I think my understanding of Descartes is itself a rejection of Descartes.

And so, I informed my philosopher that not only had I forgotten Descartes long ago, but that I had no plans to ever remember him again.

He was not convinced and pressed his point. Read more »

On Awareness, pt. 1

by Evan Edwards


There’s a zen koan about master Nan-in and a younger monk, Tenno, who had been studying with his teacher for ten years. Tradition went that a student had to study this long before they were qualified to begin teaching, and Nan-in had invited Tenno over for tea to celebrate his pupilship coming to an end. Since it was raining that day, Tenno wore clogs and brought an umbrella, and left them by the door when he entered Nan-in’s home. After his guest had sat down, Nan-in asked Tenno, “I assume that since it is raining, you brought an umbrella. Correct? And did you put it on the left or the right of your clogs?” When he didn’t have an immediate answer, Tenno stood up and returned to the monastery in order to continue as a student for six more years.

The story is usually interpreted as an illustration of the value of attention and, more importantly, what we might call ‘awareness.’ Because Tenno was unable to recall the position of his umbrella, or perhaps better, because he was unaware of how he had arranged his things in the other room, he was not practicing “every-minute zen.” In other koans, the theme of the significance of attention and awareness return again and again. A student asked Master Ichu to write him something of great wisdom. Ichu took up his pen and wrote “attention.” The student asked Ichu what “attention” meant, and he responded that “attention means attention.” This theme seems to be so recurrent because, as individuals in the Vipassana school argue, nirvana, as a kind of “Budda-consciousness,” has to do with a particular state of vijnana, or “consciousness.” This kind of consciousness is a state of perfect awareness.

Certain strains of ecology and western environmental philosophy, also, stress the importance of awareness. In the work of Henry David Thoreau, we see an intense attention to nature that has been described by several commentators as an attempt to integrate himself more fully, and therefore live more authentically, within the web of life. Read more »