Graphing the equation y=1/x produces some weird behaviour as x approaches 0; the limit is ∞ since it is impossible to divide by 0. The invisible line that seems to appear at x = 0 is called an asymptote, and therefore, anything that is asymptotic approaches “a given value as an expression containing a variable [which] tends towards infinity” (‘Definition of Asymptotic | dictionary.com’). Math jargon aside, the idea is that as the value of x becomes increasingly small, its corresponding y value will increase exponentially as the function seemingly “avoids” x = 0, where x can be either a negative and positive number.
This is what I imagine is taking place when reading about Kant’s idea of perfection in The Metaphysics of Morals. In part one of Doctrine of the Elements of Ethics, specifically Book II Section II §22, Kant explicitly states that ‘perfection’ refers to a continual striving toward an ideal, as he states that it is not possible to actually reach a final point or destination of some type (Kant 241). Therefore, we ought to orient our efforts toward the notion of bettermentor personal growth, rather than actually achieving a state of perfection. As my partner puts it, “perfection necessarily includes the imperfections.”
Then by chance, if there is such a thing, some of Kant’s sentiments implicitly appeared in a book I finished recently about the work of Carl Jung by Mary Esther Harding. In the conclusion, she states “we should never forget that the world is made up of individuals, and that the one thing within our reach is our own development: it should not be neglected however much it may cost” (Harding 217). Personal growth is not easy, but it is the one aspect of our lives we have the most control over, despite how challenging it may feel in the moment. As such, we have a duty for striving toward a vague idea of perfection, all the while knowing that it is not meant to be achieved, which should come as a relief to many. One’s duty is to continuously try to do one’s best, and should that be insufficient or fail in some way, to reflect on it and accept it for its reality rather than feeling bad about it. According to Kant, this effort is what makes us more virtuous (Kant 242), and indeed, as one improves their skills in any domain, we are justified in having faith that our efforts do pay off eventually.
Although the word ‘virtuous’ is a quite rich and complex, or loaded, depending on one’s perspective, one way of thinking about it can be through the idea of a musician: Hilary Hahn is a virtuoso (virtuosa?) at the violin because she has this particular skill, but also because she “excels in musical technique or execution” (‘Definition of Virtuoso | dictionary.com’). Anyone who has trained in music or sports deeply understands that the only route toward improvement is practice, and as one continues to work, their abilities improve. Hilary will still make mistakes from time to time; she isn’t perfect but she understands that the only way to improve is to keep practicing until she can play Paganini or Sibelius as perfectly as possible on a given occasion. Never forget that the word ‘perfect’ is also a verb, as in “to perfect one’s skill”, and that because we will always be fallible and imperfect humans, are still vulnerable to making mistakes under certain conditions, like fatigue. Rather than worrying about “being perfect”, we ought to worry about striving toward betterment instead.
Maybe one poetic interpretation of the graph above is to view the x-axis as the number of mistakes made, while the y-axis represents one’s skill level: as the number of mistakes approaches zero, it can never actually be zero, and at the same time, one’s skill level only grows in value, approaching a never-ending concept like infinity, suggesting a boundlessness which is far more important, in my mind, than never making a mistake in the first place.
The moral of the story is that all the blood, sweat, and tears will pay off when one earnestly works toward one’s goals, provided acts of self-reflection about this progression are honest. If not, it will be difficult to determine just how to tailor one’s efforts in such a way which reduces certain mistakes or shortcomings. If one can accept that ‘perfection’ is not a final destination or state, but an activity, it seems as though just about anything is possible, albeit over an indefinite amount of time.
Thanks to my partner, I am now interested in learning to paint. I used to like to draw but painting has always been a daunting task. There are so many parameters to worry about, like colour, strokes, light, proportionality; I think it overwhelmed me. From my perspective, drawing is a little simpler; you have lines and some shading if you’re good. I think the thing that I found the most daunting, however, was picking subject matter. Why do people draw or paint the things they do? Most of the time, I couldn’t think of anything to paint, and would always worry about how the final product would turn out. My fearful immature mind would think something like “if mediocrity is the enemy, then it’s probably best that I stick to what I’m good at.” How lame is that? So, it’s time to tackle the fear of colour-matching and start by just making a mess. That’s what toddlers do with paint, so that’s what I shall do too, but a little less literally because my sensorimotor cortex has a better grip on how to move my hand. It’s not a lot better, but it’s something.
The idea for what to paint came to me, luckily, one day as I was thinking about time and reading about Cézanne. I was thinking about all the versions of still-life fruits and flowers that exist in the world, and then realized that these images were a snapshot of the object’s life, and that at one point, that one apple might have been green rather than red, for example. What if one were to paint all of the snapshots of the apple? In that moment, my mind produced a weird multi-coloured snake inside a tesseract, and it was at that point that I knew I had to try to externalize this image.
With my limited skills in visual representation, I knew I would need to take this slowly and plan every step of the image-creation project. I know I will make mistakes, but planning ahead and determining the steps I need to take beforehand helps to reduce the impact of the errors on the final product. The dimensions were the first thing to plan out: how is this going to fit within the canvas? Next, it was making sure the components of the foreground were properly set in relation to each other. Now that I am working on colour and detail, the real challenge begins.
To take a representation from the mind’s eye and depict it with high fidelity on a piece of paper or canvas is the hardest step. This is made explicit in Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind, and when I read segments of this book earlier in the year, it reminded me of the art I used to make as a kid and the feelings I had back then. That feeling of anxiety as the brain and body work together to represent a trait or idea (Derrida 36) is quite familiar, and perhaps it was this book that subconsciously rekindled my interest in creating visual art.Since skill is built up as the hand translates what the mind sees into line segments, angles, and shades of colour, I knew I would need a set “training-wheels” to get me going. By appealing to my experiences of drawing, I knew my pictures looked best when I could copy an image in front of me, as the external image is more concrete, visually, than my internal depiction. Existing still-life images act as my guide-dog as I feel around in the dark for ways of bringing this image to life. I know the vase needs to reflect light, but how? Fortunately, a quick internet search provides plenty of examples, but I am still looking for the right image, one that looks as close as possible to the scene in my imagination. I need to copy existing visual elements in order to articulate the ones produced by my neurons.
The lesson? More practice, less fretting. The expectations I place on my “art” are nothing but my own ideals, and after I challenge these ideals, the pleasure comes back. What ideals am I referring to? Productivity and achievement for the sake of bolstering one’s prospects or status, along with other notions that tend to suck the delight out of our endeavours. My partner often reminds me to enjoy the process and think less about the painting as a final product. Focus on the verb, not the noun. I am doing this for myself, not for the blog, not for my career, and certainly not for money. It’s an exercise in phenomenology, nothing more. Will thoughts of hustle-culture sneak up on me when I’m vulnerable? Yes, but that’s why this is about my inner representations, including those that make me doubt myself.
Derrida, Jacques, and Musée du Louvre. Memoirs of the blind: The self-portrait and other ruins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment about qualia asks whether there are subjective facts about the colour red that are distinct from the physical facts produced through scientific inquiry (Jackson 291). The story involves an individual named Mary who grew up in a black-and-white room and has never seen any colours, but has studied everything there is to know about “redness” and how the brain processes light. As a neuroscientist, her studies have provided her with a robust theoretical understanding of colour perception without ever having experienced colour herself, leading us to wonder whether she learns anything new about the colour red after she sees red for the first time. The claim Jackson is interested in making is that there is no information about the experiences of others that Mary had not learned about while in her room. If Mary were to be released only to “realize how impoverished her conception of the mental life of others has been all along” Jackson suggests this generates a problem for physicalism (292).
William Lycan believes Mary would learn something new upon leaving the room because she is now presented with a new form of representation, namely, one produced by the act of introspection (Lycan 389). Building on Nagel’s ideas about what-it-is-like to experience things from a certain perspective, Lycan suggests the mind presents objects or features of the environment in a “special, uniquely internal point of view” (Lycan 390). More interestingly, Lycan goes on to suggest that the contents of these introspective representations are “non-physical pieces of information” (Lycan 391). This is because these internal representations are not synonymous with English words, or any other natural language words, because the internal monitors present within our bodies do not rely on linguistics. What I am assuming he means by this is that although we may use language for inner speech or verbalized thought, representations for qualia or phenomenal experiences such as redness or pain do not use language, but are intrinsic to the body and are relatively ineffable (Dennett 385). Lycan also suggests that these representations are non-physical because neuroscience is unable to provide information on introspective content, and as such, Mary could only represent other people’s experiences of red from a public, neuroscientific perspective (Lycan 393).
While this thought-experiment might pose problems for certain physicalist views, our general understanding of the world at this point in time can start to account for why Mary learns something new upon leaving the room. As she learns about how her own body generates experiences of red from a first-person perspective, she is now able to understand how others must use these internal representations as well. Since neuroscience is only interested in the functional organization of the brain and nervous system, Mary does not know how red appears to subjects engaging with particular wavelengths of light. Prior to her release, Mary could theoretically understand how individuals shop for tomatoes, but without the ability to see red, how this selection process is experienced from an individual’s perspective is still a mystery to her. The inner, subjective details of how people generally go about searching for the ideal tomato were previously off-limits, as her abilities to discriminate colours had yet to be developed. As such, Mary’s understanding of what redness means, especially when fruit shopping, would have been incomplete. Her own, internalized associative network of red objects and their commonalities would be absent or piecemeal, therefore limiting her understanding of how we collectively think about and interact with redness or red objects.
Dennett, Daniel C. ‘Quining Qualia’. Consciousness in Modern Science, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 381–414.
Jackson, Frank. ‘What Mary Didn’t Know’. The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 83, no. 5, JSTOR, 1986, pp. 291–95.
Lycan, William G. ‘Perspectival Representation and the Knowledge Argument’. Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives, OUP Oxford, 2003, p. 384.
I wrote a rhetorical post a while ago that attempts to motivate a new perspective on qualia and why we ought to consider it as something philosophically valuable. My appeals to art and cultural products aim to be persuasive by connecting qualia to everyday experiences, however, I think it still comes across as too abstract or unclear because the arguments are not well articulated. One of my supervisors has been instrumental for pushing me to abstract away from the science and evidence, and I now have a general idea of where I went wrong in my previous attempts to clarify my own perspective. Emphasis on ‘general’ because there is a lot of work to be done before I fully understand the difference between where I was and where I want to go.
Qualia, ultimately, are just concepts, which essentially boil down to information. This information is applied to the lived experience of one’s own sense data, as received from the environment, either internally in the form of bodily feelings, for example, or externally, as generated by features of the physical world. When we notice this sense data, which I consider similar to phenomenal experiences or Chalmers’ registrations (Chalmers 214), we often need a way to conceptually organize it. As a functional system, the brain receives incoming signals and processes them through various functions or streams, subsequently creating perceptions from sensations (Wolfe et al. 3). Our perceptions, however, are malleable based on information the individual has access to. This ranges from subtle, unconscious shifts in perspective to deliberate thought processes aimed at rethinking the situation at hand. As the body turns data into information (Computer Hope) through functional biological processes, qualia serve to facilitate the mind as the body’s owner or central processing unit by providing additional information which structures and curtails the process of perceiving.
Qualia as information can be passed from human to human as expressions of subjectivity as a means of connecting with others, in addition to making sense of the world. If qualia seem to be illusory or unreal, perhaps it’s because the significance of this information is lost as we try to make sense of what the mind is really doing from a scientific perspective. It probably doesn’t help that ‘information’ is abstract, conceptual, and invisible, as its inherent subtlety enables one to easily overlook or neglect its importance for structuring human thought and behaviour. Perhaps we take our theory of mind for granted and ignore subtle forms of communication, deeming the exchange of knowing glances as something less significant than a well-formed linguistic phrase. Though the information expressed through these channels may not demonstrate a high degree of fidelity to the thought as it exists in the mind of the communicator, our mere ability to communicate this way suggests that additional information already exists in the mind of the receiver, information which can contribute to shaping of the act of perceiving data about body language.
Through qualia, we are better equipped to separate the signal from the noise to determine its meaning, however, we are also reminded through the sharing of these experiences via various mediums that even in our private subjectivity, we are not alone. The “what-it-feels-like” inherent in qualia may be unique to a particular body, but similarities may also exist between individuals. The knowledge of these similarities supports our endeavours to make sense of our feelings and sensations, ultimately allowing us to accept ourselves and our experiences as they are. Although the act of sharing personal, subjective experiences serves a practical social purpose like fostering cooperation and empathy, qualia are useful for individuals as well. The exploration of our subjective selves, along with some act of expression, also allows us to feel more comfortable as we process the deluge of sense data as received by various sensory organs within the human body. Through qualia, we are reminded that the body we inhabit is not a boundary between our inner selves and the subjectivity of others, but a structure that creates and presents information based on our experiences of incoming sense data. This information may be elusive, but it still exists and is significant for structuring human consciousness.
Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In search of a fundamental theory. Oxford university press, 1996.
Wolfe, Jeremy M., et al. Sensation & perception. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 2015.
I recognize this post will seem a bit tin-foily but I think it’s time we start acknowledging the consequences of a disrupted global supply chain. Perhaps things won’t get as bad as I am predicting but I think the underlying message will be relevant at some point. Ultimately, the standard of living we grew up taking for granted is about to change to some degree.
The majority of foods we consume and enjoy are dependent on global industries which are currently altering production and transportation protocols as demand and supply continue to change. Regardless of whether shortages arise due to nations restricting exports or locusts ravaging farmlands, it seems likely that by midsummer we will lose access to a variety of foods. Today, we see restaurants only offering take-away or delivery options in an attempt to find a balance between remaining open and upholding distancing measures. Grocery stores are either running out of products or limiting which items they order, as I hear shelves tend to be more empty these days. Before long, the service workers who prepare this food are likely to disappear too, as they themselves become sick or simply refuse to continue to put themselves at risk. Facilities where ready-made meals are prepared may also see a shortage of workers, limiting options for those who do not prepare their own food. We will be required to make everything ourselves, and before you call my a whiny millenial, remember that this is just the beginning. Processed foods will be next, including frozen meals, baked goods, canned soups and sauces, cookies, chips, crackers; anything that is not considered an ingredient. Eventually, however, personnel involved with all levels of the supply chain will be impacted in some way, leading to shortages of produce, dairy, and meat. I have been working on this post for a few weeks, and recently the talk of meat shortages has only increased. While we may not see wide-scale shortages until the end of the year, the decline in numbers of human workers is approaching and it will impact access to most foods.
While you may be able to survive a year without a decent burrito, these effects are not short-term as the entire world is in the midst of readjusting. You may have heard the stories of vegetables rotting in the fields or milk being dumped, but what you may not realize is these were ingredients for future foods too. The downstream effects will be a reduction in selection, and by selection I’m not talking about brands but categorical options. The only milk you may have access to is homogenized milk and cream; no skim, no 2%, and certainly no 1%. If you’re lactose intolerant, you may only be able to buy soy beverage given the recent nature of the American agricultural economy. Unilever or Kraft may have to cut production of certain items given these shortages, and suddenly we are in the midst of a type of food shortage in a time where emotional eating is at its height.
When you no longer have access to the things you love, the things that comfort you, what will you do? There are other forms of escapism and sugar comes in many forms, but we take variety for granted. We have become dependent on satisfying our appetites to some degree, regardless of whether it’s through alcohol, sugar, fat, or caffeine. We cope by consuming these substances and take pleasure in their effects, but there may also be other associations with these foods which contributes to societal well-being. Families and mealtimes go hand-in-hand all over the world, and it is difficult to determine how changes to supply chains will impact social relations.
Another option for coping is through various forms of media, as it entertains us and distracts our minds from the horror of reality. The problem arises from the tight coupling of food and visual media, irrespective of advertising. Since food is a cultural activity enabled by peak globalism, and a source of human happiness, we may suffer if this shared experience has been diminished to some degree. This may become especially apparent if images of our favourite foods are continuously popping up in our attempts to distract ourselves. Currently, social media posts include pictures of homemade creations or recommended recipes, and scrolling through staged photos may enrage us if we can’t have what we are seeing. It will remind us of a time when we had it all but didn’t even know it.
Until then, we will begin to value normalcy as type of currency, where our motivations aim to meet a luxurious set of basic needs. First-world lifestyles are built on options and variety in the things we consume, from Netflix shows to vegetarian alternatives. Notions of scarcity in a postmodern society seem ironic because it implies a reduction in standard of living, not necessarily a threat to survival. As we take our current way of life for granted, the more we put ourselves at cognitive and emotional risk. We have to acknowledge our personal dependency on this consumeristic environment we grew up assuming was normal. This has produced a level of entitlement which is about to be threatened or at least thrust into the spotlight, and perhaps leading to a reduction in emotional well-being. Some are frustrated by the actions of those who believe their freedoms are being restricted, and those protesting lock down orders inspire others to demand things “return to normal.” I don’t see it happening. Will this lead to societal unrest, especially as unemployment numbers grow? Of course it’s difficult to determine how society will adjust to this new normal, but I don’t like the way things are going today. Throw a change of available coping mechanisms into the mix and ask yourself, how are we going to handle this adjustment to a new normal? Maybe we won’t feel it until this time next year, but I believe our collective emotional well-being is about to deteriorate, for a number of reasons.
The University of Guelph has a Philosophy of Biology course and it was everything I was hoping it would be. Jointly taught by Dr. Stefan Linquist and Dr. Ryan Gregory, our focus on arguments surrounding epigenetics led many to agree there isn’t really a lot of new information. The book Extended heredity: a new understanding of inheritance and evolution turned out to be hilariously contradictory, as many of the concepts it presented can be easily explained by existing biological theories. I had an opportunity to receive feedback on ideas I have about Chalmers’ “bridging principles” and how biological processes produce subjective feelings. As I suspected, an incredible amount of work needs to be done to get these ideas together, but I have a direction now. The project is being placed on the back burner though and so is my attempt to work on consciousness at school. I’m not too worried, I’ll get to it later.
For now, I’m going to work on an argument for an upcoming need to reconsider our conception of robots and our relationships with them, particularly as they begin to resemble subjects rather than objects. There is a growing demand for robotic solutions within the realm of healthcare, suggesting certain functionality must be incorporated to achieve particular outcomes. Information processing related to social cues and contexts such as emotional expression will be important to uphold patient dignity and foster well-being. Investigating Kismet‘s architecture suggests cognition and emotion operate in tandem to orient agents toward goals and methods for obtaining them. The result of this functional setup, however, is it requires humans to treat Kismet like a biological organism, implying a weak sense of subjectivity. I’m also interested in considering objections to the subjectivity argument and reasons why our relationships with robots will remain relatively unchanged.
My original post on the philosophy of biology cited the entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which is authored Paul Griffiths. I learned earlier this term that Dr. Linquist studied under Dr. Griffiths, a fact that should not be surprising but is still quite exciting.
I’m looking forward to working on this project and the outcome of the feedback and learning, but I am going to get knocked down many levels over the next six months or so. I mean, that’s why I am here.
Bonduriansky, Russell, and Troy Day. Extended heredity: a new understanding of inheritance and evolution. Princeton University Press, 2018.
It’s been quite a while since I last owned mollygraham.net and it’s pretty strange to think about all that has happened between then and now. Back in 2010, I was in Vancouver earnestly trying to develop my skills as a seamstress and clothing designer, and this site used to have images of my first attempts at creating my own brand. Oh how the times have changed…
This post will be a little more personal than the others, just because it’s my first and I want to set the stage for both who I am and the ideas I intend to pursue. For the most part, future posts will be centered around philosophy and ideas about artificial intelligence and human cognition.
However, please allow me to briefly introduce myself.
Fashion design (actually the arts in general) is ruthlessly cut-throat, and at some point I realized it would require more dedication than I was willing to provide. It was not for a lack of energy did I relegate this skill back to a hobby; I just had a feeling there might be something better suited to my abilities that I could pursue instead. Actually, it was the need for a website which lead me to learn about HTML and CSS, and eventually it introduced me to programming in general. Since I tend to be somewhat pragmatic, and knew this field was secure and paid well, I decided to take courses on software development at BCIT. I was extremely lucky and managed to land two awesome developer jobs after a year of part-time courses. I worked as a junior programmer for almost a year and a half, and learned a lot about computer science and technology, as well as aspects of working at medium to large-scale companies. However, Vancouver’s dreary weather was starting to gnaw at my psyche, and I had always been interested in living in Toronto, so off I went. It was while I was pursuing programming jobs here that I decided to apply to the University of Toronto, but this time for psychology.
While working at Western Union Business Solutions, I was introduced to the idea of artificial intelligence. We actually had an office book club (I hope it still lives to this day) which would meet for an hour every Friday to discuss a book relevant to software development. After we finished one on object-oriented programming, it came time for a vote and Hofstader’s brilliant Godel, Escher, Bach was chosen. Not only did it blow my mind, but it lead the conversation to discuss AI. Immediately the notion captivated me and I had to know more. This had to be the single coolest idea I had ever heard about. Moreover, one of my colleagues (… Ari? I have been struggling for many years to remember the name of the person who said this) mentioned that consciousness might be a recursive function. BOOM. Since I already had a decent understanding of psychology due to taking it in high school, I could kind of see how this was possible. I had to pursue this.
So when I enrolled at U of T, I figured I’d major in psychology and minor in computer science. The faculty of computer science wasn’t exactly the same practical, hands-on approach that the polytechnic offered, and feeling disillusioned, I switched to philosophy to round out my theoretical understanding of both the mind and computer science. It turned out that I actually love philosophy, and had been quietly philosophizing for most of my life without even realizing it. I just love reading new perspectives and ideas, so I felt right at home writing essays about abstract topics.
It was in third year when the idea hit me. I envisioned a rough outline of an account for how the phenomenon of consciousness came into being, ontologically speaking. Furthermore, these ideas could be isomorphically implemented into computers or machines. After years of feeling directionless and unsure about what I wanted to pursue, I finally “felt my calling.” Carl Jung was spot on: “People don’t have ideas, ideas have people.”
Now, it’s my last term in my fourth year and I am taking a seminar in philosophy of mind which will give me the chance to write about these ideas, and better yet, get feedback about them. Eventually I will go on to do a graduate degree, but I haven’t done any research about it yet. After I graduate, I will take a year to work and write, as well as devote time into my other hobbies, like sewing and practicing the cello.
I apologize for the rambling autobiography, but I wanted to give my readers a sense of where I’m coming from. I also want to document the thoughts and feelings I have had over the last several years, perhaps as a way to appreciate the growth and changes I’ve been through. This is just the beginning though; the engine has been fueled and I will do whatever it takes to build a conscious machine.
Anyway, the rest of my entries will not be about my life, and if I do sprinkle in my personal stories from time to time, I will keep them brief and modest with the aim to relate them to wider contexts.