Category: Metaphysics

Nu Metaphysics

Now that its semantic baggage has been disposed of, as suggested in Themes in Postmetaphysical Thinking by Jürgen Habermas, it’s time to rekindle our study of metaphysics. Going back to basics then, we can reconceptualize the word ‘metaphysics’ by thinking about what ‘meta’ actually means. A quick search on dictionary.com provides this definition: “pertaining to or noting an abstract, high-level analysis or commentary, especially one that consciously references something of its own type.” Given this, ‘metaphysics’ can be thought of as “the physics of physics” and since physics essentially just boils down to mathematics, can we not conclude that metaphysics is just more math? Furthermore, if physics aims to articulate patterns of cause-and-effect as observed in the natural world, ‘metaphysics’ then pertains to the field of study about the causal relations between these observed mathematical principles. All in all, rather than discussing entities, we ought to be discussing processes as they exist within and between physical systems.

Just as a quick note, however, I believe this idea originates in structural realism, specifically ontic structural realism (OSR), which suggests that the universe is made up of relations rather than entities like quarks and hydrogen atoms (Ladyman). The beauty of OSR is that the relata themselves exist as relations, albeit at a lower physical level. The energy produced by the Big Bang is what instigates the processes which gives rise to these structures, culminating into the reality we aim to measure in the sciences.

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here, so bare with me. While Hegelian Dialectics aim to articulate an epistemic or cognitive process of comparing “opposing sides” or perspectives to uncover emergent products, in the form of ideas (Maybee), perhaps this notion can be extended to the physical world too. We know that as physical systems interact, the emergent phenomena is unlike anything present within the underlying components, as identified by Jaegwon Kim in Making Sense of Emergence (Kim 20–21). While Hegel appeals to a “thesis” and an “antithesis”, we can think of these as different systems interacting to produce novel effects. It is this process of combining, configuring, and rearranging elements within each “side” or system which can be considered metaphysical.

The idea of “magic” is just this: effects with obscure physical origins that are not immediately apparent to the observer. The example I appeal to is John Nash’s game theory which identifies how the cooperation between two individuals results in outcomes that are unlike those produced when agents operate separately. Nash identified a regularity within physical systems, namely humans, that produces an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. Additionally, while game theory is theoretically subsumed by physics, insofar that it is a part of our physical world, the way it is articulated is through mathematics and procedures, rather than existing as an entity like an atom.

Although currently, there doesn’t seem to be much philosophical consensus on the metaphysical problem of the mind/consciousness, this issue can be resolved by naturalizing the works of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. As biological creatures improved their sensorimotor capacities through [natural/sexual/etc.] selective processes, the brain evolved new ways of solving problems produced by aspects of the environment. By turning back to reflect on itself as an embodied agent, individuals become aware of their relative position in their environment and perhaps their life as an unfolding process. From phenomenal consciousness emerged access consciousness, and through similar reflexive processes, a wider “cosmic” consciousness will likewise spread throughout humanity. Once we realize what and where we are, we can understand how this relates to others, allowing individuals to see beyond their own needs and desires to act in the interest of others or the group. Through this cooperation, we all benefit by looking out for one another, just as game theory predicts. To do this, however, one must cultivate a self-awareness which facilitates the ability to speculate about other minds and the ways in which others may perceive the world.

Works Cited

Kim, Jaegwon. ‘Making Sense of Emergence’. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, vol. 95, no. 1/2, 1999, pp. 3–36.

Ladyman, James. ‘Structural Realism’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2020, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/structural-realism/.

Maybee, Julie E. ‘Hegel’s Dialectics’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2020, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/hegel-dialectics/.

Magic in Culture

Now is a good time to inject a little magic into every day life by examining and revelling in humanity’s vast history of cultural knowledge and practices. I encourage you to consider your capacity for creativity as a source of magic, where your ability to generate something more from something less is a special kind of wizardry. Moreover, our creations take on a life of their own as others are free to reference and expand upon these contributions. This is especially true today as the internet allows us to find like-minded individuals and communities which appreciate specific skills and the fruits of their labour.

In fact, it could be argued from an anthropological perspective, the internet is as magical as it gets. Although the term itself is used as a noun, the thing it references is more like a vague verb than a solid concept or object. We talk about a thing we don’t often think deeply about, especially due to its physical opacity and degree of technicality. Holding a hard-drive in your hand does not clarify this ambiguity and any resulting confusion, as there is nothing to suggest in these materials that an entire virtual world exists within. Without a screen and a means to display its contents, the information inside is rendered unknowable to the human mind. The amount of human knowledge, skill, and technological progress required to sustain life today is evidence of our power as creators, however, what seems to be missing is a sense of awe that ought to accompany the witnessing of supernatural events.

The causal powers of seemingly magical effects, like electricity for example, can more or less be explained or accounted for by applications of dynamics systems theory, as the interactions of environmental conditions over time is required for the emergence of new properties or products. These emergent products are generated by restructuring lower-level entities or conditions but are not reducible to them, nor are predictable from the lower level (Kim 20-21). Electricity is generated by transforming physical forces and materials into energy, emerging from the interaction of environmental variables like heat and air pressure for example. Alternatively, consider a simple loaf of bread as created by the interaction of flour, a leavening agent like yeast, time, and heat. The ingredients for the bread, like the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt, must be added in a specific order at a specific time in order for the final product to truly become ‘bread’.

Emergence can also be identified in game theory, as cooperation generates a non-zero sum outcome where individuals gain more by working together than if they were working alone (Curry 29). Human economies are founded on this principle of cooperation, as trading goods and services with others theoretically improves the lives individuals working to honour the agreement. From this perspective, it turns out that bronies have identified a fundamental principle of life: friendship is magick because cooperation generates something more from something less. Just as individuals are free to expand upon or reshape the ideas and contributions of others, and groups of individuals are able to combine their expertise to build something new altogether, like the internet. Not only can we establish conceptual connections between past, present, and future, we can connect with each other to expand our understanding of some portion of human culture.

Works Cited

Curry, Oliver Scott. ‘Morality as Cooperation: A Problem-Centred Approach’. The Evolution of Morality, Springer, 2016, pp. 27–51.

Kim, Jaegwon. ‘Making Sense of Emergence’. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, vol. 95, no. 1/2, 1999, pp. 3–36.

Subjects as Embodied Minds

Last year I wrote a paper on robot consciousness to submit to a conference, only to realize that there is a better approach to establishing this argument than the one I took. In Sartrean Phenomenology for Humanoid Robots, I attempted to draw a connection between Sartre’s description of self-awareness and how this can be applied to robotics, and while at the time I was more interested in this higher-order understanding of the self, it might be a better idea to start with an argument for phenomenal consciousness. I realized that technically, iCub already has phenomenal consciousness and its own type of qualia, a notion I should develop more before moving on to discuss how we can create intelligent, self-aware robots.

What I originally wanted to convey was how lower levels of consciousness act as a foundation from which higher-order consciousness emerges as the agent grows up in the world, where access consciousness is the result of childhood development. Because this paper is a bit unfocused, I only really talked about this idea in one paragraph when it should be its own paper:

“Sartre’s discussion of the body as being-for-itself is also consistent with the scientific literature on perception and action, and has inspired others to investigate enactivism and embodied cognition in greater detail (Thompson 408; Wider 385; Wilson and Foglia; Zilio 80). This broad philosophical perspective suggests cognition is dependent on features of the agent’s physical body, playing a role in the processing performed by the brain (Wilson and Foglia). Since our awareness tends to surpass our perceptual contents toward acting in response to them (Zilio 80), the body becomes our centre of reference from which the world is experienced (Zilio 79). When Sartre talks about the pen or hammer as an extension of his body, his perspective reflects the way our faculties are able to focus on other aspects of the environment or ourselves as we engage with tools for some purpose. I’d like to suggest that this ability to look past the immediate self can be achieved because we, as subjects, have matured through the sensorimotor stage and have learned to control and coordinate aspects of our bodies. The skills we develop as a result of this sensorimotor learning enables the brain to redirect cognitive resources away from controlling the body to focus primarily on performing mental operations. When we write with a pen, we don’t often think about how to shape each letter or spell each word because we learned how to do this when we were children, allowing us to focus on what we want to say rather than how to communicate it using our body. Thus, the significance of the body for perception and action is further reinforced by evidence from developmental approaches emerging from Piaget’s foundational research.”

Applying this developmental process to iCub isn’t really the exciting idea here, and although robot self-consciousness is cool and all, it’s a bit more unsettling, to me at least, to think about the fact that existing robots of this type technically already feel. They just lack the awareness to know that they are feeling, however, in order to recognize a cup, there is something it is like to see that cup. Do robots think? Not yet, but just as dogs have qualia, so does iCub and Haikonen’s XCR-1 (Law et al. 273; Haikonen 232–33). What are we to make of this?

by Vincenzo Fiorecropped

Works Cited

Haikonen, Pentti O. ‘Qualia and Conscious Machines’. International Journal of Machine Consciousness, World Scientific Publishing Company, Apr. 2012. world, www.worldscientific.com, https://doi.org/10.1142/S1793843009000207.

Law, James, et al. ‘Infants and ICubs: Applying Developmental Psychology to Robot Shaping’. Procedia Computer Science, vol. 7, Jan. 2011, pp. 272–74. ScienceDirect, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procs.2011.09.034.

Thompson, Evan. ‘Sensorimotor Subjectivity and the Enactive Approach to Experience’. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, vol. 4, no. 4, Dec. 2005, pp. 407–27. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-005-9003-x.

Wider, Kathleen. ‘Sartre, Enactivism, and the Bodily Nature of Pre-Reflective Consciousness’. Pre-Reflective Consciousness, Routledge, 2015.

Wilson, Robert A., and Lucia Foglia. ‘Embodied Cognition’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2017, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2017. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/embodied-cognition/.

Zilio, Federico. ‘The Body Surpassed Towards the World and Perception Surpassed Towards Action: A Comparison Between Enactivism and Sartre’s Phenomenology’. Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, vol. 28, no. 1, 2020, pp. 73–99. PhilPapers, https://doi.org/10.5195/jffp.2020.927.

Math and Logic: software running on a kernel?

One of my favourite stories from human history involves the discovery of the relationship between mathematics and logic in the early 20th century, the one that ends in bitter disappointment and the birth of the computer. While I must admit that a portion of my appreciation for this topic is the direct result of a particular story-teller’s sparkling charisma, the mystery uncovered by Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems has become a kind of meme-parasite that keeps eating at my cognitive energy. It’s one of those topics that I like to think about when I can’t sleep, and while it is on my to-do list of research projects, unfortunately its rank is pretty low for now. Since I have done little research in this area, the questions and propositions I am about to present are probably wrong or misguided to some degree, but here they are.

Could formal logic, as a representational format with axioms and guided by rules, provide us with a language for articulating laws of metaphysics? From a folk-theoretic perspective, we do this when we talk about whether something is or is not the case, or whether something could be possible given certain conditions. These yes-no questions return a boolean value which may influence further processing or decision-making, like whether or not to bring an umbrella. Our behaviour is governed by events in the real world occurring or failing to obtain, and while our neocortex may like the details of these events, our embodied, animal selves ultimately needs to make a decision about something. Examining simpler organisms, it seems the biological norm tends to involve a limited set of behavioural responses to environmental stimuli, like “fight or flight” for example, which are executed when certain conditions are met. It seems as though the nervous system operates similarly to the way computers use bits, in that if something is or is not the case, then a command can be executed. Notice how these operations are reliant on causation, events generated by physical regularities.Since these binary values serve as a foundation for formal logic more generally, we can identify a connection between tracking physical regularities and modern formal logic.

Being a naturalist, I’m inclined to think the universe works in strange ways and humans have been clever enough to capture some of that strangeness and represent it in accurately through formal systems like math and logic. Although these systems are human creations, they are able to correctly represent the aspects of our physical universe as a result of thousands of years of development. We know this because we have successfully sent humans to the moon and back again; if our formal systems were flawed in any way, such a trip would have made this fact more than apparent.

So what isthe difference between math and logic, aside the fact that there will be unprovable mathematical statements (Raatikainen)? I’m wondering if the devil is in the generativity mathematics provides and the pressure that puts on verification as a result. While logic can handle the processing of quantities, mathematics is like a specialized expansion pack that runs on top of logical systems. With the development of agriculture in early human history, we moved away to relying on the environment to a new type of self-reliance, one which requires physical records for accounting and bookkeeping. While aspects of this new formal system are isomorphic to rules and axioms in logic, mathematics creates a space for explaining physical laws and regularities. Mathematics can track aspects of the environment that logic cannot, like rates of change and probability, and provides us with more information about the details of our physical universe. Physics, as a modern topic of study, provides an epistemic foundation for human societies because it explains both ‘what’ and ‘how’, using the scientific method as a vetting process to inch us toward a decent understanding of reality.

Humans will always notice patterns in systems because that is what our brain has evolved to do, which means the act of verification requires the creation of a separate system because our questions abstract away from the particular to the general. If we want to know whether some local phenomena applies to the system globally, like whether the existence of twin primes continues on indefinitely, we need a separate system, perhaps one built on formal logic, to verify this. These systems contain properties and rules which map to versions in the other, however, their separation is a feature, not a bug, to the chagrin of David Hilbert (Zach). By adding a naturalized epistemological dimension to this discussion on the relationship between math and logic, we can start to see the strengths and weakness of each for human knowledge and understanding. Although logic provides us with a degree of certainty, it necessarily comes at a cost. Mathematics, on the other hand, may allow us to understand our universe in greater detail, however, there will always be patterns or phenomena which will evade certainty or a complete understanding.

What about quantum mechanics? All I will say on the matter is this domain seems to involve probabilities, the space between 0 and 1. Could the strange phenomena seen at this physical level defy some aspect of logic we take for granted in physics? Are we dealing with a new formal system here? If math is like software and logic is like a kernel, what would the electricity in this metaphor be? I have more food for the parasite I guess.

Works Cited

Raatikainen, Panu, “Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/goedel-incompleteness/>.

Zach, Richard, “Hilbert’s Program”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/hilbert-program/>.

Metaphysics?

Still-life paintings from a new perspective: how does fruit ripen over time?
A depiction of a time lapse represented in 3 dimensions, from the perspective of 4 dimensions, on a mostly 2 dimensional plane.

Fruit of the Room, acrylic and embroidery floss, 2021
Fruit of the Room in my room
The fuzz on the thread reflecting blended or imprecise boundaries?

Anxiety in Creation

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.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques, and Musée du Louvre. Memoirs of the blind: The self-portrait and other ruins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Qualia Revisited

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.

Works Cited

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.

https://www.computerhope.com/issues/ch001629.htm

Rescuing Qualia

In Quining Qualia, Dennett states “conscious experience has no properties that are special in any of the ways qualia have been supposed to be special” where qualia are considered “special properties, in some hard-to-define way.” His appeals to intuition aim to defend these ideas, however, the examples he provides may fail to convince the reader as objections can be drawn based on an understanding of nervous system functioning and through examining human behaviour. Here, I’m interested in providing an explanation for qualia which does not rely on some intrinsic property of the mind, but a product of culture which influences, and is influenced by, individual humans and their subjective experiences.

To be facetious for a moment, if qualia did not exist, how could one explain why it is that humans feel compelled to spend energy, time, and money on creating, sharing, and experiencing art? Dennett might appeal to the nature of subjective experiences or perhaps to our motivation for seeking pleasure, however there is much more to subjective experiences than one’s feelings or mental representations evoked by some stimulus. Knowledge surrounding a particular stimulus may shape the way it feels or appears from a first-person perspective; for example, mistaking a benign object for a threat of some kind. A coat and hat hanging on a wall hook inside a dark room may be mistaken for a person, perhaps causing one to feel threatened or startled by the apparent intruder, only to discover the truth after turning on the lights. The subjective experience prompted by the sight of the coat and hat is different than if the illusion had indeed been an unexpected guest, primarily due to the relief one is likely to feel at discovering the reality of the situation. In the case of experiencing art, subjective experiences may change over time or with repeated exposure, but our minds are also influenced by the minds of others. The ability to communicate our feelings to others introduces additional perspectives surrounding a particular stimuli, potentially altering one’s own perception and subsequent experiences. These shared ideas or experiences are then represented through cultural artifacts, practices, or beliefs, and aim to depict associations between sensations and perceptions. In this way, qualia are a features of the natural world insofar as they are a result of evolution and human intelligence, becoming “real” as they shape the ways individuals experience and interact with various stimuli.

Not all subjective experiences become qualia though, as some perceptions are more difficult to articulate than others. How to articulate one’s visual experiences of red? It may remind you of something, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like much to merely look at a red object. I can infer that you probably see the colour red like I do when I consider your behaviour around colourful objects. If someone were to indicate their inability to distinguish colours in the same way that I do, I might perform a quick test to verify the experiential discrepancy. Regardless of individual perception however, there is still “something it is like” to see the colour red as most of us do and are able to create representations appealing to this visual quality. Articulating the nature of ‘red’ on its own is rather tough because its qualities aren’t a composite of other visual qualities per say, at least not in the way that ‘orange’ is. From this perspective, qualia emerge through the act of communicating our experiences to others and through identifying the various phenomenological aspects they contain. Qualia feel real to humans because we use them to engage with artistic practices, almost like Dawkins’ memes but saturated in visceral associations to various sensations and perceptions.

If qualia aren’t real, then why does a collection of piano chords remind Debussy and other listeners of clouds? Language enables us to describe our subjective experiences using similes, where one environmental feature reminds us of something else. These associations are likely to follow certain regularities given the laws and constraints of our universe and our physiology, resulting in a similarities between subjective and shared experiences. I doubt any listener will associate Debussy’s pieces with the eruption of Krakatoa, but it seems reasonable to assume some individuals may think of water rather than the sky when listening to Nuages. Thus, it could be suggested that stimuli may evoke a potential set of qualia that humans may refer to when considering their own subjective experiences. Exactly which qualia are included and excluded is roughly determined by how a stimulus affects individuals as a result of their physiological functioning.

Qualia are products of human culture, not biology. The evolution of primates along with their tendency to socialize and enjoy participating in shared activities gave rise to a shared experiences and various ways to depict or describe them. Human cultures create classifications, distinctions, and ontological categories as way to explain natural phenomena and to share knowledge. This collective idea on how our subjective experiences appear to others facilitates bonding as humans learn they are able to relate to the private experiences of others.

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel C. “Quining qualia.” Consciousness in modern science. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Coin Toss in an Alternate Universe

I came across this reddit post a couple years ago and thought it was quite funny. I can see Randall Munroe of xkcd comics drawing up a really good depiction of this imaginary phenomenon too.

“According to the multi-world theory, there is a universe where every flipped coin has landed on heads, completely by chance. Imagine rooms full of machines, just flipping coins with scientists baffled as to why it happens”

According to OP in the comments of the reddit post, this world “would have identical physics, [where] this just happens by chance” and “physics aren’t different in this universe, the incident with coins only landing on heads is pure probability, not a law.” I like to imagine that there would be individuals dedicating their entire research careers to this phenomenon, maybe pulling out their hair as no solid evidence is able to suggest why this happens.

If you, dear reader, felt inspired to fulfill my dream of depicting this scenario in an illustration of this scene, I would excitedly add it to the bottom of this post with full credit to you! Wilfred is tired and would like to retire; in this universe he studied the coin toss phenomenon in his free time.

Works Cited

Is Opacity a Fundamental Property of Complex Systems?

While operational opacity generated by machine learning algorithms presents a wide range of problems for ethics and computer science (Burrell 10), one type in particular may be unavoidable due to the nature of complex processes. The physical underpinnings of functional systems may be difficult to understand because of the way data is stored and transmitted. Just as patterns of neural activity seem conceptually distant from first-person accounts of subjective experiences, the missing explanation for why or how a DCNN arrives at a particular decision may actually be a feature of the system rather than a bug. Systems capable of storing or processing large amounts of data may only be capable of doing so because of the way nested relationships are embedded in the structure. Furthermore, many of the human behaviours or capacities researchers are trying to understand and copy are both complex and emergent, making them difficult to fully trace back to the physical level of implementation. When we do, it often looks strange and quite chaotic. For example, molecular genetics suggests various combinations of nucleotides give rise to different types of cells and proteins, each with highly specialized and synergistic functions. Additionally, complex phenotypes like disease dispositions are typically the result of many interacting genotypic factors in conjunction with the presence of certain environmental variables. If it turns out to be the case that a degree of opacity is a necessary component of convoluted functionality, we may need to rethink our expectations of how ethics can inform the future of AI development.

Works Cited

Burrell, Jenna. “How the machine ‘thinks’: Understanding opacity in machine learning algorithms.” Big Data & Society 3.1 (2016).