There were some lame bits in the Uncyclopedia’s entry on Wittgenstein, but I loved the supposed colouring book Wittgenstein made his elementary school students colour:
The latest exchange between Fodor and a large chunk of his detractors, regarding his claim that natural selection provides incoherent explanations for the traits it claims to explain. Unfortunately, both sides seem to be talking past each other again.
I wasn’t sympathetic to Fodor’s stance the last time I read the back-and-forths on this issue. And I still have the same problem with his latest: Why does he think that natural selection must distinguish between the hypothesis that polar bears were selected for being white and the hypothesis that polar bears were selected for matching their environment? And even if that is an important question, doesn’t natural selection answer that? Natural selection says that a variant trait that enhances reproductive success will be selected for. Whiteness enhances reproductive success in a white environment, but probably not in most others. Camouflage enhances reproductive success in all environments. So camouflage (environment-matching) was the trait selected for.
In general, I think all scientific theories are incapable of distinguishing between some historical hypotheses. Why exactly is it so important to distinguish between those that Fodor picks? We are interested in explaining the polar bear’s current appearance, which is both white and matches its environment. If whiteness was selected for, then that explains the matching of the environment too, since the two traits are coextensive. If the matching was selected for, then that explains the whiteness too. Whichever way it is, natural selection explains it. It doesn’t explain everything, though. If we can’t find evidence that the trait in question is reproductively advantageous, then we would not insist that natural selection explains it. Only extreme adaptationists would do that, and natural selection can do just fine without extreme adaptationism.
But, but, the revolution is coming! We’re all too blind to see it, that’s all. Fodor concludes:
I am, to be sure, in danger of having insufficient ‘acquaintance with the biological theory that [I aspire] to replace’; but I’m prepared to risk it. A blunder is a blunder for all that, and it doesn’t take an ornithologist to tell a hawk from a handsaw. Tom Kuhn remarks that you can often guess when a scientific paradigm is ripe for a revolution: it’s when people from outside start to stick their noses in.
In Stream of Consciousness, Barry Dainton defines a kind of introspection he calls “passive introspection”, in which you “register something of the character of the contents of your peripheral experience without focusing your attention onto your peripheral experience itself”. Peripheral experience, as used by Dainton, refers to experiences that are not the centre of one’s attention but that one nevertheless is aware of. For example, hunched over my laptop and sitting on my bed, I am attending to the movements on the computer screen, but I’m peripherally aware of the pressure the bed is asserting on my butt. Dainton wants to go beyond identifying the possibility of inattentive awareness, as he calls it. Passive introspection is sort of in between inattentive awareness and active introspection: “In passive introspection we focus our attention away from the content we wish to describe or take not of; in this manner, we can (in a manner of speaking) attend to what we are not paying attention to.”
Dainton, though, recognises a “whiff of paradox” in attending to something one is not paying attention to. But he thinks that it isn’t really paradoxical, because we can do it by directing “secondary attention” to the objects of passive introspection. Primary attention is what is directed towards our main object of attention. For example, I am certainly directing primary attention to my laptop screen right now. But, Dainton says, if he were to ask me what was the colour of the walls in my peripheral vision, I’d be able to answer him without “significantly lessening the degree of attention” I’m paying to my laptop screen. This ability to direct some attention to my peripheral surroundings indicates the existence of secondary attention.
The thing is, if I try Dainton’s experiment with asking myself some small fact about my surroundings while looking at the screen, I can’t do it without taking my attention off the screen. Maybe this indicates some deficiency on my part — I’ve noticed that relative to other people, I am awful at multi-tasking. I’m one of those people who can’t work when music that I really like is playing — either I listen to the music and do nothing else, or I mentally block out the music and do my work. When I ask myself what is the colour of the surrounding walls, I find myself taking my attention completely (or almost — most of it anyway) off the screen, applying it to the walls (and to my inner question-asking voice), and then quickly returning to the screen after I obtain an answer. To be sure, it’s a very quick flitting of attention, but a flitting it is nonetheless. So I’m not convinced that passive introspection is a commonplace feature of human consciousness.
This time the Boltzmann Brains issue hits the New York Times. It makes me cringe to see such faulty reasoning being paraded under the label of ‘science’. We can start with Hartle and Srednicki’s argument, which I’d previously blogged about, that the assumption that humans are typical conscious observers is not warranted. Sean Carroll purports to have an alternative formulation of the Boltzmann Brains argument that does not rely on this assumption:
Here’s how it goes. Forget that we are “typical” or any such thing. Take for granted that we are exactly who we are — in other words, that the macrostate of the universe is exactly what it appears to be, with all the stars and galaxies etc. By the “macrostate of the universe,” we mean everything we can observe about it, but not the precise position and momentum of every atom and photon. Now, you might be tempted to think that you reliably know something about the past history of our local universe — your first kiss, the French Revolution, the formation of the cosmic microwave background, etc. But you don’t really know those things — you reconstruct them from your records and memories right here and now, using some basic rules of thumb and your belief in certain laws of physics.
The point is that, within this hypothetical thermal equilibrium universe from which we are purportedly a fluctuation, there are many fluctuations that reach exactly this macrostate — one with a hundred billion galaxies, a Solar System just like ours, and a person just like you with exactly the memories you have. And in the hugely overwhelming majority of them, all of your memories and reconstructions of the past are false. In almost every fluctuation that creates universes like the ones we see, both the past and the future have a higher entropy than the present — downward fluctuations in entropy are unlikely, and the larger the fluctuation the more unlikely it is, so the vast majority of fluctuations to any particular low-entropy configuration never go lower than that.
Therefore, this hypothesis — that our universe, complete with all of our records and memories, is a thermal fluctuation around a thermal equilibrium state — makes a very strong prediction: that our past is nothing like what we reconstruct it to be, but rather that all of our memories and records are simply statistical flukes created by an unlikely conspiracy of random motions. In this view, the photograph you see before you used to be yellow and wrinkled, and before that was just a dispersed collection of dust, before miraculously forming itself out of the chaos.
Note that this scenario makes no assumptions about our typicality — it assumes, to the contrary, that we are exactly who we (presently) perceive ourselves to be, no more and no less. But in this scenario, we have absolutely no right to trust any of our memories or reconstructions of the past; they are all just a mirage.
Can you spot where he uses the typicality assumption? In his scenario, the overwhelming majority of states of consciousness containing the exact same observations, feelings, memories and so on are really momentary fluctuations with no real past history other than chaos. From this, he feels entitled to make the prediction that “our past is nothing like what we reconstruct it to be, but rather that all of our memories and records are simply statistical flukes created by an unlikely conspiracy of random motions”. But how does one get from the fact that most states of consciousness that are phenomenologically identical to mine (or his, or any given human’s) are momentary fluctuations to the conclusion that the state of consciousness I (or he, or any given human) happens to be experiencing is a momentary fluctuation? Only if he discounts the possibility that the state of consciouness he is experiencing now is in fact one of those very rare states of consciousness that is not a momentary fluctuation. And if you do discount that, then you are just making the same typicality assumption that Hartle and Srednicki criticised (and which Carroll admits is dodgy).
I listened to piano versions of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn for the first time today, performed by Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger. Have to say I really missed the colour in the orchestral versions. There was an interesting aspect of Das Irdische Leben, though, that isn’t obvious in the orchestral version (at least, it wasn’t to me). Hampson remarked that the accompaniment in that song was like some kind of machine, possibly a thresher, pounding and grinding on, oblivious to the human misery narrated in the poem. In the orchestral version, the accompaniment is clearly rhythmic, but since it’s done by the strings, it isn’t choppy enough to suggest machinery to me. Rather, it’s so fluid (although still with a clear rhythm) that I originally interpreted it as a kind of painful stretching and compressing of already wrung nerves. The machine-like effect, though, comes out much more strongly in the piano version, simply because the piano is a percussion instrument and you can make notes on the piano sound much more like hits than you can with a string orchestra.
Hampson also remarked that whenever he sings this song, he’s not sure whether to portray the mother as good, bad, or neither. He eventually said he couldn’t help feeling a little sympathy for the mother. I too have this nagging intuition that the mother can’t be bad, but I can’t justify it through the words or the music. It’s just that it’d be pretty uncharacteristic of Mahler, and of the Wunderhorn poems, to portray a simple antagonist-protagonist relationship. One has come to expect a certain general message about the human condition. The both-are-victims-of-the-machinery interpretation seems to fit this pattern best.