String Theory, Postmodernism, Market Efficiency

February 28, 2007

I’ve been having fun reading Not Even Wrong and following up on its links the past few days. String Theory – yeah ok, I tried to follow an introduction to gauge theory this afternoon and realize this is a topic I’ll be ignorant on until Clark gets rich from selling chocolate and does some laymans’ level write-ups on his blog – is apparently in a crisis. Or at least some physicists, Woit and Smolin in particular, say in books they’ve written. Smolin’s book on this topic draws on Kuhn and Feyarabend’s philosophy of science. Smolin is also the father of an alternative to String Theory, Loop Quantum Gravity. Other physicists, notably Lubos Motl are very angry about this dissent and accuse the apostates in harsh words of all kinds of heresy including “postmodernism” and “communism”. Well, the main points I gather from the skeptic’s case is that string theory is only becoming more complicated without having solved any real problems and little chances of making experimental predictions in the future. “Not even wrong” I take it disputes String Theory on Popper’s grounds of falsifiability. Smolin also apparently tries to draw this criteria out, it’s said that LQM is falsifiable whereas String Theory isn’t.

If I understand Smolin, he believes science is in a crisis mode (Kuhn) and that there exists a need for new perspectives (Feyerabend) in order to make progress. The establishment is steeped in bureaucracy and resistance to alternative ideas. Now, what Feyerabend meant by “Anything Goes” is that historical examples of scientific acheivments border on relativism if our guiding light is simplistic formulations of “scientific method”. The demarcation problem according to him, remains an intractable one. What constitutes good and bad science is difficult to determine past a certain, blurry point. For instance, Feyerabend’s famous alternative to the enlightenment account of the Galileo event puts Galileo in the position of being “anti-science” rather than the shallow champion of Occam’s Razor.

I see a close resemblance in Feyerabend’s idea to the Efficient Market Hypothesis of Chicago-school economics. This theory essentially states that there is no way to beat the Stock Market average by skill because the information about public companies is too easily available to be valuable. No-arbitrage assumptions are at least the hope for those who believe in capitalism. As an example, if a stock follows a predictable trend, then it can’t be a money making one, because if it were, plenty of market players would be there to buy or sell as needed, biding the price, and destroying the trend. In a way, philosophers of science are “trend watching”, looking for past performance as an indicator for future results. There may be be some historical themes in science, just as there are in financial markets. In retrospect, we have some excellent ideas as to what happened to bring about our current situation. But to use that information in a way that would “beat the market” in the future (predict which theory is right in a profitable way, well beyond current expectations), is very, very hard. So future history might tell us whether today’s science needed more valley crossers than hill climbers (Smolin), but if the “market of ideas” in science approximates efficiency, it would be very difficult to make this prediction today – or to make this prediction better than others who are making forecasts by choosing graduate programs and offering grants.

The Chicago school does not believe in price bubbles. In other words, to them, the 2000-2001 Stock Market tumble wasn’t predictable. Price to earnings ratios and other fundamentals being “out of whack” wasn’t news to anyone who mattered. Similarily, the fact that string theory is “unfalsifiable” doesn’t appear to be news to any string theorists. Philosophers of science assessing the situation by the “fundamentals” have no more certainty than trend watchers for one-upping their peers. It may be that falsifiability for instance, proves the Achilles Hill for String Theory but it may prove to be the case that it becomes falsifiable or that a future science doesn’t follow today’s rules as we’d hope.

So whether science is really in a crisis remains to be seen. Certainly it seems to their credit that Woit and Smolin are cautious skeptics, each acknowledging their voice respectively as one of many. And they may prove to be right.


Qualia and Externalism

February 21, 2007

I may be generalizing here, but it seems to me the folks over at Brain Pains are both strong content externalists and proponents of qualia. I’m trying to figure out how they’d go together. I’ll be honest and say today is the first time I ever thought about it and I just don’t see how they’d co-exist. I’m sure there is a good explanation, but…

Recall, content externalism is the belief that mental content is constituted in part by external factors. Following Putnam’s twin earth, if water is xyz on another planet and not h2o, then the two thoughts of water by a creature in either situation with identical internal states are different. The attraction, I suppose, it to ward off relativism. If a first intension {water-h2o} is wrong, then a secondary intension {xyz} closes the deal independent of our faults, so we don’t have to worry about the “world changing” {Kuhn} as our scientific theories update.

Now, I don’t know what Putnum explicitly thought about qualia, but I do know he invented functionalism, so that implies he either reduced or eliminated qualia. But what about for those who believe in nonreductive or nonphysical qualia and content externalism?

– qualia are part of our mental content
– qualia are indubitable to us
– mental content is external

These premises result in at least what really seems like a contradiction. If “red” is red because it seems that way to me and nothing more {qualia} then how can it be ‘outside the head’ {external}?


The Matrix and Qualia

February 17, 2007

In the Movie The Matrix, Cypher discusses how he monitors what’s going on inside the virtual world:

there’s way too much information to decode the Matrix. You get used to it, though. Your brain does the translating. I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, and redhead.

Whenever I think of computationalism I think about this scene. I don’t of course, think anyone could ever actually read “computer code” that fast nor would it make any sense to work in machine language if visual Basic will suffice. But, I think there are a ways in which the scene is instructive.

Let’s assume there is no such thing as qualia. It is reasonable to me that something like qualia or phenomenal experience would yet be reported anyhow. When laboring in everyday thinking about history and philosophy, we can describe many of our thoughts in a few sentences. But when it comes to the vast amount of information our sensory ASICs process, such as the visual field during freeway driving, we’d be helpless to communicate the details in language without some kind of shortcuts. As the relevant information density increases, the more would-be experiential terminology would be needed to communicate. An omniscient bicycle metaphysician who has never rode a bike and an omnipotent BMX racer who’s never studied physics would both have to take great shortcuts to coach an understudy, or even to think about coaching an understudy in concepts, and their programs I’d wager would be similar.

Returning to the Matrix, if Cypher really could translate all that code as it scrolls by, how else could he report it but as experience? I think there is a parallel in Dennett’s theory on blindsight. As the baud rate is turned up by the objects moving faster accross the visual field, the (star) subjects report “experiencing” it. Perhaps in a similar way, communicating in a foreign language with the aid of translation dictionaries is thinking – really hard thinking – but speaking naturally in one’s own language seems to have a subtle phenomenal aspect to it in addition to a thinking aspect.

One objection might be that Cypher clearly intended his remarks to be metaphorical and not literal. But one dimensional qualia, mistaken perceptions of mistaken perceptions to any order of iteration couldn’t be much more than metaphor anyway. Hitting my fingers with a hammer hurts like hell. There’s no better way to put it. We can match up these experiences but there is no intrinsic stability therin. And finally, there is the other side of the coin. Neo, the omniscient one. As Neo’s knowledge increases to superhuman proportions (think of Mary’s knowledge of color as she gulps down color equation after equation), instead of seeing “redhead” or “agent”, the phenomenal world disappears and he sees ‘reality’, the code. You know, everything is in slow motion. Slow down the baud rate of sensory input and the illusion of qualia becomes intuitively information processing.

Contemplating a zombie world devoid of “inner life” is supposed to be possible to do, according to the gap theorists, but it’s also suppose to be an exercise in absurdity. Ha-ha-ha, zombie A.G. hits his finger with a hammer and screams but doesn’t actually “feel” any pain. The above is a way to begin conceiving of a world that is exhausted by the psychological but where phenomenal reports are essential to the way it works.


Davidson, Beliefs, Qualia

February 14, 2007

Brain Hammer has a good post up on qualia, sort of building on Dennett’s ideas. It made me wonder about the following:

Assume Davidson is right and beliefs presuppose language. On a elimitivist account, there are only pain beliefs. From the paper being summarized on Brain Hammer, there aren’t rocks in your head, only beliefs about rocks. And there are likewise only beliefs about pains. If a language is required, or plays a strong role in the formation of beliefs, then animals and babies don’t hold any kind of relation to pain but adult humans do.

Even if you don’t buy Davidson’s argument, it seems clear that adult humans are capable of holding much more articulate and stronger beliefs in light of language and culture than babies or cows. It just doesn’t seem possible that the ‘agony’ I ‘feel’ when getting kicked in the shin is present relative to the complexity of my belief structure with little to no input from my nervous system per se. And the nervous systems of babies and cows along with their reactions to sharp objects are similar enough to my own to convince me something similar is going on in them as in me when I get stabbed.

(note i tried to respond to questions posed to me there but either i didn’t pass moderation or the post got lost in space)


Dennett and Seeming

February 12, 2007

On my other blog and I noted a couple of times frustration with Dennett’s rejection of qualia because of his use of the word “seem”. He’ll say that some kind of ‘experience’ seems a particular way, but it really isn’t that way based on some kind of cognitive science experiments. But since qualia are one dimensional, it doesn’t matter how that seeming matches up with reality, it just matters that something ‘seems’ that way at all.

Funny enough, in The Conscious Mind, Chalmers notes this confusion in Dennett’s writing at the bottom of page 190. Paraphrased* he says that Dennett’s use of the word “seems”, “balances on the knife’s edge between phenomenal and psychological consciousness”. But Chalmers insists his usage is completely psychological. He seems to thinks the persuasiveness of Dennett’s argument is captured in an equivocation between the two senses of the word. Explaining how things seem in psychological consciousness is uninteresting (philosophically) to chalmers. And he feels proceeding as Dennett does merely begs the philosophical questions.

I’ll go so far as to share Chalmers’ frustration with Dennett but I think Dennett realizes that he’s not answering the philosophical questions the way his colleagues might want him to. In fact, might it not be begging the questions in the other direction to insist that there is a way those things ‘seem’ phenomenologically? Afterall, Chalmers’ main argument, his zombie argument, doesn’t tell us anything about what particular phenomenal experiences exist. Only that it’s logically possible for the set of the phenomenal to not exist in a physically identical world. That doesn’t guarantee us that every quale Chalmers considers a quale is in fact one.

Chalmers brings in a bizarre discussion about his twin zombie world where he’s sitting at his desk writting a book about phenomenal consciousness but where no phenomenal consciousness exists. So, all that stuff in chapter one about bright red apples and intense smells on a spring day Chalmers discusses could have been produced psychologically by his zombie twin. I admit this is given in an abstract discussion on what’s logically possible, however, what I wonder is whether or not it’s possible, in some way, for the contents of chapter 1 to have been produced in part by Chalmers’ psychological consciousness without directly reflecting what’s going on in Chalmers’ phenomenologically.

If it is, then on a per case basis, whether something seemed a particular way qualitatively or psychologically is up for grabs. It’s consistent with Chalmers’ zombie argument that qualia exist but not every nuance of ever report be qualia inspired. And if such cases existed, then coming at it from Dennett’s angle would be worthwhile, and an ultimately an inductive case about qualia generally could be made.

Granted, Chalmers writes his book to those who “take conscious seriously”, so I’d think Dennett doesn’t qualify from the outset from Chalmers’ perspective. His book is geared more to those who think qualia are reducible rather than nonexistent. If it’s not agreed from that outset that there is a phenomenal world, then the zombie argument is a nonstarter. So all Chalmers and Dennett can do probably is beg questions against each other from accross the divide.

I haven’t yet decided who I think will win out.

*unfortunately my circumstances right now make it difficult for me to have books by a computer in order to give exact citations from them.


Breaking up Raw Feels

February 8, 2007

There’s a pretty interesting post up on Brain Pains about the next step in evolution of the ability replies to Mary’s room.

I plan on talking more later about this paper by Derek Pereboom but just want to get a couple basic ideas on the table for now.

Derek defines the phenomenal this way, “the phenomenal property is as it is introspectively represented.” This captures the supposed one dimensional aspect of qulia, that it is what it is. Our feeling of red might distort reality, but that feeling can’t be wrong. It doesn’t matter what kind of phobia we have of needles, if we think we’re in pain, we’re in pain.

Derek makes the case that the above description isn’t guaranteed to be true. If I understand him right, he’s driving a wedge between the property and the introspection by representational languge. He elaborates the dualist/nonreductionist definition of qualia, “An introspective mode of presentation accurately represents the qualitative nature of a phenomenal property.”

This allows him to raise the question, what if it doesn’t accurately represent? He then argues that there is good reason to believe that it’s possible that it might not accurately represent, and if it doesn’t physicalism would be saved.

One important way this argument improves on the ability arguments (he claims) is that it is iterative in a way that keeps up dualist’s regress. An obvious problem with the ability argument is that while it may save knowledge, there is something else, the ability to know red in a different way, that resists physicalism. The same objection could be made here, the introspective mode of presentation might be said to resist physicalism even if qulia do not. But Derek thinks the key insight in his representational definition could be extended to that case, and any nth cases beyond it so that there is always the possibility of innacuracy open for the dualist’s next nonreductive term.

How he acheives the “possibility” is interesting. There doesn’t seem to be a direct way to argue for it since we can’t transgress our own introspection, but he thinks there are parallel problems which give us reason to suppose his claim might be true.

As just one example, he gives self-referencing sentences. These kinds of sentences parallel our own indubitibility about our feelings. The sentence, “This German sentence has six words” he says represents correctly in one way and incorrectly in another. So, “for all we know” the case might be the same for our own phenomenal introspection. It’s an open possibility. And if he’s right, that would diffuse qualia arguments.


til’ next week

February 2, 2007

For all my millions of readers, I wanted to get a post up today, but I have a hangover, and the last time I posted with a hangover I regreted it. Posting drunk is no big deal, but the amount of work it takes to get something coherent going in the morning isn’t worth it. So now I’m shooting for monday.