29 May 2016

Lakoff: Math is made up by your brain

Tonight I was on YouTube, and in my 'recommended videos' section there was a selection from the channel Closer to Truth asking physicist Max Tegmark the old granddaddy of questions, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Tegmark goes on to expound on his view that the universe is fundamentally mathematical and that mathematics are discovered, not invented.

Tegmark's view is an example of a view called mathematical Platonism, a form of mathematical realism which holds that:
  • There are mathematical objects
  • Mathematical objects are abstract
  • Mathematical objects are independent of intelligent agents and their language, thought, and practices.
There are several difficulties that this point of view faces, both conceptually (what, exactly, is an "abstract object" and how does it causally interact with the brain?) and given what we actually observe here in the physical universe. Alexander Vilenkin touched on Tegmark's ideas in his book Many Worlds In One:
The number of mathematical structures increases with increasing complexity, suggesting that “typical” structures should be horrendously large and cumbersome. This seems to be in conflict with the simplicity and beauty of the theories describing our world.
It just so happens that in the 'related videos' sidebar, YouTube recommended this vid from George Lakoff on embodied mathematical cognition — a condensed version of his book Where Mathematics Comes From. It's a scientific alternative to folk theories of mathematics like mathematical Platonism and though it's a relatively nascent field with plenty of challenges ahead, there's growing evidence that it's correct [1, 2, 3]. It's not without controversy, but challenging intelligent people to case aside philosophies entrenched in academia for centuries is inevitably going to meet resistance.

My take is that the conceptual ambiguities intrinsic to mathematical realism put it at a disadvantage to embodied mathematical cognition, which builds on research from the broader field of embodied cognition. Is it true? I don't know. And as a non-mathematician, some of this stuff is over my head. But I think it's fascinating as hell, and the fact that it grounds conceptual abstraction within the purview of scientific inquiry instead of mysterious 'metaphysical realms' is a big reason why I'm such a fan of Lakoff's work.

Anyway... here's the lecture. 

20 May 2016

The Oklahoma State Legislature makes me embarrassed to live in the state

Just this week, the legislature in my state of Oklahoma has:

And just a couple of months ago, the passed legislation that would ask voters to restore the 10 Commandments monument to the Capitol after the state supreme court ruled it unconstitutional.

Now look, this is bad enough. Most of this legislation is flagrantly unconstitutional. Our governor Mary Fallin, by most accounts an incompetent stooge, at least had the foresight to veto the abortion law and save the state hundreds of thousands in legal fees from a sure-loss court case. 

But here's what really grinds my gears: shit is bad in Oklahoma, and a good deal of it is the legislature's fault. Years of Laffer-Curve economics has led the state to a record budget shortfall that is threatening funding for medicaid, teachers, schools, public attorneys, and much much more. And Oklahoma is just one of many GOP-led states whose Laffer-Curve policies have led to steep red ink.

You'd think this would lead to a little introspection among the legislature: Golly, maybe supply-side economics aren't working! Pfff. Of course not. Tax cuts have become such a central part of the GOP milieu that it's unfathomable that a candidate would campaign without them. Conservatives love to chide Bernie Sanders supporters for wanting "free stuff", while presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump offers a tax-cut plan that would cost nearly $10 trillion over the next decade, with most of the cost coming from cuts to top earners. But hey, I guess that's just "free stuff", right? 


Teachers are losing their jobs. Schools are facing closings, 4-day weeks, larger class sizes, and reduced bus routes because of massive shortfalls in education funding. Public attorneys aren't getting funding. The House passed a bill cutting 111,000 people from medicaid

At a time when the state legislature should be hard at work on solutions to these problems, they're passing frivolous laws and pandering to the most extreme of their constituency. Unsurprisingly, the non-profit Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity gave Oklahoma an "F", citing a lack of transparency, corruption, inequality, and access to public information. The one bright spot is in the state's auditing office, which independently found "fraud and waste across a broad spectrum of public bodies".

It's not entirely clear what can be done in the short term. I just hope that the widespread knowledge of the legislature's incompetency inspires more urban young people to get out the vote.

Robert Epstein: Your brain is not a computer

For decades, the neurocomputational metaphor has been an integral part of research that attempts to bridge the gap between the biological structure of the brain and cognition. But it is, alas, only a metaphor. In an essay for Aeon, psychologist Robert Epstein argues that your brain does not process information, store knowledge, or retrieve memories. In short: it is not a computer.

Some choice quotes:
We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.
[The] IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.
Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.

It's a fascinating and provocative essay. I'd be very curious to hear thoughts on it from writers I follow like Steve Novella (neuroscientist) and George Lakoff (cognitive linguist).

However, there are a few issues that I'd raise with this essay.

The first is that while metaphor is of course not literal — computers don't literally store and process information — metaphors are nonetheless integral to our human process of reasoning. As counter-intuitive as it might be, we literally cannot reason without the use of metaphor. These range from primary metaphors like big is important ("tomorrow is the big day!") or love is closeness ("we grew apart over the last year") and many more, to conceptualizations of time as spatial movement ("the holidays are approaching quickly") or causation as motion ("FDR's leadership brought the country out of depression"). The fact that we conceptualize the brain using the neurocomputational metaphor is not in itself fault, such that it allows us to understand and predict states of cognition. But Epstein is likely correct in that the metaphor is inherently limited. That's why we need a cross-disciplinary study of the mind and brain from neurobiology, neurocomputation, and cognition.

I'm also skeptical of this claim:
[There] is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain.
Our shared biology constitutes a reason to think that responses to similar experiences are at least somewhat the same. Perhaps Epstein simply means that the configurations of neurons that change over a lifetime are inherently widely varied due to our vastly varying experiences; but we don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater — the same parts of the brain likely undergo similar structural changes in response to similar stimuli, simply because our brains are — by our shared, human DNA — very similar organs.

Those are my thoughts, at least. But it's a provocative topic, certainly.

Full essay: The Empty Brain

18 May 2016

Humans of New York, and thoughts on childhood cancer

Christian theodicies contend that God has a Divine Plan, and thus morally sufficient (if inexorably mysterious) reasons for allowing this child to suffer. (Click to embiggen...)

His story is one of many. If there's anything that convinces me a theistic god — one who is invested in human affairs — does not exist, it's childhood cancer. And the weaselly rationalization that it's a necessary part of God's unknowable, mysterious, yet presumably perfect plan just strikes me as the most blind and desperate kind of faith. 

16 May 2016

Galen Strawson: Consciousness Isn't a Mystery

Galen Strawson, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, writes in a New York Times op ed that the "mystery of consciousness" isn't really so mysterious:

Consciousness Isn't a Mystery. It's Matter.

In his own way, he argues for non-eliminative physicalism:

Those who make the Very Large Mistake (of thinking they know enough about the nature of the physical to know that consciousness can’t be physical) tend to split into two groups. Members of the first group remain unshaken in their belief that consciousness exists, and conclude that there must be some sort of nonphysical stuff: They tend to become “dualists.” Members of the second group, passionately committed to the idea that everything is physical, make the most extraordinary move that has ever been made in the history of human thought. They deny the existence of consciousness: They become “eliminativists.” 
This amazing phenomenon (the denial of the existence of consciousness) is a subject for another time. The present point — it’s worth repeating many times — is that no one has to react in either of these ways. All they have to do is grasp the fundamental respect in which we don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff in spite of all that physics tells us. In particular, we don’t know anything about the physical that gives us good reason to think that consciousness can’t be wholly physical. It’s worth adding that one can fully accept this even if one is unwilling to agree with Russell that in having conscious experience we thereby know something about the intrinsic nature of physical reality.

I don't think his take on it is as illuminating as Lakoff's, but for a quick op-ed it does the job.

09 May 2016

Sean Carroll's new book is (apparently at least partly) about model-dependent realism

Salon has an interview with Sean Carroll in which he discusses his new book, The Big Picture, which releases tomorrow (May 10th). Readers of this blog will no doubt be aware of my fondness for Hawking's model-dependent realism or what I consider to be a cognitive-science-based variation, Lakoff's embodied realism. And while I've often referenced Carroll's old blog post about free will as evidence he shares the basic ideas, some of his comments in the Salon interview certainly have a ring about them that should be familiar to anyone versed in those empirically responsible epistemologies:

Naturalists don’t all agree with each other. On the one end of the spectrum you have the most hard-core variety, who claim that only the most deep-down fundamental description of nature can be said to describe something “real.” They might say that consciousness, or morality, or free will, are all just illusions. On the other end of the spectrum you have naturalists who believe in only the natural world, but are willing to ascribe objective reality to various extra properties it might have – moral judgments, for example, or inner states of conscious experience.
Poetic naturalism sits in between. There is only one world, but we have many ways of talking about that world. And if a particular way of talking gives us a useful handle on what the world is and how it behaves, it’s completely appropriate to consider the concepts it evokes as “real.” Air is really made of atoms, but its temperature and pressure are real, even though the individual atoms don’t have temperatures or pressures. Human consciousness and free will are real, even though they’re not present in the individual particles or cells of which we are made.
Whether he ever mentions model-dependent realism by name in the book, I don't know yet (obviously); but he's certainly in the ballpark. Stephen Hawking essentially says that the question of what is 'real' is meaningless; what matters is the utility of a model in its ability to reliably describe and predict phenomena. Lakoff, similarly, suggests that we consider something to be 'real' when it has a theoretical ontology necessary to explain phenomena. I think Carroll is in good company.

18 April 2016

You can't make this stuff up, part who-the-heck-knows

Found on the internet today:
Angels know man and lower beings not according to the mode of the lower beings, but according to the mode of the angelic intellect. God, however, transcends even this and doesn't just know but utterly surrounds and impenetrates all lower being (both "tensed" and "tenseless") with apprehension so as to know them all in an utterly more complete manner, according to the mode of the transcendent, timeless God.
Source (in the comments)

17 April 2016

Bravo, SNL. Bravo.

In one skit, SNL lampoons the Christian persecution complex, their caricature of atheists and 'liberals' in films like God's Not Dead 2: The Undeadening [actual title may vary], and their habit of transparently masking Jim Crow type denial of service laws under the guise of religious freedom. Well done!

14 April 2016

Plato's folk theory of universals

Over the years I've encountered a diverse array of philosophical views across the internet. While my original interest was a/theism, I don't think that nearly ten years ago I could have anticipated just how many related rabbit holes there are and how deep they can go.

One of those is the concept of universals. It's the idea that there's another world 'out there', some metaphysical plane of existence, in which categories-of-things-in-themselves literally exist.

For example, we agree that chairs exists. But what defines a chair? Is a bean bag a chair? What about an ergonomic kneeling chair? What about a tire suspended from a tree branch? Plato would have said that there is an inherent property of chairness that permeates all things that fit within the category chair. Aristotle might have called it the essence of that thing — that which makes a chair a chair.

Color is another commonly cited example of a universal. Grass is green, and so are leaves. According to Platonic thought, grass and leaves are particulars. They are individual objects that are not repeatable — that is, they are discrete. Examples of particulars are generally material objects, but some philosophers take 'immaterial' objects to be particulars as well — sensory data, God, etc. A universal is a property that exists independently of these particulars, but inhabits them. If I burn a patch of grass away, the essence or property of greenness still apparently exists in many other things — and so, Platonic thought teaches, it must be metaphysically real. How, precisely, these universals exist and interact with particulars is a mystery yet to be solved, yet even today philosophers write lengthy books arguing that universals must indeed exist.

For the purposes of this post I'm not going to get into nominalism, realism, and conceptualism — all attempts to account for universals. Are they really 'out there'? Or are they illusory, just part of the mind? Are they just artifacts of language?

If Plato were a psychologist...

My background in studying these kinds of questions is psychology — cognitive psychology in particular. You generally don't hear cognitive psychologists talking about universals or debating nominalism versus conceptualism. That's because cogntive psychologists have been able to study, and answer, the question of whether categories-of-things-in-themselves exist independently of human brains. The answer is no. 

Let's return to the chair. We all agree that chairs exist. But "chair" is a fluid, and even disputed, concept. From kneeling chairs to tires-on-trees to conventional wooden chairs, what we understand a chair to be is dependent on our experience. 
Is this a chair? Is it art? 
This reveals a fundamental problem in the idea that there exists, independently of human minds, a category or essence of chairness. We have a very difficult time defining exactly what it is, what the parameters are that would allow us to uniquely identify the category.

Worse for universals is the fact that categories are often radial. We can, for example, think of a general type of car. We can also think of more specific categories, like particular types of cars. We can do the same for boats, planes, and trains. But we don't have a general categorical image of "vehicle", even though it subsumes all those other categories. Similarly, while we can think of a general concept of a chair, categories of specific types of chairs, as well as other categories of furniture, we can't conceive a representation of the general category of 'furniture'.

The simple answer that cognitive psychology gives us is that while the objects we know as chairs indeed exist outside of our minds (we're not endorsing relativism here), the category of chairs does not. Rather, the category itself is imposed upon the physical world and is inherently a fluid, social construct.

The idea of greenness faces a similar problem. We know from physics that particles of light do not have color. Color cannot be a surface property of objects because some things that are said to have color, like the sky, do not have a surface at all. We know still that a study of the human eye has revealed that we can see only a narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we call "visible light" — not because it's inherently visible, but simply because it's visible to us. What we call green cannot then be an inherent property of a thing, but rather is a multiplace interactional property that crucially depends on our biology — the interaction of our eyes and visual cortex with the environment. We say that "green" is "real" because we experience it as real, and because others appear to share that experience. But there's no basis to establish the existence of the category of greenness outside of the human experience.

Folk theories versus scientific theories

What's often overlooked in these discussions — particularly since they're steeped in literally centuries of philosophical tradition being pitted against a relatively nascent field of cognitive neuroscience — is that Plato's theory, like Aristotle's theory of essences, is not a scientific theory but a folk theory. Aristotle believed, for example, that the continuity of the self was sustained by an essence that persisted even as our bodies and minds changed. But we now know that the continuity of the self is a product of biology and social construction, and that it can be radically disrupted — as in the case of physical injury to brain that radically alters a person's memory and/or disposition. 

Plato may have thought that his theory was scientific, at least in the sense that it proposed hypotheses that could reliably explain the world around us and our relationship to it. But Plato didn't have access to the structure of his own process of reasoning. He couldn't have possibly known about scientific discoveries in cognition like primary metaphors or overlapping conceptual hierarchies, because those things required empirical study of the mind and brain. The "solutions" of nominalism, realism, and conceptualism are fundamentally solutions to a problem that arose precisely because the concept of universals is a folk theory steeped in metaphorical conceptual systems, and not a scientific theory. 

Unfortunately, ideas like essences and universals persist to this day despite the advances in cognitive psychology that severely undermine them. My guess is that it's going to take some time for centuries (millennia, actually) old ideas still deeply studied in academic institutions to succumb to a competing field. But the reality is that despite all those centuries of debate, philosophers are no closer to resolving these questions than Plato himself was. Instead, we've needed a radical paradigm shift in how we frame and investigate the questions in the first place, and that's why a study of cognitive psychology is critical to empirically responsible metaphysics. 

13 April 2016

Thoughts on fidelity

The last relationship I was in prior to meeting my wife was with a married woman; the affair (or half-affair) lasted a little over a year. Being the 'other man' gave me some unique insights into marriages and how affairs happen. And as I'm now in the second year of my own marriage, I still think about those things and the steps I can take to keep my marriage healthy, happy, and strong.

I'd imagine that exceedingly few people enter into a marriage thinking that they're going to have an affair. To most newlyweds, the very thought is almost incomprehensible — I'd never do that. Not me. Not us. The truth is that it can happen to anyone; you are capable of cheating on your significant other, and I think acknowledging that is valuable in protecting your relationship. But affairs also require a sort of perfect storm of circumstances, and I think being mindful of those circumstances and understanding how to prevent or minimize them is an important strategy.

I'm a personal trainer and a gym owner. Over the years I've gotten to know many of my clients personally, many of them attractive females close to my age. And I work in an environment in which I regularly interact with very fit, tightly-clothed beautiful women. So maybe it's that, coupled with my year-long relationship with a married woman, that makes me especially conscientious about sexual attraction, emotional attraction, and the circumstances that can lead to infidelity.

1. Small things

The first circumstance is an erosion of marital intimacy. This doesn't necessarily happen as it's depicted in the movies, where there's a series of huge conflicts or fights in which hurtful things were said. Instead, it's the small things: not making quality time a priority, and spending it on friends, work, or hobbies instead; going for extended periods without physical intimacy — and I don't mean just sex, but kissing, gentle touching, holding hands, cuddling, etc.; and neglecting compliments and verbal expressions of love, like "thinking of you", or "you are incredibly sexy".

This erosion of intimacy comes as stress, jobs, and other obligations spur complacency with those physical and verbal expressions of affection. Simply being around your partner regularly and becoming accustomed to them is sometimes enough start taking them for granted, but the disconnect between partners is one that happens slowly, in small steps.

2. Physical attraction

The second circumstance is physical attraction between two people. Sorry, it's not enough to just think "that person's hawt!" We're human beings, and it'd be naive to think that marriage somehow inoculates us against finding other people sexually attractive. I grew up in an evangelical Christian community that preached Jesus' words: "Any man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart". Well, fuck that thought-crime nonsense. I've looked at tons of women "lustfully" and I don't feel an inkling of guilt about it. I fully expect my wife to cast her eye toward other men she finds physically attractive as well. It's just biology, folks. And frankly I would conjecture that, as is often the case in the religious community, repression and guilt simply magnifies those desires. If you can accept that you're a human being with a healthy sex drive and that you will find yourself occasionally admiring other humans, you can skip the guilt and go about your day. 

Mutual physical attraction certainly propels relationships forward and can contribute to affairs, but I think it's the weakest factor of the bunch. For me, the fact that I occasionally find myself physically attracted to other women can't come close to outweighing the fact that not only am I very physically attracted to my wife, but our relationship is built on much, much more than that. The real risk with physical attraction comes when it's combined with emotional attraction.

3. Emotional attraction

In the time since I met my wife, I've met plenty of other attractive women; to some degree, as I mentioned above, it comes with my line of work. But in order to propel physical attraction into an affair, you need an emotional connection. And to some extent, I can confidently say that I've met a few other women who, were I single, I'd be interested in. 

That was the case with my previous relationship. There was a physical attraction, sure, but what really drove the relationship was an emotional connection. We related to each other. We had similar interests and views, a similar sense of humor, and enjoyed getting to know one another. At no point were either of us (to my knowledge) pursuing an affair. Our relationship grew organically with the time we spent together. I was single and, after a nasty breakup, was resistant to jumping into a committed relationship; she was in circumstance [1] in her own marriage, and our mutual attraction grew with the time we spent together. And that is the fourth and last circumstance:

4. Time

The above circumstances alone aren't enough to spur an affair; like any relationship, the relationship that will become the affair has to grow and be nurtured. Physical attraction lays the groundwork for emotional attraction to grow. And if you're dissatisfied with your partner and choosing to spend time elsewhere instead of working to rekindle your intimacy, the excitement of a new relationship can be enticing. You start looking for excuses to spend time with the other person instead of your partner, and in time the small escalations can culminate in an affair. All along the way, you may think, "Not me; I'd never cheat on my partner! I just really like spending time with this person. My partner is always busy with this and that..." and so forth. 

I remember that my relationship with a married woman certainly didn't materialize overnight. We'd hang out with mutual friends, and talk after they left. We'd spend time with each other when her husband was busying himself with friends and hobbies. I felt a connection and an attraction, but I was in complete denial — She'd never do that. No way. They're both my friends. 

Even after she kissed me softly on the cheek and held my hand, I chalked it up to an unlikely set of circumstances. A few weeks later, a passionate kiss. I still figured it wouldn't escalate, that she'd snap out of it even though by then I was falling for her. It wasn't until we slept together that I knew we were in deep. We managed to keep the relationship going for a bit over a year, until she became so consumed by guilt that she had to leave. I haven't spoken to her in years.

Caring for what you have

Looking at her own marriage — though of course I only knew what she told me — I knew that it wasn't harsh conflict that drove them apart. It was steady neglect. She felt that she wasn't important to him, that he'd rather spend time with his buddies than her. She told me once that she asked him to look her in the eyes and tell her he loved her; he couldn't. 

I remember that while I was involved in that relationship, I read an interview in GQ with the woman with whom the politician John Edwards had an affair. She said something that rang very true:
... infidelity doesn't happen in healthy marriages. The break in the marriage happens before the infidelity.

I'm truly, madly, deeply in love with my wife. She's my best friend, my partner, my team-mate. I can't imagine my life without her. Our marriage is young, but I don't want to fool myself into thinking that we couldn't end up just like my (quasi) ex's marriage. With the divorce rate as it is, I honestly don't know if my wife and I will make it; I don't think anyone does. But I have to believe that if I can be diligent in nurturing our marriage and be mindful of the kinds of scenarios that make infidelity more likely, I can tilt the odds in our favor.