Thursday, March 31, 2011

The "hard" problem of consciousness is pretty mushy

The hard problem of consciousness is silly. Here it is, as summed up here:

The problem is how an entity which is apparently immaterial like the human consciousness – it exists, but you can’t locate it, much less measure it – can have arisen from something purely physical, like the arrangement of cells that make up the human body.

You can say the same for abstract concepts like efficiency, health, power, racism, immensity, height, etc. Can you physically locate efficiency? If not, does that mean that efficiency has a soul, or that it's some overly complicated conundrum? Not really.

And yes, you can measure consciousness. Energy is a great analogy for consciousness, because it's not a physical substance in itself; rather, it's a measurement of the ability of physical objects to perform work. You can't feel, taste, touch, hear, or smell energy, but you can know that it exists, because it, by definition, is nothing more complicated than a capacity. Consciousness is just a measurement of the work done by neurons -- a process; in other words, even if it is not the sum of the neurons themselves, it can be demonstrated to be a property or by-product of the neurons for the same reasons that a tornado or river (or their energy content) can be demonstrated to be properties of physical matter, but are not themselves limited by it.

Just because a process is not limited to an unchanging set of physical matter doesn't mean that it requires magic in order to be explained, or that it is somehow beautifully complex; conceding that this is true for just about any abstraction, process, or measurement while simultaneously allowing consciousness to be an exception is preferential thinking at its worst.

The crux of the article, though, has to do with why people mistakenly believe that they have a soul, which is fine, but the issue is made out to be needlessly complicated:

No one has produced any plausible explanation of how the experience of the redness of red could arise from the actions of the brain. It appears fruitless to approach this problem head-on.

I can't make sense of this at all. Anything that confers an evolutionary advantage, no matter how intuitively incomprehensible it may be to us, will be selected for, because the universe will use any impetus or motivator that it can to keep life going. Analogously, the two options with which we're currently presented as explanations for the universe's existence -- that there was a point in time before which no causes existed, and that causality is infinite -- make no sense to humans intuitively, but that doesn't imply that there absolutely must be a third option.

Your brain's inability to imagine things which it did not evolve to imagine does not in any way demonstrate that those things are not business as usual for reality.

As for the subjective feeling of "being" a soul, or an ego that "pilots" a body, I fail to find this phenomenon any more exceptional than any other evolutionary motivator, including non-sensitive reflexes, or even genetic instructions to consume chemicals. When you say things like, "It's truly a marvel how the brain has devised a mechanism for encouraging the reproductive success of organisms by way of thoughts, feelings, awe, wonder, and a sense of beauty," it just sounds like, "I'm in awe of the fact that living things have the capacity to be in awe," or even, "It's amazing how living things are controlled by genetic instructions for no reason whatsoever" to me.

For future reference, here are some immaterial entities which probably exist, but which also probably do not have souls:


You know what? This list could contain thousands of items, so I'll stop here. Consciousness is not special.

Update: Maybe the following idea will be of help to those who think that consciousness is special simply because it is slightly more complex than its surroundings:

Consciousness, like rivers or exercise, doesn't merely "exist" -- it happens. Think of anything that happens, and you'll soon realize just how unspecial consciousness really is. Can you quantify a baseball game? Can you hold it in your hands? Can you pinpoint exactly where the game is and label it as a material object? No, but baseball games happen, which is something else that the universe allows for. Consciousness happens; our brains are the stadiums.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The pitfall of staying still

Sometimes, someone's sole reason for not implementing a plan or solution to a problem is that it has flaws -- or that it will yield some negative results. The problem with this approach is that it's all-or-nothing, so incremental improvement is essentially disallowed by it. It's important to remember that solutions and potential courses of action should be compared not absolutely but relatively to their alternatives, including the alternative that's already in place. If a particular course of action allows for the possibility of something going wrong, and the current plan also does, then your concern shouldn't be whether your new plan will solve all of your problems; it should be whether the new plan will be better than the current one.

1. If you're in a warzone and realize that it's almost certain that many people around you are about to die, this should not prevent you from saving the ones whom you know you can save. Saving three may not be as great as saving fifty, but it's still better than saving zero.

2. If you're standing on train tracks and a train is heading straight for you, but there are murderous thugs on both sides of the tracks, it would be foolish to continue to stand on the tracks simply because the thugs pose a risk to your safety.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The importance of free education and reforming general education

The free nature of Wikipedia and YouTube demonstrates a potential direction for education -- if we're smart enough to allow it to happen. Unfortunately, Wikipedia's relevance criteria for articles is based on the argument from popularity (the American Idol/democracy argument), while YouTube is a for-profit website owned by scummy capitalists in league with advertisers devoid of real values; both are interested in pleasing people en masse, either as a symbol of some arbitrary image, or to make massive amounts of money at the expense of everyone else. Never mind the issues with inheriting wealth, allowing profit-generating entities to have owners (or to NOT be owned by everyone), the lack of alternative service providers, or using symbols in the place of hard, empirical observation; that all sucks, but what this post will be about is how such incentives and lack of regulation will keep us retarded for decades, if not centuries, to come.

Let's put it this way: You don't have to pay for an ISP in order to gain Internet access (try a library, school, or other academic location), so if you can read free articles and watch free vlogs that are of higher value than the average, hugely expensive college lecture, then someone better realize the potential that's currently being wasted and pull a Napster for education. Knowing who Napoleon replaced when he came to power or how to factor trinomials makes no sense in the context of the modern person's highly technicized existence, so why are we continuing to teach people such functionally useless nonsense? Do we really get off on artificially conjuring up value in order to give our society the false appearance of being interesting and productive? What about all the stuff that's out there in the real world that actually matters?

Furthermore, now that, thankfully, the music and film industries are dying* (and the porn industry†, believe it or not), I think it's time that the same started happening to the education industry. Let's not pretend that it isn't an industry, either, because that's exactly what it is. Remember when I said that it makes no sense for the average person to learn about Napoleon and complex math? Well, it does make sense -- for the banks and academic institutions administering all the tests, texts, and other materials. Firstly, yes, there are some colleges that are for-profit (I go to one), and secondly, regardless of motive, it's nevertheless still the case that millions of dollars get wasted every year on producing and using crap that not only could be learned by browsing Wikipedia in far less time, but is also totally irrelevant to anyone's ability to:

1. Treat people properly or behave in a competent manner within a social environment

2. Produce things that actually improve society's overall quality by removing or reducing negative impediments

The monetary incentive aside, colleges are still usually interested in upholding an image, which is a symbolic gesture that, in this case, has positive social consequences for the colleges, but hurts both the minds and wallets of those used to this end. Offering needlessly complex math and history courses in order to show off your "standards of quality" and "reputation" is no different from a woman showing off how "graceful" and "respectable" she is by wearing dresses. So all you feminists out there who advocate the slutification of your culture as a means to "realizing gender equality" or some such silliness, drop your personal predilection for the one symbolic standard that hurts your cause and start promoting free education -- for the betterment of all!

Alright, facetious rundown over. Three points:

1. In the future, if we're all going to be streaming movies from and downloading mp3s, we might as well take our "online" classes for free as well; it's more efficient than the alternatives, and the technology is already available (even if everyone is too interested in music videos and online shopping to care).

2. If we're doing all education online and for free, then we might as well choose "courses" -- or even individual lectures -- ourselves, and leave out the authoritative administrators altogether. If you want to fix toilets for a living, find a free online service provider who specializes in providing information and examinations for that stuff, then read up on it, participate in the discussions, do your real-life practice lessons, and take a few (hopefully not too memorization-based) tests. This will allow you to earn a certification for your desired skill set without all of the wasted resources and bureaucracy.

3. Even though general education in the modern sense sucks, there should still be a foundational set of ideas that gets taught to everyone at a young age, regardless of what they go on to pursue later in life.

If we as a society ever become interested in this direction, in order to make sure that 3. is established as a societal baseline, we'll first need to scrap the following:

1. Psychology - especially Freudian psychology (if your textbook admits that a concept that it's bringing forth is no longer accepted even by modern psychiatrists, you know you're holding a waste of trees in your hands), but all psychology, really, as it focuses on the individual rather than the environment, doesn't involve empirical observation and testing, and contrives arbitrary "disorders" where almost all people have at least some of the qualifications, even if they don't have enough to qualify for "treatment"

2. Math - Keep arithmetic and times tables, but get rid of trigonometry, geometry, calculus, etc.

3. History - I don't need to know about King Hammurabi or the Boxer Rebellion in order to fix your computer

4. Creative writing - Most fiction writers never go to college for writing, and the few who do often don't get anything out of it. Being graded for such a subjective activity is really silly, anyway.

5. Arbitrary guidelines for research papers - It doesn't matter whether your student indented twice or only once for his block quotation, so stop throwing a fit about it and do something meaningful with your credentials for once

6. Political Science - This is just "Spend hundreds of dollars to listen to the news in person 101"

7. Sex Ed

8. Phys Ed

9. "Philosophy" - This is just "Spend hundreds of dollars to have someone give you a list of their favorite philosophers while refusing to in any way indicate that one might have better ideas than the others, or that other not-so-famous people probably have the same ideas... 101"

10. Music

11. Art

12. Any other liberal arts courses

13. Creation "science" and Intelligent Design

14. The pledge of allegiance

15. Prayer

16. Grades - Either you're good enough to do it in real life or you're not -- no arbitrary, base-10 nonsense necessary.

After we've scrapped all the junk, we'll need to teach the following to all young people before they go on to pursue an occupational field, regardless of what they become interested in learning about later on:

1. Arithmetic

2. English

3. Logic

4. Philosophy (the real kind -- not the "all ideas are equal and memorizing the names of famous people is more important than thinking coherently" kind)

5. Meta-cognition

6. Science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy)

7. Computer Science (or at least basic computer competency and troubleshooting skills)

8. Statistics

9. Economics

Obviously, anyone who wants to specialize in something will be able to go more in-depth in some of the above areas than what the general requirement entails; additionally, they'll be able to take entirely separate courses for the purpose of acquiring the above mentioned certifications. However, when it comes to what is a requirement, there are certain skills and concepts that should be stressed.

Specific things that everyone should be taught at a young age:

1. How to formulate logical premises and conclusions; logical fallacies and why they're fallacies; how to construct a logic flowchart; what things like non sequiturs are

2. The ever-present possibility of being in error, or of being deceived by one's senses

3. A methodology for living, including methods for how to manage processes, formulate values, and accomplish goals; an understanding of why something is more valuable than something else, or at least appears to be based on sensory information; an understanding of how to determine what to do in various situations and how to make decisions based on opportunity cost, value equations, etc.; how to isolate variables for problem-solving; how to perceive the world as an integrated system dictated by cause-and-effect, relations, input, processing, and output that can be infinitely broken down into subsystems

4. Waste management, which expands upon 3., but is a bit more specific

5. How to conduct an experiment (of the thought variety of otherwise); how the scientific method works; why peer review is important; the differences between dependent variables, independent variables, and controls

6. How to spot any kind of prejudice, bias, superstition, fear/attachment, emotionally-made decisions, or religious thinking (regardless of whether it applies to what people refer to as "religion")

7. The nature of pleasure as a termination of deprivation

8. The arbitrary nature of most criteria in all areas of life, including deadlines, work hours, and weekends. For example, there is no scientific evidence in favor of the idea that working eight hours a day is more effective than working seven or nine, or somehow optimal. In any case, the ubiquity of the arbitrary criteria phenomenon needs to be stressed at a young age.

9. The arbitrary nature of the self; why a peer of yours who is very similar to you ideologically is more "you" than your seven-year-old self; why memory is the only neurological component that prevents individual sentient organisms from realizing that they're the same, in substance, as all other sentient organisms; why your pain and someone else's pain are substantively equivalent in the same way that one chunk of iron and another chunk of iron are substantively equivalent; how chemicals enter and leave the body, and what they do during metabolic activities; why living organisms are sort-of-open systems, complete with processors, memory, storage devices, buses, input devices, output devices, system software, etc.

10. Statistics; how to collect a sample; how to deduce probability outcomes; the significance of sample size; how to calculate odds; how to interpret odds (to avoid wishful thinking, etc.). Note: If 3. and 8. are properly taught, then the idea of percentages will not be taken seriously, even if percentages will still be used on occasion (or maybe not, depending).

11. Attachment avoidance - for death, life, work, loved ones, ideas, beliefs, isms, and material possessions. I'm not sure if I'd take it as far as meditation and related practices, but there should definitely be an emphasis on preparing for the inevitable decay of the "fun" things around you, as well as how to maintain a productive psychology in the absence of fulfilled desires.

12. How to use a personal computer; how to use a mouse and keyboard; how to navigate the Windows operating system; how to keep your PC free from malware, security threats, and performance problems; how to upgrade your PC. Note that this doesn't need to be incredibly comprehensive or technical; it just needs to allow the general population to be computer literate. This deserves far more attention in school than dinosaurs or Pilgrims. Sorry.

13. The different spheres of influence on the individual, and how to recognize them in everyday life. For example, the media wants you to stop smoking not because it's the only thing (or the most painful thing, or the first thing) that can kill you, but because there's plenty of money to be made in ineffective products advertised as being capable of helping you to quit. It's unlikely that lung cancer will be less pleasant for you than the average cancer; likewise, it's likely that you'll live almost as long as you would have had you never started smoking. Besides, quality is more important than quantity, which is always absurdly tiny when weighed against eternity. Oh, and all that marijuana that you think "isn't a drug, man"? Yeah, no one has gotten lung cancer from it yet because your grandparents didn't consume it in massive quantities every day for years. In a nutshell: Do you hold a fairly popular belief or presumption? If yes, then odds are good that someone is making money off of your gullibility.

14. The flaws inherent in the English language and why, despite our needing conventions in order to effectively communicate, most of the rules of English are totally arbitrary and meaningless. For example, synonyms are often superfluous, and capitalization was only necessary in times of hard-to-read Gothic script devoid of paragraphs.

15. What the Bible actually says; comparisons between modern values and ancient Semitic values to demonstrate the huge contrast between the two; emphasis on the barbarism of the Old Testament and why it makes sense in the context of a pastoral people with few resources; emphasis on the previously henotheistic nature of proto-Judaism; how religions, like languages and species, share common ancestors and are related to one another, in spite of the commonly held view that they are spontaneously generated

16. The differences between harmful radiation and harmless radiation (wavelengths, frequencies, photons and electrons, etc.). Honestly, people being afraid of ghosts and Satan is bad enough in 2011. Do they really need to be afraid of cell phones and microwaves, too?

17. Maybe a LITTLE bit of drawing technique or music theory as part of a larger course on something else, just to demonstrate why no one should make millions of dollars by painting portraits of women without eyebrows or by singing songs about love

18. How slaughtering livestock actually works; why meat is just a preference and not a basic human need; how much money and resources could be saved by feeding grain to all of the starving people on the planet as opposed to the pigs and cows on your burgers, which don't need to exist in the first place

Updated 6/2/11: 19. First aid; a mild amount of medical knowledge

Doing all of the above will only be possible in an environment where everyone with innovative ideas is allowed to start his own organization or website and subsequently generate publicity for his efforts; it won't be possible in an environment run by corporations, and it certainly won't be possible in the current academic environment. We must, to the best of our abilities, separate not only education but all forms of human conditioning from money-making; if we don't, we'll never promote proper skill acquisition or social understanding and competency, and courses will continue to waste resources and brain space in the meantime.

Why doesn't anyone talk about this stuff? Well, the majority of people are not in school, so they don't care, because it doesn't affect them -- at least not directly. If more people would stop treating education as either some compartmentalized facet of existence that "just happens" or a pathway to corporate enslavement, then maybe it would be easier for them to see just why our inability to raise children properly leads to war, world hunger, and any other huge, generic problem in the world.

Feel free to add onto one or more of the above lists in the comments section if you have any additional ideas. I'm always looking for more.

* This is the place where I'm supposed to link you to articles proving that I'm right, but I don't feel like Googling for the obvious.

† Apparently, because so much porn is available for free all over the Internet, producers are struggling to stay in business. I find this kind of amusing for some reason.

Monday, March 21, 2011

No Bad Memes - Current Status

I haven't updated this blog in about a month, now. I'm sure that there will be ideas worth promoting in the future, but don't expect frequent updates from here on out. I will continue to check for emails and comments as usual, though, so don't assume that I've disappeared; I'm still here, and will definitely be adding content whenever necessary over the next few months.

I just made a post on how the monetary system and lack of social programs on the Internet are inhibiting human progress, so feel free to read that in the meantime. It's something that I've been thinking about for a while; hopefully, I've succeeded in thoroughly explaining my position on it.

Thanks for reading what I've been posting here over the last couple of months in general. In the best case scenario, one day, everything will be sufficiently covered to the point that updates won't be necessary at all. That may sound kind of negative, but I think that it would be a positive sign that everything important was here out in the open for anyone to read. We'll see.

Individualism and the absence of goal-setting on the Internet

Let's get one thing straight: The Internet is dominated by a handful of corporate* websites that are for-profit. Government websites and personal hosting space are almost nonexistent; can you name a site that you regularly frequent that isn't corporate-run? When was the last time that one of your friends decided to invest in a few servers and implement something like IIS or FTP for hosting sites or files? Was it practical? Did it prove useful?

On the Internet these days, ads and unskippable commercials abound; incentive and encouragement are given to those who help the corporations in question make money -- so long as such people aren't associated with ideas antithetical to the corporations' pursuits, that is. If you don't give a particular site a bad image or speak out against it, you're acceptable; if you have an interest in genuine goals and completion of finite, quantifiable tasks, however, you're in trouble.

This problem is compounded by the fact that, not only is the Internet run by corporations, it's more or less run by a number of them no larger than the amount of fingers on your two hands. So long as the incentive for providing a web service is profit, no resultant product site is going to be geared toward encouraging people to better themselves, or work. Work, in this society, is not something that consumers do; it's something that producers do, and while most people take on both roles at various points in their lives, they almost never take them on simultaneously.

People aren't interested in making society better unless the betterment of society is incidentally profitable on a personal level, so if they're not getting paid -- especially if they're expecting to be provided a service for purposes other than "work" by someone who is getting paid -- they're not going to be interested in doing anything that isn't for themselves. And, as the saying goes, the customer is always right.

Or is he?

When you really think about it, it does seem as though the primary cause of the monopolization of the Internet is the apathy and selfishness of the average e-consumer. "Here's a new technology that allows you to make videos of yourself and broadcast them to thousands of people; do whatever you want with it except take your clothes off or badmouth us. Oh, and since you can do whatever you want with this functionality, there's no need to go to any other sites with similar functionality ever, ever again!"

This line of thinking keeps the website's superficial, outward integrity in tact while simultaneously enabling the customer to fulfill his every most base desire, regardless of how much of a waste of time the desire is when put into the context of a finite existence continuously guided by decision variables affecting all of sentient life. In other words, the owners of the website get richer by encouraging its users to use the service for pretty much any reason they want, which usually turns out to be one that doesn't involve helping someone else; in simplest terms, the website has no goals.

Sure, there is a distinction to be made between continuous goals and finite goals, and profit is a continuous goal, but what about the latter type? To me, a goal in the truest sense of the word is any completable construct representing the need for an object that can be quantified. For example, "make money," as previously noted, isn't really a goal per se, but "make X amount of money" is, as it contains a quantity variable, and, once the quantity is obtained, the goal ceases to exist.

The problem with our current framework for the Internet is that, not only does it disregard attainable goals, it actively seeks to prevent them from emerging, as it treats the Internet as an end in itself (for the consumer) or a means to the end of profit (for the producer) -- rather than as a means to any other imaginable end, including real, quantitative goals.

Without intervention from an external body -- whether a government or something similarly authoritative -- the Internet, like much of our economic system, will continue to foster goalless profit-seeking, which, while superficially beneficial to the consumer for mere minutes at a time, is ultimately only materially beneficial to a fraction of the human population smaller than the population of the average city. Perhaps someone unaffiliated with a particular website has brilliant ideas, or is working on a project that would be of interest to you, but because the project isn't in the best interest of the two or three major websites capable of hosting it, you never learn that it exists. What a travesty this is if true.

Imagine a world where websites actually promote goal creation and completion. By this, I don't mean vapid social networking "gaming dynamics" (i.e. allowing users to set commenting goals, story writing goals, etc.), which only encourage further self-absorption in the same manner that the video games after which they're modeled do; I mean things like providing propositions for a community, convincing others that your ideas are reasonable, and finding new avenues for promotion and discussion.

A real-world example might be something like a YouTube, Blogger, or even Wikipedia specifically geared toward philosophy, science, and social welfare vlogs/blogs/articles as opposed to just about any non-"offensive" videos or articles that one could imagine. A mission statement or declaration of methodology and goals would be evident everywhere on the site, and all users would be subject to bans based not on how their content affected others emotionally, but on whether the content was logical and conducive to the goals proposed by the site. There would be no owners, and everyone would have access to all editable components and modules.

In this scenario, suddenly, the aforementioned sites are no longer doing everything [legal] that they can in order to get ahead of everyone else; instead, they're working toward seeing demonstrable, practical results of proposed solutions to the world's problems. Users are encouraged not to simply behave themselves, but to actually do work. The dichotomy of user and designer has collapsed; everyone fulfills both roles simultaneously, creating a positive feedback loop of suggestion input and implementation. Everyone involved consumes resources or uses services in order to make other resources and services better, with the latter resources and services doing the same, etc., all to the end of improving society.

So long as problems exist, it should be every major organizational entity's goal to solve them. This goal can be broken into a plethora of sub-goals, of course, but it should nevertheless lie at the foundation of every organization's agenda, no matter the circumstance. Until we stop treating everyone as a source of our own personal satisfaction, though, this will not happen.

So just imagine it for a second. Imagine being able to edit someone else's blog, because you've both agreed beforehand on the direction and goals of the blog. Imagine participating on (and owning) a YouTube channel owned by fifty other people, each capable of uploading and favoriting videos. Imagine being able to, as something like a site moderator or administrator, suggest whether someone should be removed from the group or have their videos deleted, but not being able to actually do those things on your own without the input of the entire group. Imagine being able to alert everyone involved to potential areas of expansion. Imagine a website that exists not to provide people a service, but to get something done. People "get things done" and set goals all the time in their own personal lives, so why shouldn't a website advertise itself for this same purpose? A simple "Calling all interested parties: We need someone to start writing material on X subject. So and so is already working on Y subject, but if you think you have a better way, let so and so know" would suffice.

It would certainly beat what we currently have.

The interesting thing is that most of the above is possible right now on a small scale, but the services provided by the sites that can be used in this manner don't exactly help in any significant way. While it's certainly possible for you to write a blog or book on a topic that is actually important, without promotion from a major organization tailored specifically toward promoting and regulating content like yours, it probably isn't going to matter much.

Oh well. Until progress in this area is made, the alternative should be group YouTube channels, group blogs, wikis, etc.

* Wikipedia is an interesting exception. I'm in support of its method, but not its goals. Modern people tend to conflate method with goals quite often, which is unfortunate, because the technology is fantastic, in this case, and could be used in a more stringent and socially beneficial manner. Instead, Wikipedia contributors are content to delete articles for interesting ideas unfamiliar to the general public, for example, but if something which promotes horrible values is incredibly popular, it's "relevant" to humanity in some skewed way, and thus worthy of an article according to the site.

I'm not against providing or caching information on every conceivable topic, because free information, no matter how trivial, could prove useful to someone in the future. However, even if one concedes this, Wikipedia's only "goal" is to let people learn more about things they've already heard of. Popularity is only one form of relevance; relying on it to demonstrate the benefit of your website to society at large is, like democracy, a form of argumentum ad populum.