April 13th, 2009

Captive Dreams

(no subject)

The Nature of Magic

In the Middle Ages, "magic" meant employing some nature of a material body to achieve an effect without knowing the nature that achieved it.  Thus, chewing willow bark would relieve a headache somehow.  It was the "somehow" that made it magic.  Had they known the nature of willow bark and how it influenced bodily humours, it would not have been magic.  The causes would have been "manifest" (apparent) rather than "occult" (hidden).  This was quite different from sorcery, although there is obvious scope for both quacks and superstition when the natures are occult.  [Superstition is when the effect is falsely ascribed to the nature of the matter, such as might happen from a spurious correlation or post hoc, propter hoc reasoning.]  Since then, of course, the terms "magic" and "occult" have taken on the odor of "unnatural" or "supernatural" rather than merely "unknown nature."  

Knowledge............Causes are
Art........................manifest.....................Know how
Magic....................occult..........................Know somehow
Superstition............nonexistent...............post hoc/propter hoc

With this in mind, the following ruminations of The Maverick Philosopher tickled my funny bone. 

To round out today's ruminations, let us consider the materialist who ascribes to the grey stuff in our skulls the magical property of giving rise to consciousness, self-consciousness, conscience, and intentionality.  Can we not tax such a materialist with superstition? Is he not ascribing magical powers to matter, powers that material objects cannot possess?  In a slogan:  To impute meaning to meat is magical!  Mind means (intends) what is other than it.  If you impute this power to mere matter, then you are arguably superstitious.

"But brains just are semantic engines; they have the intentional power!"  If the materialist can get away with that little outburst,  then the religionist can get away with imputing to a plastic icon on a dashboard the power of averting automotive mishap.

Brains exist and consciousness exists. (Dennett be damned; his eliminativism about consciousness, not the man himself.) It is natural to wax Searlean and say that brain activity causes consciousness. But if we have no idea HOW brain activity could cause consciousness, then how [does] saying that it does differ from saying that the St. Christopher medal causes safe passage through the friendly skies?

By me, it's not clear whether "The brain gives rise to consciousness somehow" is magic or superstition, depending on whether the "somehow" is the null set or not.  Is it the equivalent of chewing willow bark, or the equivalent of post hoc/propter hoc?  Until then, "IT JUST DOES!" is an ejaculation of faith.  Alleluia.  May the Singularity come soon. 
  1. The universe is matter without any intrinsic meaning. 
  2. The human mind is simply an attribute of matter. 
  3. The human mind creates meaning. 
How anyone can believe all three is a puzzlement.  If the mind is an attribte of a wad of gray matter packed in a bone box, then it is part of the universe.  If the universe is meaningless, there is no way that a inconsequential slivver of it can create meaning. 
Captive Dreams

(no subject)

An Unfortunate Letter to the Editor

A profile on Freeman Dyson in the New York Times has elicited the usual spate of letters questioning Dyson's sudden and inexplicable loss of intelligence.  The interested reader can read the profile here: www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/magazine/29Dyson-t.html  and the letters to the editor here:  www.nytimes.com/2009/04/12/magazine/12letters-t-THECIVILHERE_LETTERS.html

The gist of many of the letters can be found in their choice of words: dire practical consequences, poorest citizens will be the most adversely affected, foreign-oil dependence(!), a grave disservice to the future of my children, etc.  Basically, the science seems somehow alwasy to justify social programs advocated by the scientists.  But one letter is especially alarming.  Monika Kopacz writes:

It is no secret that a lot of climate-change research is subject to opinion, that climate models sometimes disagree even on the signs of the future changes (e.g. drier vs. wetter future climate). The problem is, only sensational exaggeration makes the kind of story that will get politicians’ — and readers’ — attention. So, yes, climate scientists might exaggerate, but in today’s world, this is the only way to assure any political action and thus more federal financing to reduce the scientific uncertainty.

Shazaam.  The objective is political action and securing funding?  Does she wot what she has written?  This is reminiscent of Stephen Schneider's famous quote in Discover magazine, lo, these many years ago.  We have to offer up scary scenarios and downplay our doubts and uncertainties or people won't do what we believe they ought to do.  These are the folks who once believed that eugenics was the logical conclusion of Darwinian theory -- as if you could deduce a public law from a scientific one.  This is called metaphysics, for which most scientists are ill-equipped.* 

(*) Example: I have read a scientist simultaneously ridiculing metaphysics AND invoking Ockham's Razor!  

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Captive Dreams

(no subject)

The Feast of St. Hermenegild

Good News for Captain Kirk and All Fans of Space Princesses


http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/04/thermodynamino.html

I've been contending for a while that physics and chemistry set strict boundary conditions on the solution space, and so many of the "calculations" of probabilities are based on a false denominator.  There are only about a thousand possible protein folds.  Now it seems that certain amino acids are more probable (and hence more common).  So Captain Kirk may luck out, after all, with all those space princesses. 

Points deducted for
egregious error to Dr. Pudritz for saying, "There's less and less amino acids that require more energy to form." 

He means, of course, "fewer and fewer amino acids."  Remember, kiddies, wearing a white lab coat doesn't make you the go-to guy for every topic under the sun. 

Bonus points to Dr. Chen for getting the word "Panglossian" into a news article. 


I also note the tendency to use the term "evolution" for any natural process that moves toward an end.  In this case, the tendency of thermodynamics to move chemicals toward a few of the possible amino acids.  This is not the same thing as the Darwinian struggle for limited resources culling the less fit.  It is only the tendency of systems governed by a potential function to move toward a position in the state space that minimizes the potential.  (Like that kind of talk?  Fans of Aristotle may be permitted a quiet chuckle at how this resurrects the fourth "because".)  One may as well assert that hydrogen and oxygen "evolves" into water.  This sort of thing debases evolution into a tautology: "Survivors survive," is how I think Karl Popper put it in pointing out its basic unfalsifiability. 


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