Monthly Archives: June 2013

Quote for the Day – Hume on Common Sense and Philosophy

“Whatever has the air of paradox, and is contrary to the first and most unprejudiced notions of mankind, is often greedily embraced by philosophers, as shewing the superiority of their science, which coued discover opinions so remote from vulgar conception.”

~David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

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Quote for the Day – The “Light” Workload of Academics

“September came. The air thinned, the undergraduates returned, and classes began. Noam and his colleagues reluctantly resumed the yoke of teaching and grumbled over the numerous distractions from research that the students presented. It’s amusing how outsiders thinking teaching is the job of professors and ignorantly exclaim over how few hours academics have to work. Just last week Noam’s gastroenterologist (we’ve discovered an ulcer) asked him how many hours a week he has to teach and then laughed smugly.
“Three hours? That’s all you guys have to work a week?” (Noam’s teaching load is much light than the average-one of the lures Princeton had used to attract him.) ” And with summers off? Boy, you people are really overworked.” And he was the man treating Noam for an ulcer. Noam didn’t – never does – bother to correct the man’s faulty inference from three hours of teaching to three hours of work. What does he care what such people think?

~Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-body Problem

p.s. Although the quote implies otherwise, ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress.

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Getting the Motivation to Write Philosophy Papers Is Hard

I find that the hardest thing about writing a philosophy paper is the difficulty of staying motivated to continue tapping the keyboard knowing that in all likelihood what I am typing sucks and will need to be completely revised later. The only thing that keeps me going is that I learned I am pretty good at polishing turds.

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Filed under Academia, Philosophy, Random

Quote of the Day – Philip Kitcher on the Legacy of Descartes in the Age of Google

I am inclined to think that, were Descartes to be resurrected among us, he would be puzzled by the legacy of his questions in contemporary epistemology – and far more interested in the neglected issue of how to provide access to reliable information in a world awash in potential sources (the “Google/Wikipedia” problem).

Philip Kitcher, Preludes to Pragmatism

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Book notice: Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed

I had always dismissed Kurzweil’s theories about “strong” artificial intelligence to be wishful thinking but this book changed my mind. I’m not quite as optimistic about scaling things up to human adult levels within the next couple decades, but reading this book gave me new found respect for his ideas and the evidence and theories he uses to back them up. I had no idea how powerful “hidden Markov models” are for solving problems, and Kurzweil makes a good argument that neocortical pattern recognition (essentially a form of probabilistic prediction making) is computationally approximate enough to these hidden Markov models that, if you put 300 billion such pattern recognizers together, used genetic algorithms for pruning, and gave it the entire internet to “grow up” in, then you could create a reasonable approximation of the intelligence worth wanting: categorizing pattern recognizing problem solvers with huge memories and lightning speed. Also, when Kurzweil delved into heady philosophical territory he held himself fairly well and exposed many of the fallacious and sadly misinformed criticisms of his views, many I once held myself due to lack of familiarity with what his views actually amount to, which are more modest than his vocal popularizers would have you believe. Granted, this is the only book of his I have read, so I can’t pretend to stand behind all his ideas, but the AI stuff in this book seemed solid to me. His view of an “intelligent mind” is really a modified form of Jeff Hawkin’s thoery of neocortical intelligence as a giant massively redudundant, hierarchical, recursive, and self-learning memory-prediction machine.4/5 stars.

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Filed under Books, Consciousness

Is Visual Perception Really a Nonstop Hallucination? A Plea for Conceptual Revision

Anyone who has taken Philosophy of Mind 101 will be familiar with the following claim: “We’re hallucinating reality all the time”. In this post, I will critically examine whether this statement should be taken as literally true. My intuition is that such claims are over-extended metaphors, and the true nature of visual perception is more complicated.

The popularity of the Matrix has provided a common conceptual framework to make sense of what philosophers and vision scientists have been claiming for many years e.g. Helmholtz’s claim that perception is a “unconscious inference”. The original philosophical motivation can be traced to Descartes’ musings about whether we could ever distinguish reality from a dream. Nowadays, vision scientists frame these ideas in terms of vision being “representational”.

But is it true? The argument is prima facie convincing. Start with the phenomenon of visual illusions or visual hallucinations. For example, in Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) people have “complex” visual hallucinations wherein people and objects are hallucinated wholesale in dazzling detail. These fascinating cases clearly  demonstrate the brain is able to “represent” or “generate” non-existent objects in full phenomenological detail. But here’s the crucial move: if the brain can generate complex visual hallucinations, is it possible that ALL perception is a complex visual hallucination?

But as with all questions of possibility, we should be skeptical of any argument that jumps from possibility to actuality. Sure, it seems possible that ALL perception is a hallucination, but are we forced to make this conclusion on the basis of knowing that complex visual hallucinations are possible? Not at all!

I’d like to suggest a different metaphor for understanding the relation between hallucinations and normal perception that preserves their essential difference rather than collapsing them into a single, continuous category. Instead of thinking the existence of hallucinations forces us to think we are in the Matrix, I think it’s more useful to think of hallucinations as akin to augmented reality.


The idea is fairly straightforward: hallucinations such as CBS are analogous to the augmented “over-lay” in the above picture. The basic idea is that there is a more-or-less continuous stream of “veridical” perception underlying our basic animal perception and that complex hallucinations such as CBS are “projected upon” that stream just as an augmented reality HUB projects upon normal perception.

I think the AR metaphor for perception is more plausible than the wholesale Matrix hypothesis. My reasoning is grounded by an evolutionary thought experiment. Suppose for the sake of argument that the Matrix metaphor is correct and that ALL perception is a hallucination. Presumably, the brain is responsible for generating these representations. A further assumption is that more-or-less all mammalian brains have a similar hallucination generation capacity. But how did such a capacity evolve over time? Take the earliest mammalian ancestor who lived “fully” in the Matrix of their brain. How did their parent’s brain work? Was their perception only 99% a hallucination? And their ancestors’ perception 98% hallucinatory? And so on.

As we imagine the slow evolution of Matrix-style perception, we are faced with a Sorites paradox of sorts. As nervous systems get simpler and simpler it becomes implausible that nervous systems composed of only several hundred neurons are generating a completely hallucinatory inner-model. The neurons are more likely acting as a kind of complex “mediation” between stimulus and response rather than a representational medium.

But if we start going forward in evolutionary time and nervous systems get more and more complicated, it seems wrong to me to think that the brain ever “gets rid of” that underlying non-representational form of perception. Rather, the brain “adds” onto that basic veridical perception. But at no point will the nervous system switch from 50/50 veridical-hallucinatory to 100% hallucinatory such that we become fully immersed in the Matrix. Like augmented reality, the most evolutionary recent brain developments like the neocortex “overlay” more basic forms of perception.We might think of hallucinations like CBS as neocortical memory-patterns that are projected upon the real-time dynamic stream of veridical perception.

Obviously this post represents a very rough-and-ready formulation of an alternative to the standard Matrix metaphor and will need much further development. But on the other hand, I am skeptical that the Matrix metaphor has ever been rigorously developed past the level of intuitive metaphor. It’s even possible that we can never move beyond metaphor in dealing with the most unknown and esoteric psychological phenomena. And if this is the case, we have a real imperative to reexamine popular metaphors such as the Matrix and replace them with new ones.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

Quote of the Day – The Madness of Religion

“This is a kind of madness of the will in psychic cruelty that has absolutely no equal: the will of man to find himself guilty and reprehensible to the point that it cannot be atoned for; his will  imagine himself punished without the possibility of the punishment ever becoming equivalent to the guilt; his will to infect and make poisonous the deepest ground of things with the problem of punishment and guilt in order to cut off the way out of this labyrinth of “idees fixes” once and for all; his will to erect an ideal – that of the “holy God” – in order, in the face of the same, to be tangibly certain of his absolute unworthiness. Oh, this insane sad beast man! What ideas occur to it, what anti-nature, what paroxysms of nonsense; what bestiality of idea immediately breaks forth when it is hindered only a little from being a beast of deed!…All of this is interesting to the point of excess, but also of such black gloomy unnerving sadness that one must forcibly forbid oneself to look too long into these abysses. Here there is sickness, beyond all doubt, the most terrible sickness that has thus far raged in man”

~Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality


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