Archive for April, 2008

Zeki Blog

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Zeki’s got a blog. Here.

Re Your Brains

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

Jonathan CoultonRe Your Brains

Zombie Roundup Roundup

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Here’s a roundup of recent blogospheric zombie roundups: Siris’s, my mind on books’s, and my own.

My $.02 on zombiology: either we know that we’re not zombies or we don’t know that we’re not zombies. If we know that we’re not zombies, then physicalism is true (see “Transcending Zombies“). If we don’t know that we’re not zombies, then physicalism is true (see “Type-Q Materialism“).


Scientists solve ‘gavagai’ problem. Not.

Monday, April 21st, 2008

From NewScientistSpace: “‘Babelfish’ to translate alien tongues could be built

Such a “babelfish”, which gets its name from the translating fish in Douglas Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, would require a much more advanced understanding of language than we currently have. But a first step would be recognising that all languages must have a universal structure, according to Terrence Deacon of the University of California, Berkeley, US.

[...]Deacon argues that all languages arise from the common goal of describing the physical world. That limits the way a language could be constructed, he concludes.

Deacon argues that no matter how abstract a symbol becomes, it is still somehow grounded in physical reality, and that limits the number of relationships it can have with other symbol words. In turn, this defines the grammatical structure that emerges from stringing words together.

If that is true, then in the distant future it might be possible to invent a gadget that uses complex software to decode alien languages on the spot, Deacon said. He presented his ideas on Thursday 17 April at the 2008 Astrobiology Science Conference in Santa Clara, California, US.

Testing the theory might be tough because we would have to make contact with aliens advanced enough to engage in abstract thinking and the use of linguistic symbols.

The lack of aliens does indeed make that a tough nut to crack. Also, problematic is the lack of a physical “grounding” relation that would serve to distinguish between reference to rabbits, un-detached rabbit parts, and the cosmic complement of a rabbit. Good luck, exolinguists!


Fig. 1. Stick this in your ear hole.

My recollection of Douglas Adams’s description of the Babelfish was that it fed off of the brain-waves of the speaker and secreted telepathic translations into the brain of the listener. Regarding the ‘gavagai’ problem, this is just to kick the problem upstairs: specifying determinate contents for alien brain states is not obviously easier than specifying determinate contents for their utterances.

However, perhaps one can appeal to a strategy outlined recently by Paul Churchland (Churchland, P. (2001). Neurosemantics: On the Mapping of Minds and the Portrayal of Worlds. The Emergence of Mind. K. E. White. Milan, Fondazione Carlo Elba: 117-47.) The gist of Churchland’s suggestion is that the neural activation spaces of distinct brains may be uniquely mapped to one another in spite of large differences between the brains’ fine-grained structure. This is alleged to provide an objective basis for measuring similarities of content in the respective neural representations.

Even if this Churchlandish proposal is correct, huge hurdles remain to harness the proposal in the service of a Babelfish-esque technology. Scanning an alien brain and then adjusting my own to resemble it and thus token representations with similar contents may suffice for me to think like an alien, but it wouldn’t suffice for me to have thereby translated the alien’s thoughts into my own. Consider: if someone zapped a monolingual English speaker with a ray that turned them into a monolingual Chinese speaker, the zapped speaker is no closer than before to understanding how to translate Chinese into English.


Fig. 2. By the way, my Babelfish tells me that the cover of his book says “To Serve Man“. Nice!

Consciousness Without Subjectivity

Friday, April 18th, 2008

Consciousness Without Subjectivity, the PowerPoint from my Toward a Science of Consciousness 2008 talk, appears in my updated talks section. This represents the 20-25 minute version of the talk. The version I’ll be presenting at Churchlandpalooza in May is scheduled for a two-hour slot. A draft of the paper should materialize from the ether sometime June-ish.

Also: There’s Swampthing about Mary.

Also also: Dave Chalmers has his pics up here and here.

What part of “self-explanatory” don’t you understand?

Monday, April 7th, 2008

If someone felt compelled to provide illustrations of so-called “self-illustrating phenomena”, would that be a tacit admission that their labeling anything “self-illustrating” was self-defeating? Anyway, the following link is to my new favorite powerpoint presentation: “Self-Illustrating Phenomena“. It is really cool.

Roger F. Gibson, Jr.

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

Last night, at the University of Missouri, Columbia Symposium on the work of W.V.O. Quine and Roger Gibson, Chase Wrenn announced the festschrift for Roger Chase has been editing. My and Josh Weisberg’s paper, Type-Q Materialism is forthcoming in that volume (link to uncorrected page proofs). Other contributors include Alex Orenstein, Bob Barrett, Dagfinn Follesdal, David Henderson, Ernie Lepore, Eve Gaudet, Joe Ullian, Josefa Toribio, Ken Shockley, Lars Bergstrom, Richard Creath, and Robert Thompson.

One of the articles I’m especially excited about is Thompson’s. Here’s the title and abstract from his website:

Gibson and Quine: Experimental philosophy and the reciprocal containment of epistemology and ontology:
One of Roger Gibson’s most valuable philosophical contributions is his interpretation of W.V. Quine as a systematic philosopher. Much of his work has consisted in laying out Quine’s central themes and showing the various relationships among them. Gibson invariably highlights a terse claim in Quine, one which has been passed over by most philosophers, and shows how this claim embodies a crucial relationship among the Quinean themes. In this paper, I want to highlight one such claim: that for Quine, epistemology and ontology reciprocally contain one another. I will use this claim to analyze recent work in experimental philosophy which suggests an instability in the intuitions to which analytic epistemologists appeal. While it may seem that this empirical investigation is an example of Quinean naturalized epistemology, par excellence, I will argue that the results are much less interesting than they seem, if we are to be thoroughgoing Quineans. These results may offer more evidence that there is no non-natural source for knowledge, but they are only significant if one adopts a theory of explanation and confirmation which is radically non-Quinean. Given that Quine was not above offering thought experiments of his own, I will attempt to give a more thoroughly Quinean account of these results.

Anyway, Josh and I and a bazillion other zombies are descending upon Tuscon AZ for the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference next week. If you’ll be in town, dear Brain Hammer reader, please say ‘hi’.


Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Ruthlessly reductionistic John Bickle has the website up for Churchlandpalooza, AKA the University of Cincinnati 44th Annual Philosophy Colloquium: The Churchlands (May 15-17, 2008). The website has links to abstracts of the talks and photographic evidence that I may have the largest head in all of neurophilosophy.

Finite Will and Infinite Will

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Gualtiero Piccinini @ Brains calls attention to this NYT article on finite will: “Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind“. Excerpt:

No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.

Here’s a little bit of fiction I wrote a few years ago about infinite will: “Desire Magnitudes“. Excerpt:

I tear open my package, and, as is typical for ET merchandise, the accompanying literature is indecipherable trash. Fuck it. I pop a pill and wash it down with some hot sludge. I’m not real sure what to expect, but I’m figuring on an ingestible analogue to my previous surgery. I’m figuring nanobots are going to modify my frontal lobes allowing for the simulation of an indefinite number of ersatz consciousnesses to deal with an indefinite number of annoying distractions. Wrong answer, dude. That is not what this pill does to me at all. Just a few seconds after swallowing, the pill establishes various interfaces with my brain, and I know my way around my cerebrum well enough to know what’s what. The first interface established between the nanoprocessors and my brain is through the visual areas of occipital cortex. A translucent blue rectangle pops into my field of view. White alphanumerics scroll from top to bottom. It’s extraterrestrial at first, but as the pill coordinates the visual processing with the semantic association networks in my left temporal cortex, the text writhes into recognizable English: