December 2009

I had a quibble about Dennett’s conservation-of-energy argument against dualism.  His argument, I’d agree, is pretty damaging for dualist theories that imply that the soul can affect the body, but there are at least three distinct forms of dualism that don’t:

1) The view that the soul is sort of like a field generated and sustained by the body, which takes its character at any particular moment from the character of the body at that moment.  Probably the most popular among dualists in academic philosophy these days.

2) The view that the soul’s essence is partially separate from that of the body–that the soul takes some of its character at any particular moment from the body’s character at that same moment, but that it also has some characteristics that aren’t derived from the body.  Maybe more of a theistic position than #1.

3) The view that the body and soul are entirely separate causally, and that their coincidence is the indication that the Creator made Creation to be well-ordered.  Leibnitz and I think a few Indic philosophers took this view, but it doesn’t seem to be talked about much anymore.

So it’s a pretty strong argument against two-way causality between body and soul–which might be all he really needs for the arguments he’s making.  But I don’t see it answering the more fundamental suspicion that there’s something above and beyond material reality.  Could you clarify how Dennett’s argument changed your mind?


You’re quite right that (1) and (2) escape Dennett’s argument unscathed.  However, the price for accepting them is that the soul becomes a mere spectator, with no ability to influence the world— even to move your eyes to look left.  What fun is that?  Or to put it more academically, what is the philosophical gain?  The appeal of dualism is that it fits our naive conception of ourselves.  But that conception includes the idea that we affect the world.

Of course, this might actually appeal to some people— Calvin, for example.  But I don’t get the appeal of such determinism anyway.  Theologically, I think it arises from the feeling that attributing causation to anything but God somehow diminishes him.  But it also makes him morally responsible for evil, which seems like a poor trade. 

As for (3), it’s possible, in the same sense that it’s possible that you’re a brain in a vat.  And it’s unbelievable for the same reason: the level of piddly detail required of the vat scientists or God is just too immense. 

I should note that there’s a fourth possibility: there is an energy input required to move the body, and we just haven’t noticed it yet.   Dennett’s argument isn’t a proof.   (One might even posit that another dualistic effect causes energy to disappear at about the same rate so that one couldn’t (say) detect the soul by testing the conservation of heat.   But it’s a useful heuristic in science that making phenomena hard to verify is a sign of pseudo-science.)

The other problem with dualism is that it’s something of a dead end, especially when it’s used as a rearguard fight against science.  Explaining cognition is a magnificent challenge for materialists, and has huge ramifications for robotics, computer science, psychology, medicine.  Even if it turned out to be wrong, we’ve already learned a lot and the failure would teach us more.  Dualism has no such program; you can posit a soul, but what can we learn from it?


After reading a bunch of Dennett lately, it was fascinating to read this, by Stanislas Dehaene:

In short: Dehaene thinks he’s found the footprints of consciousness in the brain.  He’s got patterns of brain activation that correlate very nicely with when people report that they are aware of a phenomenon.

In some ways it contradicts Dennett’s theory: Dennett spends whole chapters warning people not to find a locus for consciousness, not to expect a Cartesian Theater where things are presented for viewing.  And Dehaene does rather talk as if there were such a theater. 

On the other hand, much of his findings confirm Dennett too.  There isn’t in fact a particular focus of consciousness– he describes it using Dennett’s phrase, “fame in the brain”.  Consciousness turns out to be a kind of wide-ranging excitement; he describes it as a particular item being made available to the whole brain: the visual system is looking at it, auditory stimulus is available, words and meanings are active, it’s there to be talked about or for action to be made.  Things are connecting up, being made available to all the subsystems.

By contrast, subliminal, non-conscious activations percolate through small sections of the brain and die out in a second or so.  Interestingly, they may percolate as far as awakening particular lexical meanings (that is, they go much farther than mere sensations).

Dehaene also agrees with Dennett that consciousness serves us as a sort of Von Neumann computing machine.  Unconscious thought can handle some simple recognition tasks, but for a series of transformations, you need consciousness.  Consciousness lets us focus on something, play with it in the mind, apply a sequence of steps to it. 

The most intriguing part of the article are the claims that they’ve started to identify particular thoughts— e.g. by looking at the pattern of activation they can guess (better than random chance) what number you’re thinking of– or even more remarkably, what image you’re looking at.  If this pans out, it’s going to be huge; it’s going to be a new revolution in science and society.

Charlie Stross has an interesting post on designing a society for a generation ship— a structure intended to ferry a large number of people to another star over the course of a few hundred years.

Most stories set on such ships seem to be about their failure, which is perhaps why Stross is worried about how to organize the shipboard society.  Perhaps his most provocative comment:

One thing I’m pretty certain of is that the protestant work ethic underlying American-style capitalism, with its added dog-eat-dog ethos, would be a recipe for disaster aboard a generation ship — regardless of whether it’s run as a democracy or a dictatorship. American (or British) working hours are a bizarre cultural aberration — and a very local one. More to the point, competitive capitalism tends to reward increases in operational efficiency, but efficiency is most easily optimized by paring away at the margins — a long-term lethal threat to life in this situation. The “tragedy of the commons” has got to be engineered out aboard a generation ship, otherwise the residents will wake up one [virtual] morning to discover someone’s acquired a monopoly on the oxygen supply. And that’s just for starters.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I suspect he’s right, given the contraints we’re talking about: a tiny little ecosphere can’t take either cutthroat competition or unbridled change.  But then you may face an even trickier problem on the other end: a society geared to milennial stability may be poorly adapted to actually founding a colony on the other end.

But then, I’ve always been out of sympathy with the idea of “let’s settle another planet ‘cos this one is screwed.”  If we haven’t solved the problem of screwing up planets, colonization doesn’t help.  If you’re an arsonist, you don’t solve your burning house problem by moving to a new house. 

FWIW, I think Stross’s problem is most easily solved by extending the human lifetime.  More to come in my SF novel. 🙂

A Mefite recommended Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, and it was on sale for $10, so I’ve been playing Vin Diesel.  I named my profile Vinbert.

Not many games show your character in a mirror. This one does. Because it's Vin Diesel

It’s not a bad game.  You wake up on the beach, jump and fight your way through a brief tutorial, and run down a corridor into a ship in the middle of interstellar space.  OK, I didn’t quite follow that part, but this ship is full of mercs, the really bad kind, worse than interstellar criminal Riddick.  You sneak around the ship finding elements to make your escape, and dispatch most everyone you meet.  Or, you know, don’t sneak around, just kill ’em all, because dammit, you’re Vin Diesel.

Vin provides the face, the voice, and the attitude.  He’s given to saying things like:

Now the monsters have something to fear.

You don’t want me to think you’re useless.

I’m Hell’s Messenger– named Riddick.

The best way to escape a problem is to solve it.

OK, that last one doesn’t sound very badass, but he says it badass.  I hear Starbreeze created a state-of-the-art facial animation system for this game, and then didn’t use it, because Vin says every line in the same deep threatening monotone, with the same utter lack of expression. 

There is a mechanic for dragging dead bodies into the shadows so they don’t attract notice.  Neat, except doesn’t Vin Diesel relish fighting?  Maybe they should have let him put sprays next to each corpse.

But, eh, a little cheesiness doesn’t hurt a game, perhaps helps.  That’s something I found running RPGs with friends: a scenario that would be cheesy in a movie can be quite fun to play, because you’re in it.  The familiarity of the situation gives you motivation and clues what to do.  So far in Dark Athena it works pretty well– there’s a story behind what I’m doing, Vin is pretty entertaining, the ship is beautifully rendered, and the voice acting is good. 

A lot of video games explore nasty or post-apocalyptic worlds with a full complement of psychos.  It’s kind of an oddity that (say) Fallout 3 and Borderlands both suggest that the psychos want to eat you.   For what it’s worth, the Dark Athena baddies are more obsessed with rape, which is more realistic and perhaps more disturbing. 

One more factoid about Riddick we learn from this game: apparently his eyes emit light, which is why he wears those shades.

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