Monday, September 30, 2013

china stone

i had a little china stone
i found it in my peanuts

i deleted the rest. anyways, i've now applied to three schools. it has begun. just an update.

and, as for migraine business: while i did predict a couple weeks ago that something was up, it's failed to materialize seriously. there've been a couple of very weak, slow periods, lasting 2 or 3 days, where it felt like something migrainesque, but never enough to make me certain. so there's that.

what else, what else... reading Chalmers' big book, very great, should have read it 10 years ago. all of my thinking, much of which i probably got from him in sideways ways anyways, is anticipated, including my insight last weekend about the whole dualism/idealism/monism thing. so that's fun, i read the book mornings and evenings on the train.

also, got to play the public piano out in Government Center, it felt very nice.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

not idealism

okay, after the epiphany of the last post, i did a little re-reading of some basic boilerplate, and i'm thinking that what i'm calling 'idealism' there is really a type of pure panpsychism, saying that everything is a subjective state. it's non-dualistic simply in that it flips the hard question around: what evidence is there for, or how to you conceive of or explain, non-subjective states? from the materialist/physicalist point of view, the subjective state seems impossible to understand, which leads to the dualist perspective. but then, on the other side, you do away with 'physical' completely. everything is a subjective state, analogous to consciousness, but usually (almost always) without the complex representational structure. so in this system, dualism is like physicalism + panpsychism. idealism is usually used to describe a point of view where everything that exists is a representation, which i still think is craziness.

now, another not on metaphors for thinking: i am now finally (after probably 10 years of delay) reading Chalmers' book 'The Conscious Mind'. i've read many of his papers, some of which are summaries of the more digestible ideas in this book, so in a way i'm prepared for him. but it's a real philosophy book, and it gets difficult. since i can't hope to understand it all, i do a lot of close skimming, reading words and getting some meaning but not all meaning. i guess that's always the case. i had the thought that this process is like looking at objects in water of varying degrees of clarity. when you understand what you're reading, the water is clear, you can see all the surfaces, each new point of fixation is visible and well defined, and you can see the whole structure. but when the water is muddy, you can't see the whole structure - you see parts of it poking into clear parts of the water (muddy water is never uniformly muddy, but the muddiness is in swirls, leaving 'open' spaces of clarity), and those maybe you can see clearly, but even they may be hazy. anyways, the visual metaphor for understanding - clarity, detail, focus, fogginess - really comes home when reading a philosophy text.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


read Koch's "confessions of a romantic reductionist" this weekend. nice book, and he's such an interesting character. i was slightly disappointed that there wasn't more to learn - it was thin (i don't normally finish a book in 2 days). not that it wasn't full of things to learn, but most of it wasn't new to me, i guess because i'm familiar enough with the literature.

it did spark one interesting thought that i'd never really had before, and it wasn't really in the book itself - you know how these things work, you might be primed in some way for something, and then someone says the right thing in the right way, and something new appears. here's what i thought:

(as a warning, the book is all about consciousness, the science of trying to explain what consciousness, i.e. subjective consciousness is. all discussion of this topic needs to be prefaced with warning that you're getting into something deep. so there it is.)

information theories of consciousness, like Tononi's or Chalmers' (such as it is), are basically dualist theories. they say that the stuff of reality has two aspects - one is the objective, measurable, interactive aspect, that we can measure in terms of physics (in the familiar sense of the word). the other aspect is subjective, intrinsic, and emergent - emergence in the sense of information, of a systematic quality that is real and not conceptual or based in observation - and it can be calculated or understood in theoretical terms (e.g. in the terms of Tononi's theory), but it cannot be measured in a relational sense.

this is not the new thought that occurred to me. i'm already on their side. i'm not a physicalist, which i think is a small-minded position, in that it shows that the person just hasn't gone far enough in thinking about the difficulty of the problem (i.e. the Hardness in Chalmers' terms). physicalism says there is only the objective stuff, and that whatever emergence there is a function of observation - i.e. a system is described by some agent, like a human scientist, and the scientist recognizes that the system has properties that are not included in the components of the system, and yet which flow from the combination of the component qualities - this kind of emergence is more a fact of higher-order recognition on the part of the observer. there is nothing actually there in the system that corresponds to the emergent quality.

still, this is not the new thought. here it is: idealism. not a new thought, but new for me. i've always been much more set against idealism than against physicalism - not agreeing with either, but mostly agreeing with physicalism, just that there's something missing there. but idealism, all wrong. but for the first time, on reading the Koch book, I got a reasonable picture of idealism in my head, and he wasn't even talking about it. the picture is this: say that all reality is subjective, and there is no objective reality at all. this is ultimate panpsychism, that everything is psyche of some level. but what makes a mind special? what is consciousness? why does there seem to be such a divide between the inner substance of our minds and the 'physical' character of the biological brain? i figured it out (in this system): physical qualities are just mental representations. the representations cannot be identical with the things they represent, of course. when i see a dog, the 'seeing' is a set of representations of various aspects of dogness. this seems fine, because i have no reason to be confused about the mismatch between my perception of a dog and the dog itself, because i am not a dog. same goes for rocks, clouds, houses, etc. but when i see a brain, or study a neural system or a neuron, knowing that i am a brain, the mismatch is so pronounced that i can't miss it. i am - my consciousness is - a brain, and yet, this representation of a brain is so fundamentally unlike my consciousness. where, in there, in that thing, does the consciousness emerge? what explains it?

in the idealist view, the explanation is purely psychological, cognitive. there is no actual distinction between mind and brain. the brain i am studying is just as much of a subjective entity as i am, but my representation is vastly inadequate. i can only 'understand' a bit of it at a time, and only in abstractions or formulations or approximations, no matter how clever i am. brains and neurons and other objective, physical, phenomena are only the limited psychological efforts of human consciousness to represent essentially unrepresentable other consciousnesses. the limitation might just be of design - the brain isn't evolved for the purpose of representing or emulating other brains. if it were, if it had equipment making such emulation possible, then observing other brains would be equivalent to observing their consciousnesses. but there may be computational limits - there must be - that make this impossible or very unfeasible. so, if a dualist theory of consciousness like Tononi's is perfected, it may be translatable into idealist terms as explaining the difficulty or intractability of emulating one idealist system on another.

a lot of this sounds very familiar - the idea that we are confused, naturally, into thinking that our percepts or our concepts, which are neural descriptions of the real world, are the real world in a direct sense. there are few direct realists out there, who believe that the dog is the dog - most of us realize that the dog is a mental representation of the dog out there. but we then invoke physicalism in noting that the dog out there is objective and 'real' and physical in a sense that is somehow different from the subjective world of qualia that interfaces between our minds and the world. this is different from what i'm getting at here - in the idealist view, out there and in here are qualitatively the same. qualia everywhere, within and without. the only difference is that our qualia are representational, while non-brain qualia aren't (usually).

this all sounds reminiscent of certain religious ideas, very buddhist or maybe hindu, the idea that everything is ultimately consciousness, and that the 'real' world is an illusion or a cognitive mistake. not saying i believe it, just that it was a sort of realization of a possibility that i had while reading an interesting book this weekend.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

asti nasti

slight psychic turmoil what with the coming application deadlines, projects to work on, etc. as is usual in these situations, nothing much of anything is getting done.

just wanted to report that i keep seeing flashes and scotomites, and now suddenly getting some photophobia. it's been 27 days since the last recorded headache, which is at least twice the normal interval (though that interval varies by at least its mean). so i'm due (plus, look at this nice plot, and note that today is thursday:).

the plot on the left is the average headache rating per day of week; when they start on the weekend, they are worse. the one on the right is tally per day of week; more start on the weekend. this is just a year or so's worth of numbers, but obviously i'm prone to headaches on the weekends, probably when susceptible. reason? relaxation, sleeping late (and late coffee), irregular eating, possible alcohol, etc.

anyways, let's see what happens.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

false features in text

spent the morning reading papers. there was an interesting exchange in JOV about what was probably my favorite paper of last year; the exchange strengthened my opinion of the paper, but i'm not going to go into it now, because this post is irrelevant to the actual substance of the articles in question.

here's what i saw/see (in the letter-to-editor attacking the paper in question, as displayed in my browser):

[if you want to see it, keep fixating this line, but attend to the lower part of the text below].

Do you see it? I need to ask around. I notice these things a lot, but they're never as salient as this. In case you don't see it, here's an illustration:

There you go. Go back to the first one and see if you don't see that arc. I only see it peripherally (had to draw that line in without looking at it), but scale isn't so important, and neither is field location (so long as it isn't central). The left eye sees it better than the right, and it's stronger overall with both eyes. To me, it's so salient as to be distracting. I had to do all these tests to convince myself it wasn't a retinal tear or something.

(also interestingly ironic is that the paper(s) in question are all about measuring threshold-versus-noise functions, which are shaped just like the illusory/actual line.)

It's apparently just accidental peripheral concatenation of the structure of the letters and words in the paragraph - crowding, basically - but really, if you look straight at the texture, it's damned hard to see just what is stimulating this process, and why it isn't happening everywhere. But it's neat - basically, a positive effect of crowding or lateral interaction, which is usually held up for its negative (destructive) effects.

Also, I think this qualifies as a deja trompé. Haven't had one of those in a while.