Wednesday, August 28, 2013


What is consciousness? Where does it come from?

I don't know. But I do firmly believe that it is not magic. Whatever it is, it is purely physical.

And I do know a story about how it may have arisen. Don't take it as a scientific explanation. It's not. It's just a story, which might have a hint of validity about it, but then again, might not.

It begins with life. Living organisms capable of reproducing and reacting to stimuli. Organisms that react to stimuli appropriately would be more likely to survive and reproduce than organisms that didn't.

But what response is appropriate can be hard to determine. Is that a predator, or a mate? Should I go towards it, or away from it, or play dead? And so the brain evolved. An organic computer to make decisions.

For a brain to make good decisions, it needs to model the world around it, and predict consequences of different possible actions. If I jump over this hole, can I make it to the other side? If I chase that prey, will I be able to catch it? The more accurately the brain models the world, the better the decisions it can make.

Then a species of social primates evolved. For social creatures, it's helpful to model the others in your group with more detail than other animals, because you interact with them more often. The better your model of them, the more likely you can get them to share their food with you.

But since you're all the same species, they're modelling you too. So the most accurate model of them is to recursively model them modelling you. In other words your brain has to have a model of itself. And that's essentially what consciousness is. It's the brain thinking about itself, trying to predict its own actions before it makes them.

This story doesn't answer everything. Particularly not the hard problem of consciousness. But I think it does a decent job of addressing the easy ones. Assuming, of course, that's it's even remotely true, which it might not be.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Science and Wonder

It is a common notion that science takes the wonder out of life. A prime example is John Keats's poem, Lamia.
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnom├Ęd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.
I think this notion is wrong. Science, when properly understood, doesn't destroy wonder, it enhances it.

First, I'd like to clearly separate two relevant meanings of the word wonder. The first is synonymous with awe, the feeling you get when you think, "That's really really cool!". The second is synonymous with curiosity, the feeling you get when you think, "I wonder how that works...". They frequently come together, but they don't have to. It's entirely possible to feel awe at something that you understand completely, or to feel curious about something isn't particularly awe-inspiring.

Science enhances the feeling awe, because it reveals nature, and nature is, well, awesome. The real world is far cooler and more interesting than any fictional world I've ever read about (which is not to say that fictional worlds can't also be cool and interesting). I've written about this before, and given several examples of real awe-inspiring things. Most of those things would never be known about without science. And you can't have a feeling of awe towards something you don't know exists.

Science enhances curiosity in much the same way. Every question answered by science uncovers still more to be asked. Questions you wouldn't even be able to ask before, since you wouldn't have known the concepts they apply to.

I think the reason Keats, and others who make this claim do so because of two mistakes. First, they don't realize that the feeling of awe can be separated from the feeling of curiosity. Second, they don't realize that answering questions you're curious about can uncover deeper questions. If those two things weren't the case, then science would destroy wonder. Fortunately they're not.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Law and Morality

People sometimes claim, usually in the context of things like gay marriage or abortion, that you shouldn't legislate morality. Usually, this is in response to the claim that gay marriage (or abortion, or prostitution, or whatever the topic at hand is) is immoral, and therefore should be illegal. But that's a bad response, because morality should be legislated.

Opponents of abortion are actually pretty good about pointing out the foolishness of this stance, by comparing abortion to murder. No one would say "If you don't approve of murder, then don't murder people." or "I don't like murder, but if my neighbor does, who am I to judge?" The response to that is usually that it's ok to have laws against murder because murder hurts people.

But so what? Why is ok to make a law banning something that hurts people? Because hurting people is immoral.

I think the main reason this argument is compelling is that it's usually used against people who are arguing against something that's not immoral. People say, "I think gay sex is gross, therefore it's immoral, therefore it should be illegal!". The argument is clearly flawed, but the flaw isn't with the second "therefore", it's with the first.

The problem is not with saying that something immoral should be made illegal. The problem is with misidentifying what is moral in the first place.

So, what is morality? How do you correctly tell if something is moral or not? That's a topic for another post, or perhaps a book.