Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Third Degree

I'm doing some research on torture, for a variety of reasons. Now that the US has been outed as a nation that includes torture among its official practices, it behooves us, the citizenry, to learn something about the activities engaged in under our name, by our government.

Here's a bit that relates to a conversation in another thread, about the general beneficence or malignancy of the Catholic Church, which has a long history of applying the most appalling torture techniques imaginable (don't click on that link if you are easily disturbed). How, I have been wondering, did Christianity morph from its origins as a radical Jewish sect, based on love and charity -- how did Christianity become a leading purveyor of such authoritarian horror?

Here's a passage from the valuable book A Question of Torture, by Alfred W. McCoy, which is mostly about the torture practices of the US since WWII:

With the rise of Christian Europe, the use of torture in courts of law faded for several centuries. Torture was antithetical to Christ's teachings and so, in 866, Pope Nicholas I banned the practice. But after a Church council abolished trial bhy ordeal in 1215, European civil courts revived roman law with its reliance on torture to obtain confessions-- an approach that persisted for the next five centuries. With the parallel rise of the Inquisition, Church interrogators also used torture for both confession and punishment...By the fourteenth century, the Italian inquisition used the strappado to suspend the victim by ropes in five degrees of escalating duration and severity--a scale preserved in modern memory in the phrase "the third degree" to mean harsh police questioning.

Interesting etymology! Also interesting is that the strappado was apparently practiced by the North Vietnamese on John McCain, and also at Abu Ghraib. Some traditions never go out of style, apparently.

The impact of judicial torture on European culture went far beyond the dungeon, coinciding with subtle shift in theological emphasis from the life of Jesus to the death of the Christ--a change reflected in artistic representations...of his body being scourged, tortured, and crucified. From limited details of Christ's agonies in the gospels, medieval artists..."approximated these grisly violations with the unerring eye of a forensic pathologist", creating an image of the pain inflicted on his battered body that mimed, and may have legitimated, the increasingly gruesome legal spectacle of torture and public execution.

Note that the Christian powers inherited a tradition of torture from the Romans, eventually condemned it, and then reintroduced it several centuries later. This undercuts any attempt to explain Christian torture as a holdover from pagan times, or that it was simply not recognized as evil.

Here's a very lengthy and detailed review of the problem of torture in Catholic theology, from something called the "Oblates of Wisdom" (part 2). Amazing stuff, I am always in awe that there are people in the modern era who think like this (and of course, however medieval their ideas may be, they have a website for them). Tortured logic, to say the least, as they try to square up a couple of millenia of inconsistent teachings.

Another reason for our reluctance to address this issue theologically may be a sense of uneasiness, not to say embarrassment, about the prospect of re-opening old wounds. For while the shudder-evoking practices that we qualify as torture are generally excoriated on all sides today, every student of Catholic history and theology knows they were endorsed for many centuries by the most respected theologians (including saints and doctors of the Church), and by the highest ecclesiastical authorities. And yet the issue cannot simply be side-stepped forever. After all, at the very heart of Christianity itself lies the infliction of horrendous pain – the passion and death of the world’s Redeemer. The central icon of our faith – the Crucifix – is a terrible instrument of torture.

Well, yeah. I didn't want to mention that, so glad you did, Fr. Harrison. If I happen to go a bit further and say that there is something deeply fucked up about worshiping a torture device I won't be making a terribly original observation.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fuck Hope

"Don't confuse me with those who cling to hope. I enjoy describing things the way they are, I have no interest in how they 'ought to be.' And I certainly have no interest in fixing them. I sincerely believe that if you think there's a solution, you're part of the problem. My motto: Fuck Hope!

"I am a personal optimist but a skeptic about all else. What may sound to some like anger is really nothing more than sympathetic contempt. I view my species with a combination of wonder and pity, and I root for its destruction. And please don't confuse my point of view with cynicism; the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything's gonna be all right."

-- George Carlin (via Dennis Perrin)

"Turning your mind toward the dharma does not bring security or confirmation. Turning your mind toward the dharma does not bring any ground to stand on. In fact, when your mind turns toward the dharma, you fearlessly acknowledge impermanence and change and begin to get the knack of hopelessness."

-- Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun, When Things Fall Apart

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Thou Aren't Physics

In response to this post on Overcoming Bias, I had a few things to say which I think are worth reposting here (and it's too hot to think of anything new). The theme is, are we physics, such stuff as dreams are made of, or something else? I introduce the concept of software/hardware dualism, which I haven't seen discussed much elsewhere. I try to argue against a hard form of materialism without falling into some kind of spiritualist superstition. I am groping towards a position that is, I suppose, some combination of emergentism and platonism. Not being a professional philosopher, I'm probably reinventing the wheel, but even though I feel like I'm exploring fairly obvious truths, I have not really seen this position that I'm trying to stake out articulated elsewhere.

The evolution of a mind in time has its own rules, which do not violate physics but may be said to transcend them, sort of.

Instead of a person, imagine that it's a computer we are talking about. All that circuitry is obeying the laws of physics, no doubt, but the evolution of the state of the processor from one cycle to the next is not well-described by physics, but by the abstract formalism the computer was designed to implement. You can talk about a computer in terms of physics, theoretically, but it doesn't get you very far.

What is even more confusing is that the computation is the same whether the computer is made out of silicon or tinkertoys. So it doesn't appear to have much to do with physics, does it? Considering that transhumanists seem to think they can upload their selves onto a different physical substrate, they must not consider themselves to be made up of physics, but Something Else.
"Properties of the relationship between things" is not a physical concept, so it indeed appears to be "something else".

Take the idea of the letter "A". It is composed of parts in certain relations -- three lines in a configuration. It's the same letter whether the lines are made up of pixels on a screen or ink on a page. Interestingly, it's the same letter even if some of the lines are curved slightly, or thickened, or enhanced with serifs -- Doug Hofstadter has written about this particular example. All of these cases are composed of physics, and no violation of physical law is going on, but the physics in the various cases have nothing in common. So whatever makes A-ness would appear to be "something else".

Here's my view of computationalism: the computer is a highly imperfect model of human thought. If you look at the historical development of the computer, it evolved as an attempt to mechanize thought. Despite its imperfections, it's the best model we have, and it helps us understand real brains. Various insoluble philosophical problems appear in the computer as engineering problems, which does not exactly solve the real problems but helps get a better handle on them.

For instance, the old problem of mind/body dualism was recreated in the computer and appears as the less mysterious hardware/software dualism. Suddenly we have a model for how physical systems and symbolic systems can depend on and interact with each other. That's very powerful. But I don't believe (as some of the more callow reductionists do) that we have thereby completely solved or gotten rid of the original question.

I never read van Gelder's dynamic cognition papers, but it seems to be rather similar to the critiques of GOFAI (good old-fashioned AI) that were made in the 90s by neural-net people and the situated action people. There is some validity to these critiques, a lot actually, but in a sense they are attacking a strawman. Nobody really believes the brain is a classic Turing machine; even if it is doing symbol processing it is doing it in a massively parallel, associative style. But it is doing some sort of computation (a variety of sorts, actually), and nobody has come up with a better way of theorizing about what it is doing that computationalism.

Practially, programming computers usually requires having understandings one or two levels below the level you would like to. If I'm coding something, I would like to think in terms of pure algorithms but end up having to think about clock speeds, memory locality, and (if you are Google) heating and electrical supply issues. Computers do a better job of separating out levels than biology, because they are designed that way, but in both cases you have different levels of operation built out of underlying levels.

To return to the original issue, the question of what is the ontological status of entities and processes that exist at higher levels of this stack. They are certainly made of physics, but are they physics? This is a hard question that refuses to go away, except by declaring at so as some reductionists would like to do.

More, from an earlier post:

Here's a question for reductionists: It is a premise of AI that the mind is computational, and that computations are algorithms that are more or less independent of the physical substrate that is computing them. An algorithm to compute prime numbers is the same algorithm whether it runs on an Intel chip or a bunch of appropriately-configured tinkertoys, and a mind is the same whether it runs on neurons or silicon. The question is, just how is this reductionist? It's one thing to say that any implementation of an algorithm (or mind) has some physical basis, which is pretty obviously true and hence not very interesting, but if those implementations have nothing physical in common, then your reduction hasn't actually accomplished very much.

In other words: let's grant that any particular mind, or algorithm, is physically instantiated and does not involve any magic non-physical forces. Nonetheless, it is mysterious how physical systems with nothing physical in common can realize the same algorithm. That suggests that the algorithm itself is not a physical thing, but something else. And those something elses have very little to do with the laws of physics.

"Algorithms are made from math" -- indeed, mathematical objects of any kind also have the peculiar properties that I noted. A hexagon is a hexagon no matter what it's made of. A hand is a hand not because its composed of flesh, but because it has certain parts in certain relationships, and is itself attached to a brain. Robotic hands are hands. While there is nothing magically non-physical going on with minds or hands, it does not seem to me that a theory of hands or minds can be expressed in terms of physics. This is the sense in which I am an antireductionist. There are certain phenomena (mathematics most clearly) which, while always grounded n some physical form, seem to float free of physics and follow their own rules.

I wouldn't call my view "vintage Platonic idealism", but maybe it is, I'm not a philosopher. I'm not saying that forms are more primitive or more metaphysically basic than matter, just that higher-level concepts are not derivable in any meaningful way from physical ones. Maybe that makes me an emergentist. But this philosophical labeling game is not very productive, I've found.

Nick said: Yudkowsky is saying that the Schrödinger equation provides a causally complete account of the program's execution.
The Schrödinger equation, let's agree, provides a mechanistic account of the evolution of the physical system of a computer, or brain, or whatever. But it does just as well for a random number generator, or a pile of randomly-connected transistors, or a pile of sand. Whatever makes the execution a sensible mathematical object is not found in the Schrödinger equation.

An algorithm can reduce to any of many very different physical representations. How is this any odder than saying 4 quarks and 4 apples are both 4 of something?
It isn't. Four-ness is also odd, just not as obviously so. Like algorithms, it too is not to be found in the Schrödinger equation. I'm hardly the first person in the world to point out that the nature of mathematical objects is a difficult philosophical question.

I'm not trying to introduce new physical mechanisms, or even metaphysical mechanisms. Let's grant that the universe, incuding the minds in it, runs by the standard physical laws. But the fact that mechanical laws produce comprehensible structures, and minds capable of comprehending them, is exceedingly strange. Even if we understood brains down to the neural level, and could build minds out of computers, it would still be strange.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bruce, here, teaches logical positivism. And is also in charge of the sheep dip.

[Subject line explained here if anyone reading this is really that un-learned in geek culture.]

Poking around the Moldbugsphere led me to Australian philosopher David Stove's anti-philosophy paper What is Wrong With Our Thoughts?, which I'd read before but enjoyed revisiting. His thesis is that the thinking of philosophers, from Plato onward, has been horribly broken, and he attempts to get at just what that brokenness consists of. Stove despairs of answering this question, but it seems rather straightforward to me, in that all of his examples consist essentially of reifying some abstraction and then going on about it at great length. I suppose this may be idealism in philosophy-speak, although Stove apparently doesn't think that covers it adequately.

The problem is, reifying abstractions is also important in thought that goes right, and there is no real method for telling the difference. The experimental method and Occam's razor help, but only in some cases.

A number of the writers he attacks are ones that I see some value in (Foucault, Blake, Freud). Foucault is an interesting case -- I encountered him in grad school, where I read him and a few other difficult continental writers. This was at a technical school where such stuff was definitely not on the curriculum, and routinely dismissed as nonsense. I found it interesting and challenging to try to wrap my head around this very foreign style of thinking, but it required a certain technique, which consisted of: assuming that the text is not nonsense and is true of something, and then trying to imagine what that something could be. The result, when this worked, was like getting a new worldview in which reality had been factored in a different way than usual -- instead of, say, the material forces that science and evolution, we find people driven by things like Foucault's networks of power or Bordieu's habitus.

I didn't feel that my thought was too endangered by this exercise because I could never really animate these ideas for any great length of time. In the bad thinking that Stove talks about, the abstract ideas have become the most powerful forces in the universe.

Stove lists 40 made-up examples of "thought going wrong", and claims he could generate hundreds more:
Here, then, are examples of forty different ways in which thought can go irretrievably wrong, of which we can identify only the first two.

1 Between 1960 and 1970 there were three US presidents named Johnson.

2 Between 1960 and 1970 there were three US presidents named Johnson, and it is not the case that between 1960 and 1970 there were three US presidents named Johnson.

3 God is three persons in one substance, and one of these persons is Jesus, which is the lamb that was slain even from the foundations of the world.

4 Three lies between two and four only by a particular act of the Divine Will.

5 Three lies between two and four by a moral and spiritual necessity inherent in the nature of numbers.

6 Three lies between two and four by a natural and physical necessity inherent in the nature of numbers.

7 Three lies between two and four only by a convention which mathematicians have adopted.

8 There is an integer between two and four, but it is not three, and its true name and nature are not to be revealed.

9 There is no number three.

10 Three is the only number.

11 Three is the highest number.

12 Three is a large number.

13 Three is a lucky number.

14 The sum of three and two is a little greater than eight.

15 Three is a real object all right: you are not thinking of nothing when you think of three.

16 Three is a real material object.

17 Three is a real spiritual object.

18 Three is an incomplete object, only now coming into existence.

19 Three is not an object at all, but an essence; not a thing, but a thought; not a particular, but a universal.

20 Three is a universal all right, but it exists only, and it exists fully, in each actual triple.

21 Actual triples possess threeness only contingently, approximately, and changeably, but three itself possesses threeness necessarily, exactly, and immutably.

22 The number three is only a mental construct after all, a convenience of thought.

23 The proposition that 3 is the fifth root of 243 is a tautology, just like 'An oculist is an eye-doctor.'

24 The number three is that whole of which the parts are all and only the actual inscriptions of the numerals, 'three' or `3'.

25 Five is of the same substance as three, co-eternal with three, very three of three: it is only in their attributes that three and five are different.

26 The tie which unites the number three to its properties (such as primeness) is inexplicable.

27 The number three is nothing more than the sum of its properties and relations.

28 The number three is neither an idle Platonic universal, nor a blank Lockean substratum; it is a concrete and specific energy in things, and can be detected at work in such observable processes as combustion.

29 Three is a positive integer, and the probability of a positive integer being even is ½, so the probability of three being even is ½.

Contrary to Stove, it seems pretty easy to identify what is wrong in some of these (8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 26, and 29 can be analyzed and disproved as straight mathematics, which does have a nosology).

Another group seems like possibly-defensible propositions in the philosophy of mathematics (4, 5, 6, 7, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28). You could say that in at least some of these something has "gone wrong", but not in all, and they circle around a genuine puzzle, namely, what is the actual status of mathematical objects? There is no agreed-upon common-sense answer to this, so the philosophical attempts to grapple with the issue don't seem entirely misguided (my own efforts are here).

Stove's own thought seemed to go very wrong on a regular basis. His last book was an attack on "Darwinism", and he published this embarassing piece on women's intellectual capacity:
Women university students, although hardly any of them have given birth, are uniformly present in smaller numbers (proportionately) than men, at any above-average level of intellectual performance. At least, this is the case in any branch of university work which is very intellectually-demanding.
Oops!: MIT...[has] women making up 44 percent of the undergraduate population in the last academic year (compared with 57 percent at colleges nationwide).

Hm, Cosma got here first, unsurprisingly, also here. And here's another critque from a right-wing philosophe.

And here's a quote from Stove that sums up my stance on blogging:
This will remind you of a saying of G. E. Moore, which disgusted many people, that he was led to philosophize only by the maddening things that other philosophers said; and it may strike you as a shamefully small and negative idea of philosophy's highest possible achievement. But let it be as small and negative as you like: it is still more than any philosopher ever has achieved.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Spreading a meme

Edupunk is not your father's constructionism.

Oh look, it's got a video already (best in full-screen):

The humor of this, I guess, is that education is about the least punk profession imaginable.

I've been involved in educational technology on and off during my career. Now mostly off, but I have been doing some stuff with the OLPC project. That project, for all of the innovations they've been able to bring to bear, suffers from a radically top-down distribution model -- the intent is to only sell it in lots of 10,000 to national governments -- which results in collisions between their open-source ideals and the institutional imperatives of the funders. Thus the brouhahah when they veered from the path of open-source purity and allowed Microsoftin the door. Edupunk seems to be scruffy and anticorporate and more in tune with the open source ethos.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Random religion roundup -- anti-Catholic Church edition

An offhand remark I made about the Catholic Church tossed off in the last thread led me to some thinking on religion. It's a pretty useless pursuit, and no great conclusions have been reached, but I want to flush my buffers into a blog post.

I did a hit-and-run comment on Daniel Larison's blog, in response to this, which apparently got censored, so I'm repeating it here:
Actually, it doesn’t surprise me that much that it undermines faith in people who lived through those horrors, but it is a bit odd that those who were not there or not even alive when it was happening will cite such events as their “evidence” that either God does not exist or if He does then God is not good.

Let me get this straight -- the Holocaust, ie, can legitmately undermine faith if you happened to be a victim of it, but the rest of us should just ignore it because it happened to somebody else. That is a surprising argument to come from someone arguing in favor of faith. If there's one element of religion I can admire, it's the emphasis on compassion. Apparently you believe that only our own suffering should be significant to us.

God is nothing like the caricatured martinet dictator that the sad New Atheists portray Him to be.

The "sad New Atheists" do not portray God as anything, because they do not believe he exists. Duh. They believe the entire concept is incoherent, and the disconnect betweeen God's alleged benevolence and the reality of suffering is merely one of the very many obvious things wrong with it.
I supposed I should have left out the "duh", or perhaps the whole second paragraph, since the first one seemed to make a legitimate and interesting point. There is a big contrast between religions of compassion (Buddhism, early Christianity) and religions of authority and regulation (Catholicism). I'm drastically oversimplifying; any real religion combines both elements, but those two functions seem to be drastically at odds with each other. It raises the question, not if religion is true, but what is it for? It seems to be an institutionalized way of settling unanswerable questions, such as "who is in charge of the universe?" and "how should we reconcile our own interests with our sense of obligation to others?", as well as others.

Larison's blog (and its surrounding site, the American Conservative) is an interesting source of what I'm looking for, which is reasonablly intelligent and sane people who I am in fundamental disagreement with. It's only by arguing with people like that that I can hope to change or improve the underpinnings of my own thought. Unfortunately that ideal seems hard to realize on the internets, where people seem to prefer coalescing around shared preconceived notions.

Browsing his blogroll led me to Orthodoxy Today, which contains a piece by GK Chesteron on materialism. Chesteron is an engaging writer and has a knack for making himself appear to be wonderfully sane, and his opponents as crazed. Then there is Robert Bork, who is just the opposite. If I was seriously interested in taking on religious ideas, I would feel obligated to get them in their best, most persuasive form, rather than taking cheap shots at fundamentalists like most of the "sad New Atheists" do. Chesterton would probably be a good start. His main line of argument appears to be a pragmatic one -- namely, if you don't have an institutional answer to all those unanswerable questions, people will get very confused, society will be chaotic, and people will invent religion substitutes (such as Marxism) that are worse than what they replace.

Here's a story about a prominent Catholic denied communion for the sin of supporting Barack Obama's condidacy. Can we revoke the Church's tax exemption, to be followed shortly by a RICO prosecution for running a pedophile ring?

On a rather different spiritual vector, it appears that Obama is a "lightworker":
"Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment.
Ohh..kay (backs away slowly). This is from Mark Morford, an SF Chronicle columnist who I have actually admired in the past. I find the mainstreaming of this kind of thought rather terrifying, because I can see it generating a mutual death vortex between those who see Obama as the messiah and those who see him as the antichrist. I believe Obama himself to be relatively sane and levelheaded, but I don't know if he can tame the irrational energies he is stirring up.