Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How Does the Nervous System Work?

I know what the brain does, I just don’t know how it does it. Why is it not enough to know what the brain does- namely generates behavior and determines experience? Why do we have to know how it does it? I don’t have to know how my car or computer works to know what they can or will do based on my controlling inputs; this because they are not agents. I know or can determine all behaviors, capacities, performance limits, modes of operation… based on experience, and a few fundamental realizations. I don’t really have to know how they work. I know that my car can’t fly, and probably won’t float well, and I don’t have to be an expert to know this. The ”fly in the bottle” problem for philosophy is that we haven’t applied this simple observation to human beings.

The fact that people are agents reduces predictability and allows for novelty, but it doesn’t introduce transcendent possibility. You will never fly by flapping your arms, swim like the dolphins naked or jump into outer space. We simple haven’t realized that same biologically based limits apply to cognitive activities also. Nor do we understand what these limits are.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Information Based Science

Can an information based science do analysis, prediction, or cosmology? How far can we get without invoking rules, principles or laws or mathematical analysis.. Consider the rollbar problem –does the rollbar fail on ground contact?. Contemporary multiphysics- FEA computes stresses on an itinerative basis using geometric constraints mechanical principles and kinematics. Can I get the same results without mathematical analysis?

Engineering issues can always ((?)–what about space craft?) be resolved by testing, indeed the point of modern simulation techniques is ultimately to eliminate testing. But I could test until I got close enough from some point of view. Can I adequately determine performance without mathematical analysis however? How much testing would I have to do to establish performance on the basis of comparative results?

An information based epistemic technology comparable to our science and engineering would have to know something about the properties of materials. This could be gotten experimentally, but how do you normalize it ? E.g., how do you get something like our nominal tensile strength numbers in pounds per square inch. You could adopt a particular sample as a norm or standard unit and work from that- scale up or down. (Note this systems information is not limited to the visually apparent- it has chemical knowledge/information extraction techniques also or it can’t do much steel metallurgy.)

What’s the information based alternative to itinerative mathematical analysis? It probably depends on the required level of accuracy or certainty. If were smart we can do a worse case scenario. Proof it doesn’t fail (e.g., exhibit plastic hinge failure ) in the most difficult case and you have a successful design. But I still want to optimize- so I work backwards, reducing weight and cost. Most engineering can be done this way. Analysis is more an economic consideration than an epistemic one in applied science. The “understanding” aspect is psychological. Why can’t my understanding be based on countless experiments and observations?

Still, analysis is quicker and more cost efficient, but this doesn’t mean epistemic exclusivity.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Aspects of the Theory of Agency

So what are agents, and why do we need a theory of them? We need the theory for ethical, meta -ethical , social and political philosophy and the theory of history. We need the theory as a meta- theory for psychology. Psychology as an aspect, a derivative of the theory of agency. What must be the case –agency- how its done, what is the case for human beings- psychology. Different paradigm, if we know what agents are, what they require. Then the question becomes: How do human beings effect their agency? ( Another question: Is human nature exhausted by the concept of agency, is that all there is to it?) This apposed to the current approach which lacks a theory of what is to be done. Saying you want to explain something is not enough, the concept of an explanation is not enough to determine a would be science.

So, what a are agents? Agents are a type of system (another definition), systems which are self determining, self regulating, information sensitive, and effective, capable of changing the exterior world. Humans and multi-cellular animals are agents. Are plants? Computers, a species of potential artifact agents, are not today anyway. The fundamental science of agency is physics, chemistry and biology may or may not be relevant for artifact agents.

The theory of artifact agents is different from a theory of automaton or robots. Agents don’t have to be spatially contiguous, they might have parts all over the place connected by information technologies.

Agents have de-facto desires, they try to do things or act like they are trying to do things. And their desires have more than one object.- e.g., maintaining operational status and performing a task.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Agency and Ethics

We have to distinguish between evolved and manufactured agents (those produced by evolved agents). They don’t necessarily have the same features, e.g., no reason to think a manufactured agent comes with a survival instinct. This is a fundamental distinction in ethics and political theory. While a manufactured agent, an automaton or really smart computer, might have some “rights”, these aren’t necessarily the same as those of an evolved system even if the cognitive and overall capabilities are the same.

This might seem obvious, but it really isn’t. When C3PO or R2D2 got smashed up, everyone was upset, More so perhaps with R2D2 than C3PO, the latter was kind of annoying, even while R2D2 was less anthropomorphic. While it was OK, i.e., not troubling, to destroy the Imperial Storm Troupers who were evidently human, at least while there faces weren’t visible; bashing the droids was disconcerting. (Wasn’t it?) Ethics may start in sentiment, but we really have to go beyond it.

Star Wars as a morality play is troubling and problematic. While I may be disturbed by the wanton slaughter of the Imperial forces, most of whom were probably unwilling conscripts, and view their destruction as being in fact a more serious ethical issue than killing the droids; this is a reflected view, a personnel prejudice, and something which must be defended, at least from the point of view of the droids. Why do I hold it? Why do children not hold it?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Information Systems- Causation- Meaning

Design or intention do not determine what is or is not an information system, it’s a matter of function. A broken computer is a paper weight, not an information based system.

Verbal behavior, even prepositional behavior, is not information, it’s a potential source of information, it can be converted into information, may contain information but is in itself not information at the cortical level. This because not ever causal event in an information based system is an information caused event. Suppose I hear a proposition in a language I don’t understand. My auditory system will function pretty much as usual, especially if the phonemes of the language are similar to those of a language I do understand, but after auditory processing everything is different. Conventionally we would say that I didn’t know the meaning of the utterance. What we need is an information theoretic explanation of the difference.

The response envelope for the uncomprehended utterance is different. In particular, the cognitive response envelope (non emotional component ) is different. (Quine’s radical translation –how is this done? Certainly below the level of ontological commitments it has been done. Consider the problems of the first European arrivals on American shores. The natives point at a rabbit, yell “gavagi”, “gavagi”, and then shoot it with their bows and arrows, you get the idea quickly. “Gavagi” is rabbit or food or something, they throw it into a pot with other edibles with apparently different names. So “gavagi” is not target, or animal or food ….it means rabbit

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


We deny that all consciousness is consciousness of something. There is consciousness and the current content of consciousness. It is possible but unlikely that I would be conscious but conscious of nothing. (Holding your breath in a flotation tank is probably as close as you can get without artificiality.) Consciousness is the underlying background, non-specific cortical neurological activity that is necessary for experiential and behavioral processes.

Thus anything with a nervous system is conscious. But consciousness is of no particular significance in and of itself, it is merely a biological substrata for awareness, a powering up of the system so that it can be aware and reactive. What distinguishes organisms is not consciousness, but its content. The difficult question is why we associate consciousness with cortical activity.

I don’t seem to be conscious of what’s going on in my cerebellum or lower brain centers even if they serve as more than relay centers, i.e., they do information processing or are involved in the production of syntactic behavior.