Sunday, May 27, 2007

Neil deGrasse Tyson

On these long weekends I get to sit around and take the time to work through a lot of books, movies, or TV programs I don't otherwise have the time to dedicate to. Today I've been watching sessions from last November's Beyond Belief symposium. The best speaker I've seen so far is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is much better here than he is on PBS, since he's got the room to improvise and riff on his preferred variations on the theme of the relationship between science and religion. It's more history than science or religion, and he's really very watchable.

If you don't have the patience or time for the full 40 minutes, at least watch his 5 minute tirade about "Stupid Design":

Update: Also cool - though I'll stop embedding - is Stuart Hammeroff's discussion of why he thinks we can be conscious of events as they happen even though it would seem that our brain works too slowly to process the information at the necessary speeds. Apparently quantum information can go backward in time, and if consciousness is an emergent property of quantum phenomena, it would be no trouble to be conscious of things while they happen. I'm ignorant enough that that all sounds plausible to me (it's apparently quite controversial), but I don't get why he thinks that means that Thomas Huxley was wrong to describe us as "conscious automata, helpless spectators"; it's not like we can make some claim to control the quantum phenomena. Whether the illusion of control is constructed as things happen or after the fact, it's still an illusion.


Tommaso Sciortino said...

That's pretty awesome.

Man, atheists are getting all uppity all of a sudden.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I don't really understand why the shoudl concern ourselves with saving the concept of a soul. I just got into a very unsatisfying dialog with a commenter where he kept on insisting that consciousness was just ipso facto impossible within our current understanding of physics. Why this was he couldn't quite say exactly. He just insisted that anyone experiencing consciousness would just have to agree that subjective experience was not just an emergent physical property of matter, but rather something extra-physical.

In the end I suggested that my personal disbelief of the extra-physical nature of consciousness was a big problem for his theory.

Paul said...

If your talking about Hammeroff's stuff about consciousness, he's actually taking what is really a pretty typical metaphysical line these days, where the goal is to try to satisfy the materialists by denying that there's some additional, non-physical substance in the universe while also providing an account of subjectivity so as to appease non-reductivists. The trendy way to compromise these days is with various theories of emergence, usually with mental phenomena supervening on physical phenomena (quantum physical phenomena in Hammeroff's case.)

So it's not really that the "soul" per se matters to these people - Hammeroff describes his own references to the soul as "tongue-in-cheek" - so much as they're acknowledging that any physicalist account of consciousness will be unsatisfying as long as it doesn't account for subjectivity, intentionality, etc. So they try to do that.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Ok. I guess my problem is that I think explanations of "subjectivity, intentionality, etc" don't necessarily *require* fancy quantum mechanics are anything like that. I mean, theres nothing about subjectivity for example that seems fundamentally impossible given regular physics and chemistry.

Paul said...

Well, except that physics and chemistry usually proceed by moving toward ever-greater objectivity. There's nothing obvious in the history of physics to suggest that it can, though its ordinary operation, give an account of subjective experience. On the contrary, physics is usually employed to exactly the opposite purpose.

Similarly, physics has never given an account of how a phenomenon can be about another phenomenon. For instance, I believe that Prince Charles looks funny. That belief isn't just a phenomenon that has subjective content, it also stands in a relationship to another phenomenon (i.e., Prince Charles) that is unlike known relationships between other physical phenomena.

Maybe there's a strictly physicalist account of consciousness that is able to explain subjective experience and intentionality - but it's not clear why we should assume that's the case.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Well you say you don't know why we should assume that there's a "strictly physicalist account of consciousness" but to me the reason is obvious: Becuase in science we always assume that there is a physicalist account of everything (or that it's just unexplainable).

As for how a phenomena can't be "about" another I don't follow at all. I think we need to discuss this face to face over some really bad planet of the ape film.

Paul said...

Yes, in science. And certainly, in science, we should - that's just the operating assumption you need to make sure you exhaust science's potential. But there's lots of other things we think about that we don't assume have a physical account - mathematics, for instance. So I think it's important to distinguish assumptions we employ for practical purposes from things we actually know with certainty.

Matt said...

Science is not married conceptually to any strict definition of "the physical" as the only available explanation for any and all phenomena. It just happens to be the case that "physical reduction" has explained most natural phenomena better than competitive theories. It's not written in the stars or in the philosophy of science that "physical" reality will explain the entirety of existence. I suppose one could define what is physical as "that which exists" but this definition robs the term of its everyday meaning, marking it little more than a banality. Also if this definition were true than it would have unfortunate counterfactual conditions like: if ghosts exists, then ghosts are physical.
Surely, one can defend the view that everything is in fact physical-as you in fact believe (as I know all to well as the aforementioned "commentator" you mention)-but don't force "science" into such a conceptual box; it does a disservice to science by definitionally limiting it's potential.
What definition of science should we use? How about: the attempt to understand all observable phenomena (including subjective experience) through falsifiable empirical testing and theoretical postulation of fundamental causal entities and laws. The physical hypothesis may or may not be true (because of subjectivity I doubt it) but it is certainly not true a priori.

-matt sigl