The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.
A meditation on what we’d live for if we could live forever, from Neil deGrasse Tyson (via explore-blog):
Also see Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom.
So make ‘em count.
Bonus points for connecting my favorite band to my favorite astrophysicist!!
“What SHOULD We Be Worried About?”
That was the question posed to a gaggle of the world’s smartest people by Edge.org. Great thinkers from all disciplines weigh in with everything from “Chinese eugenics” to”out of control nanotechnology” to “the fall of science journalism”. What do you think of their ideas?
Guaranteed to be the most intelligent thing you read for the rest of the week, at least.
If you aren’t following literaryjukebox, that will surely change after you read Debbie Millman’s meditation on knowing and not knowing:
I will never be a brain surgeon, and I will never play the piano like Glenn Gould.
But what keeps me up late at night, and constantly gives me reason to fret, is this: I don’t know what I don’t know. There are universes of things out there — ideas, philosophies, songs, subtleties, facts, emotions — that exist but of which I am totally and thoroughly unaware. This makes me very uncomfortable. I find that the only way to find out the fuller extent of what I don’t know is for someone to tell me, teach me or show me, and then open my eyes to this bit of information, knowledge, or life experience that I, sadly, never before considered.
Afterward, I find something odd happens. I find what I have just learned is suddenly everywhere: on billboards or in the newspaper or SMACK: Right in front of me, and I can’t help but shake my head and speculate how and why I never saw or knew this particular thing before. And I begin to wonder if I could be any different, smarter, or more interesting had I discovered it when everyone else in the world found out about this particular obvious thing. I have been thinking a lot about these first discoveries and also those chance encounters: those elusive happenstances that often lead to defining moments in our lives.
I once read that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I fundamentally disagree with this idea. I think that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of hope. We might keep making mistakes but the struggle gives us a sense of empathy and connectivity that we would not experience otherwise. I believe this empathy improves our ability to see the unseen and better know the unknown.
Lives are shaped by chance encounters and by discovering things that we don’t know that we don’t know. The arc of a life is a circuitous one. … In the grand scheme of things, everything we do is an experiment, the outcome of which is unknown.
You never know when a typical life will be anything but, and you won’t know if you are rewriting history, or rewriting the future, until the writing is complete.
This, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.
Song: “Mystery” by Beth Orton
Thomas W. Malone, director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, on his study of humanity’s ability to think beyond our own brains: the idea of “collective intelligence”.
What does collective intelligence mean? It’s important to realize that intelligence is not just something that happens inside individual brains. It also arises with groups of individuals. In fact, I’d define collective intelligence as groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent. By that definition, of course, collective intelligence has been around for a very long time. Families, companies, countries, and armies: those are all examples of groups of people working together in ways that at least sometimes seem intelligent.
It’s also possible for groups of people to work together in ways that seem pretty stupid, and I think collective stupidity is just as possible as collective intelligence…
What’s new, though, is a new kind of collective intelligence enabled by the Internet. Think of Google, for instance, where millions of people all over the world create web pages, and link those web pages to each other. Then all that knowledge is harvested by the Google technology so that when you type a question in the Google search bar the answers you get often seem amazingly intelligent, at least by some definition of the word “intelligence”….
Our future as a species may depend on our ability to use our global collective intelligence to make choices that are not just smart, but also wise.
Want to dig deeper? Andy Revkin has a collection of links on his NY Times DotEarth blog. The fact that we are even having this discussion, in the connected manner that we are having it, is a pretty good example of the power of this idea.
Does the Universe Have a Purpose?
Last week we watched MinutePhysics animate Neil deGrasse Tyson’s answer to this question, posed by the Templeton Foundation to twelve scholars in various disciplines.
Although it might not seem that way, judging from the images of war and pain that are so relentlessly beamed into our eyes each day, Steven Pinker argues that humans have actually become far less violent in recent times.
In a long but enthralling essay from 2007, he offers several explanations, philosophical and biological, for this pattern of progress. One of my favorite tidbits, offered by philosopher Peter Singer:
Evolution bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people’s moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over theirs.
…people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing) and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else. Moreover, intuitions get better with practice — especially with a lot of practice — because at bottom intuition is about the brain’s ability to pick up on certain recurring patterns; the more we are exposed to a particular domain of activity the more familiar we become with the relevant patterns (medical charts, positions of chess pieces), and the more and faster our brains generate heuristic solutions to the problem we happen to be facing within that domain
Massimo Pigliucci, on why there’s no such thing as total, natural “intuition”, and how we can actually train ourselves to be better … intuiters?
Is that a word?
Check out more: The Science of What We Call “Intuition” from Brain Pickings
The Humility of the Brain Knowing Itself
The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.
Philosopher Thomas Nagel, from his critique of scientific reductionism: Mind and Cosmos.
I could be described as something of a “reductionist”. By this I mean that the experience that we call “consciousness” need not exist anywhere beyond the inexplicably complex network of neurons and other cellular wiring that we call “the brain”. Why invoke a requirement for forces beyond those of our powerful and woefully under-understood noggin without proof that it is absolutely necessary?
I don’t disagree with Nagel, though. At least I agree with him as I read his meaning. He isn’t implying that we need to look beyond “meatspace”, into the spiritual world, in order to describe consciousness, although many people do argue that. Instead I take this as a warning.
He warns us not to succumb to the pride of modern progress, to assume that our tools are the best or most complete set of tools. We have not reached a pinnacle of scientific perfection any more than Aristotle had. Our efforts to assign all the observations of the world to their own individual boxes, labeled with this and that equation and formula have certainly brought much progress. But they are not complete.
And perhaps they never will be complete. The question of whether the brain can ever fully understand itself is a valid one. But we do well to heed this warning of the dangers of scientific hubris. Instead let us be driven by what we don’t know, and use open doors to the past and future to peer beyond the now into what else might be possible, and apply good science there.
More at Brain Pickings.
On the Consciousness of Animals …
Last month in Cambridge, several of the world’s experts in the biology, philosophy and psychology of consciousness gathered. Where does it originate and manifest itself? What is the biology behind it? What, in the animal kingdom (or beyond) possesses it? Simply what … IS it?
The conversations happening in those halls were likely some of the most intelligent happening on Earth at that very moment.
At the end of this conference, as the nexus of IQ dispersed back to their enclaves of higher learning, a declaration was released: The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.
This declaration, for perhaps the first time, officially declares that “consciousness” is not a term that applies only to higher mammals, and exists well beyond the realm of humans. It states that it is a continuum, a sliding scale, a gradient of grays between the white of an unfeeling amoeba and the black of we highly evolved Homo sapiens. It is not a quality that something simply “has” or “doesn’t have”. Rather, the animal world falls at points across the scale.
It states that some birds exhibit similar forms of “consciousness” to even humans, in brain wiring, emotional circuits and even the reaction to their image in a mirror. It states that “consciousness”, in its many forms and scales, does not require the advanced brain region known as the neocortex, once thought to house our supremely advanced human braininess. It states that emotions do not exist simply in the advanced outer shell of the brain, but that their parallels can be found in deeper brain regions common to many levels of animal life.
Most of all it declares a shift in perspective for future research: That behaviors and experiences in human and non-human animals must be viewed as much by what they have in common as by what they do not have in common. This includes anatomy (what brain structures do we share, and not), neural chemistry (do our brain signals differ, or not, and how?), behavior (do seemingly different behaviors share common sources and patterns in various brains?) and beyond.
On one hand, it’s a pretty obvious thing to declare that there is a huge spectrum of animal life on Earth that experiences their surroundings, past and present, in ways that are simple and complex and everywhere in between. We are animals. Why would we assume that “consciousness” is merely ours? On the other hand, it elevates animal consciousness to a level never before widely-accepted, perhaps risking a bit of projection of human feelings where they don’t belong. How do we decide what level of “consciousness” makes that inappropriate, but that this is ok?
Are we destined to be the polished-badge moral police of the animal world, defining what is and isn’t “conscious”, and how, and what that means is right for each creature?
My only complaint? With all this talk of “consciousness” … they didn’t give us much of a definition for what it is.