Friday, March 19, 2010

Hey, remember that blog I created?

Apparently my blog is still here. And since all of my followers are dying for an update, here it is:

I recently decided that the best TV shows are the ones about sad geniuses who feel alienated by their unique way of thinking. I could give you some examples, but I think it would be more fun to have you guess them for yourself.

My research project got approved a few weeks ago (because, by the way, I'm a neuropsychology major who likes to do experiments). I'm going to hook people up to machines and monitor their vagal tone. :What is vagal tone?" you might ask. Well, it's something very complicated that only scientists can understand. And that's why I study it. Because I'm a scientist.

Have I mentioned Hex Empire? It's an awesome flash game, similar to Risk. You should play it since you have nothing better to do. Also, DJ Earworm is my new favorite person.

So that's it for now. Go read a book.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bad news; you don't exist.

The earth does exist. So does the sun. And so does your body.

But is your body "you"? Most people would say no. If I cut off your arm, I haven't removed any of "you", just a part of your body (although losing a limb will cause changes in your brain, so maybe I altered "you"?). There has been a lot of debate over what makes up a person's "essence", going back to those crazy ancient Greeks, but most people would agree that the self is not a physical thing. Now, this leads to all sorts of Aristotelian conjecture and mystical invocations of things like souls and "higher planes of existence".

Thankfully, we have neuroscience, so the "self" can be mostly explained through biochemical means, without any need for creative fiction. Mostly being the operative word. As much as we know about the biology of consciousness, we can't point to a concrete thing that is consciousness. We can point to the thing that consciousness comes from, (the brain, in case you were wondering) but people like to think of themselves as being more than a three-pound lump of wrinkly tissue.

However, in a sense, we are actually less than a three-pound lump of wrinkly tissue. It's difficult to point to a physical manifestation of consciousness because there isn't one; our "self" has no physical manifestation at all. It doesn't exist.

Now, you may be wondering, "but if I don't exist, how can I be reading this blog?". That's a good point. But notice the words "wondering" and "reading". They're both verbs. In other words, they are things that you do.

Your body doesn't have to be doing anything to exist. If time were to freeze and all your atoms stood perfectly still, your body would still be there. But what about "you"? You couldn't be thinking, because thinking requires neurons to be firing. If you couldn't think, you couldn't have awareness. And given that you are awareness, you wouldn't exist if time were to stop.

Now, if you consider time to be a series of infinitely short moments, then you appear to exist only as a function of time flowing . But freeze time on any single frame and, poof, you're gone. In other words, you are not a thing. You are a process. You don't exist. You happen.

If you're familiar with the idea of a continuous versus a discrete variable, than this idea might sound familiar to you. If you're not familiar with it, look it up. Or don't.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why we shouldn't ask why

Humans are a curious bunch. We love to figure out how things work, where things are, and what people are like. When we hear on the news that a bomb has gone off or a plane has gone down, or a robbery has occurred, we usually want know more. Who set off the bomb? Where did the plane crash? What was taken during the robbery?

But there is one question that cuts right to the heart of things; “why?”.

When we ask “why” we are usually trying to determine the reason or motivation that lead to an event. For every day events, it usually seems easy to figure out why something happens. Why does the sun set? Because the earth rotates on an axis. Why does the tide change? Because the moons gravity exerts an influence on the ocean.

But these answers do not actually explain why these things happen, simply how they happen. If you take the word why to mean “for what purpose” and the word how to mean “by what means”, it becomes clear that the tilt of the earth’s axis explains how, and not why, the sun appears to set.

This is a semantic argument for sure, but it highlights an important distinction. If asking “why” is taken to be an inquiry into the purpose of some event, than it stands to reason to only pose this question when discussing the actions of sentient beings. In order for an action to have a purpose, the perpetrator of that action must be able to envision the outcome of the action beforehand and decide to bring that outcome about. When the moon pulls on the oceans, it does not due so in order to accomplish a goal, it simply happens to have a gravitational field that affects the oceans in a certain way.

In other words, only actions carried out by conscious entities can be said to have a purpose, and it is of these actions only that we can logically ask “why?”. And here we arrive at one of my main points. If you accept the fact that consciousness arises from a complex biological system, than it is clear that consciousness could not have existed before such biological systems existed. And for this reason, no events that occurred before the advent of biological systems can be said to have any purpose. If no consciousness existed to envision or intend the events that eventually lead to the appearance of consciousness, than such events cannot be said to have occurred for any reason. Clearly, these events occurred by some process, but that process was not initiated with any intent behind it.

And so, to ask why does life exist is entirely illogical. Asking how life came to exist makes sense, and this question is being considered by scientists the world over who study early microbial life. But it is ridiculous to ask what the purpose or intent of life is, because the processes which lead to the existence of life were set about long before any consciousness existed to impose an intention or purpose upon them.
Obviously many religious people would claim that the purpose of life was decided upon by God, whose existence pre-dates the physical universe. But consciousness as we understand it results from physical phenomena, and so it seems impossible that consciousness could pre-date the physical universe itself. Many have argued that there must be some “first-mover” which initiated the existence of the universe, but there is no reason to believe this “first-mover” was a conscious being.

Why does the universe exist? Why do we as a species exist? These questions have never, and I believe will never, be answered. Science has brought us closer to understanding how the amazing things that exist came to be, but to try and derive the purpose for which these things were brought about is apparently an exercise in futility. For certain, people will continue to ask these questions and search for answers. I hope that someday answers are found, but I see no reason to believe that they will be.

Even the idea of asking why about the actions of conscious beings is precarious. Although it appears that people and animals are in control of their behavior, this idea is being continually eroded by new discoveries in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. We may believe that we know the purposes behind our actions, but it seems increasingly possible that our free will is a complex illusion.

At first this idea may seem preposterous. But it follows logically from the previous argument. Simple physical interactions (like the pull of the moon on the oceans) cannot be said to have a purpose or intent behind them. But consciousness, the things that endows actions with a purpose, is itself the result of physical processes. While we may seemingly intend to perform an action, the individual neurons that fire during the performance of that action are not aware of any underlying purpose for their activity.

If I were to decide, for example, to throw a baseball, I would first have to determine which actions I have to take in order to propel the ball through the air. These determinations would happen largely on an unconscious level, and they would result in me having a sense of intending to throw the ball. Once I have carried out the steps required to pick the ball up and send it flying through the air, it could be said that I performed these steps for the purpose of throwing the ball.

But all of the neurological processes involved in my decision to throw the ball were carried out unconsciously, with no individual cells aware of the reason for their activity. Not only are the individual physical components of consciousness excluded from the very awareness that consciousness brings about, but the drives and motivations of conscious beings are pre-determined by evolution.

And so we as individuals have an apparent degree of freedom to make choices, but the overall process of life seems to be as devoid of reason as any other physical process. Just as galaxies and planets form simply because the laws of physics dictate that they will form in such a way, life forms propagate themselves simply because physical processes have lead to a chain reaction which causes them to do so. The addition of consciousness into the equation simply allows for these processes to be observed, but in no way necessitates that there be any fundamental purpose guiding the actions of life forms.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Breaking News

So, in case you haven’t heard, the king of pop is dead. If you haven’t heard by now it means you probably haven’t watched television, listened to the radio, or spoken to another human being in a few days. The twenty-four hour news stations, who up until recently were providing non-stop coverage of the worsening situation in Iran, have decided to switch gears. For the past five days Jackson’s death has dominated the airwaves, with the investigation into his death, the mystery surrounding his personal doctor, and the tentative future of the Jackson family receiving exhaustive media attention.

Meanwhile, Honduras has undergone a military coup, Iran remains a dangerous place for democracy, the House passed a landmark energy bill, and US troops are preparing to pull out of all major cities in Iraq.

So what is it exactly about Michael Jackson’s untimely death that warrants so much coverage? Well, given that news has become an industry who’s very existence depends on ratings, I don’t think it’s hard to figure out why pop stars get more coverage that regime change and legislation. A lot of people listen to Michael Jackson’s music, he was a very influential entertainer, and so people will naturally be curious about his death and want to pay tribute to him by watching montages of his music videos on CNN.

But is this news? If the reason people are watching cable news is to learn about a celebrity they are already familiar with, than isn’t the news in this case reduced to a tabloid? Michael Jackson’s death was unexpected and is a tragedy for his family. What I find even more tragic, however, is that the death of a pop star is considered more newsworthy than military takeovers, civil unrest, and game-changing legislation.

On the bright side, bunnies are still adorable.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Where are the sanctions for Saudi Arabia?

If you've watched the news at all in the last week that you've no doubt heard about the situation in Iran. You've also probably heard that conservatives are criticizing President Obama for not using stronger rhetoric against Iran. John McCain even called for tougher sanctions against Iran for the human rights violations that have occurred during the post-election protest. Well, it is true that the Iranian crackdown is inhumane and an affront to democracy. But don't we have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia? And dont they have one of the worst human rights records in the world?

So, we should cut off diplomatic ties with the Saudis and impose some tough sanctions until they give their people more freedom, right?

No, that would be stupid. Saudi Arabia is an important strategic ally in the region, and maintaining good relations with them is important to American interests in the region. You know, sort of how being able to negotiate with Iran about state-sponsored terrorism and nuclear weapons might also be important?

It's espescially interesting that John McCain, who constantly criticized Obama as being all rhetoric and no substance during the campaign, is now criticizing the President for not using enough unsubstantiated rhetoric.

In other news, I found a new way to waste a few hours of your life.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Is there anybody out there?

In all likelihood no one will ever read this blog. How many blogs are there that are being maintained regularly and never ever read. By anyone.

Except of course the one who wrote it. Blogging, and the internet in general, creates an additional barrier between the author of something (in this case a blog) and the reader. Because of things like stumble upon and Digg we come across blog posts all the time and then discard them very quickly, usually to be forgotten about. With something like a book the connection is made less often (assuming that people read books less often than they read blogs) and is also usually made with more of a purpose. We stumble across blogs all the time, but you rarely find yourself accidentally engrossed in a novel (I hope).

Because of this, it is easy to think of blog posts as being made by someone who is so anonymous that they might as well not even exist. But at some point in the chain of connection, everything you read is made by another human being. In a world where everything is increasingly automated and mechanical, the written word is one of the only things that machines can not duplicate. Yet

But baring the creation of some sort of super intelligent robot that can imitate human language, you can be sure that everything you read on the internet was at some point created by a human.

So, despite the fact that it will probably never be read, and at the most it will be a trivial blog post soon to be forgotten, I am writing this. Just to be writing. To prove I'm still human.

But if no one is reading, who am I proving it to?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Fucking Grammys

So last night was the grammys. And they sucked.


But in case you missed the music industries giant masturbatory pat on the back this year, allow me to recap:

MIA performed and she was pregnant. It was weird. But she wasn't performing her hit "Paper Planes", she was performing the pop-rap remix. Apparently the grammys decided MIA wasn't quite as good without a host of industry-certified rap stars. By the way, that song came out in 2007...isn't it a little late to be doing a remix?

Then Paul McCartney performed and it was boring.

Then Paul McCartney and Kid Rock were nominated for the same award, because that's the world we live in.

Then Paul McCartney and Kid Rock both lost to John Mayer.

Radiohead played. I was dissapointed with the performance. They were nominated for best album, however. They didn't win.

Who did win? Robert Plant and Allison Krause.

Why? Probably because the Grammys, like Rolling Stone magazine, has absolutely nothing to do with modern music. It is an award ceremony celebrating a dying industry. So it makes sense that a baby boomer icon wins best album in 2009. Because only the baby boomers still actually buy CD's at full price from music stores.