What does blue feel like? The consciousness conundrum

We may soon be able to say what is happening in the brain as a result of and to cause specific feelings and actions, such as what would make someone feel shame and what neurons fire to make that happen. No scientific paper will soon describe this process such that the reader can embody this feeling, however. “[We may be able to tell] that you are looking at a painting of sunflowers, but then, if I thwacked your shin with a hammer, your screams would tell me you were in pain. Neither lets me know what pain or sunflowers feel like for you, or how those feelings come about. In fact, they don’t even tell us whether you really have feelings at all.”

Even if we can describe in perfect detail every wheel and cog in the brain, how they are connected and how they work, we still wouldn’t know how consciousness works. Just as our mathematical language was not yet capable of describing solutions to some questions in the past, our thoughts are not yet capable of abstractly describing consciousness. “The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called ‘hard problem’, is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table.”

To make matters more complicated, our description of reality may need an update before we can proceed. From James Hopwood Jeans speculating in 1930 that “the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine” to philosophical extrapolations on the existance of quantum observer effects, the idea that consciousness creates reality around us rather than the other way around keeps injecting itself into modern science.

Michael Hanlon expands on these thoughts and questions in the article ‘The mental block: Can we get our heads around consciousness?’

Country Driving Lessons

Seeing a friend’s photo of his daughter zipping around in a mini ATV reminded me of my first driving lesson. A stretch, you’ll find, but that’s the way brains work y’know.

Dad and I were bombing around the country gravel roads in early fall, following flocks of ducks and geese to find an optimal hunting spot for the evening. Windows all the way down and eyes straining for specks of movement on the neverending horizons. Hundreds and thousands floated just beyond our vision, wisps of imagination.

Suddenly a flock of ducks zipped out from behind us, coming up off of a nearby pond with a crescendo of calls. They would surely pass directly in front of us, quite low. “Grab the wheel!” dad shouted, diving across the cab and tossing me into the driver’s seat. I’m 11 years old and just learned to ride my bike. Terrified and not able to reach the gas and steering wheel at the same time, I was nonetheless doing my best to control this 70 kmph Nissan pickup.

Meanwhile, dad had crawled two-thirds the way out of the passenger window to snatched his pump-action 12-gauge shotgun out of the box. Having unsheathed and loaded the boomstick in record time, he sat in the open window, gun swiveling. We were then going about 30 kmph (as I couldn’t reach the gas pedal).

Ducks and geese aren’t stupid nor do their instincts often let them down. This flock, like so many hundreds of others before and after, saw and heard our ruckus bumbling down the road and shouting at each other and made a quick course change to stay clear. ‘CRACK!’ Dad took a shot across the top of the cab. Futile for they were well out of range, but I can attest that it makes you feel better regardless.

We rolled to a stop and I made my dad get back in the driver’s seat, vowing to never drive ever again.

Open-access scientific journals not so scientific

In the past the public was duped by advertisements showing actors in scientists’ and doctors’ lab coats. Today, the wool being pulled over our eyes comes in the form of unscrupulous scientific journals with no peer review. Our trust of publications by well-known journals is being abused, as well as leveraged against those submitting for underserved profit.

John Bohannon had a (purposefully) glaringly flawed paper accepted, indicating no peer review, to 157 of 255 open-access journals. Of those that did perform a review, for 16 of 36 whose reviews recognized the problems with the paper, the editors accepted them anyway. Failures include big names: Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, Sage and Kobe University.

Open-access scientific publication journals are good for the scientific community and therefor society. “The question is how to achieve it. The most basic obligation of a scientific journal is to perform peer review, arXiv founder Ginsparg says.”

Skepticism is healthy. The next time you come across conclusions based on or from an online scientific journal, look a bit closer. What are their methods? Are the conclusions irrefutably supported by the observations? What is missing? What is being hidden? Nowadays we are all scientists with a trove of information and processing ability at our disposal. Let’s use it.

Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? by John Bohannon

How much control are we allowed to have?

The movie Gattaca describes a discriminatory world where high class society conceives in vitro preceded by rigorous phenotypic selection [and explores the social ramifications]. We cannot yet select for specific phenotypes like intelligence, creativity or beauty, but if we could, we would. Such is the state of in vitro fertilization as Scott Carney describes it in this article.

The question is not about where the line should be drawn in regards to newborn engineering, but the ethical issues that arise from selecting and farming women around the globe for their eggs. The issue is one other than financial parity; one other than exploitation. The fact that an educated American woman can sell her eggs for $50’000 while “an uneducated Ukrainian” would get “a few hundred dollars” is still alarming, but arises from a separate unfortunate facet of modern society. The question comes from the other end, that of the chooser. Should we have the ability to choose phenotypes? To what degree, to what precision?

Surely we can agree that selecting for disease and disorder prevention is ethical. Isn’t it? What defines a disorder, exactly? Should all forms of autism be screened out in the future, or do people who exhibit these traits add to their experience and our society regardless of popular or “scientific opinion” on their net effect? Who gets to decide, and who must obey?

Unpacking the Global Human Egg Trade, by Scott Carney

Choose Your Own Philosophy

Can you spare an hour for an interesting journey within your mind?

‘Castle, Forest, Island, Sea’ is a choose-your-own-adventure story that explores key questions in philosophy. There are nine chapters exploring key questions in philosophy and it will take approximately 30-60 minutes to complete your adventure. As you navigate through the story, the game will build up an idea of how you feel about these questions, and at the end of the game you’ll receive an analysis of your choices and a map of how your opinions compare to different philosophers through the ages.

Choose your own philosophy adventure by Carolyn Price of the philosophy department at The Open University

Do you live in a cage or a park?

What if the difference between not being addicted and being addicted was the difference between seeing the world as your park and seeing the world as your cage?

Rat Park drug experiment cartoon, by Stuart McMillen

It’s not the morphine, it’s the size of the cage: Rat Park experiment upturns conventional wisdom about addiction, by Garry Tan
Original scientific paper, “The effect of housing and gender on morphine self-administration in rats” (non-free).

Global Storytelling

Empathy can expand your consciousness and experiences far beyond your self, and can effect great positive change in groups of people. We cry when Forrest Gump’s wife Jenny dies, we cheer when our sister graduates, we feel compassion after volunteering to work coffee fields with small children. We don’t feel much for strangers, especially those very far away. What can fill this gap in order to create a better space? Maptia says that good storytelling can do it. The world shrinks every day as we crawl towards a future for all.

The only true voyage, the only bath in the fountain of youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees. That each of them is…

The Age of Outrospection, by Jonny Miller

What do you desire?

Emily Witt writes on her experiences shadowing Kink.com and others’ activities as she searches for her sexuality, her meaning of love, and what she wants in a relationship. Fantastically written. Arguments and counters, introspections and external observations, and carefully specific descriptions are so skillfully combined I would recommend the article just to learn from her prose.

n+1: What Do You Desire? by Emily Witt

Statistics Can Solve Almost Anything

Statistical and applied probability is the “logic of science”, but let’s not be suckers. Real life is more complex.

Statistical and applied probabilistic knowledge is the core of knowledge; statistics is what tells you if something is true, false, or merely anecdotal; it is the “logic of science”; it is the instrument of risk-taking; it is the applied tools of epistemology; you can’t be a modern intellectual and not think probabilistically—but… let’s not be suckers. The problem is much more complicated than it seems to the casual, mechanistic user who picked it up in graduate school. Statistics can fool you. In fact it is fooling your government right now. It can even bankrupt the system (let’s face it: use of probabilistic methods for the estimation of risks did just blow up the banking system).

The Forth Quadrant: A Map Of The Limit Of Statistics, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb