Comments

  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    I'm just pointing out that there's something of an infinite regress in calling for scientific study of science before we do science because science might reveal dangerous information.Nick

    I mean something simpler, and may not be expressing it well.

    Could you agree that human beings are not gods, and that there must be some limit to the degree of power we can successfully manage? It seems sensible, and in the spirit of science, to apply a reasoned analysis to the question of where that limit is.

    To me, to blindly assume there is no limit to human ability as a matter of faith, because that is what we would like to believe, smells more like religion than science.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    However, it's not a hard and fast distinction because life isn't a substance, it's a phenomenon that arises from purely mechanical (here I'm using this as a catch-all that includes mechanics, chemistry, electromagnetism etc) processes.Nick

    I see this as a theory. A reasonable theory for sure. But of course I want to ask, what do the purely mechanical processes arise from? Ok, the laws of physics. What do those laws arise from? I obviously don't have the answers here, I just find the questions interesting.
  • Toward a cautious CRISPR future
    Hi again Nick, thanks for keeping this discussion alive.

    Jennifer Doudna has been an uncommonly strong voice for the regulation and education of a new, powerful technology.Nick

    Best I can tell, this is true. I don't doubt her good intentions.

    I just think the concept of regulation is on the edge of becoming outdated thinking. It seems a reasonable plan so long as the technology is limited to the professional class. These folks have a lot to lose, and thus are susceptible to being regulated.

    I think we should assume that bad and stupid people will use this technology too, as I think Doudna does assume. Then the question becomes, how much trouble can bad actors create with this technology? What is the scale of the power involved here? That question can be divided in to the current moment, and reasonable projections of where this is headed.

    Honestly, I'm less concerned with CRISPR specifically than I am with the larger question of the knowledge explosion as a whole.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    Hi again Nick,

    In your view, should we discard the concept of "intelligence" altogether? If all behavior is fundamentally mechanical, does intelligence exist?

    Do you see all behavior, that of bacteria and of humans for example, to be of the same type, fundamentally mechanical?

    You call for a scientific examination of our relationship with science that would itself be performing experiments that risk the negative outcomes of science, the fear of which were the motivation for the "metascientific" endeavor itself.Nick

    Apologies, I don't understand your point here. Try again? Still listening.

    Perhaps I should rephrase too. What I was suggesting was a scientific examination of human behavior with the goal of trying to assess what degree of power human beings can successfully manage. This might explore questions like, what role does the rate of knowledge accumulation have?

    Perhaps we might explore such questions in Our Relationship With Knowledge?
  • The God Debate: A Children's Merry-Go-Round
    Sorry, Luis, it was me that was unclear. Yes, of course humans prefer life. I just meant there's no proof that life is actually better than death, because we have no proof of what death is. We prefer what we know, and have no way of comparing it to what we don't know.

    The following is perhaps another subject, not sure. As I understand it, just as there is a will to live, there is a corresponding will to die. Not die physically, but psychologically. Many of the activities we most enjoy in life involve a temporary obliteration of the "me". As just one example, when I was young I was an avid surfer. When we're racing down a wave with tons of water arching over our head, there's no room in our mind for all the usual "all about me" thoughts which we are so prone to. "Me" is gone. All that exists psychologically is the real world in that moment. There is a sense in which we are most alive in such moments, and also in a way dead. Life and death are one, so to speak.

    The point here is that if physical death is the end of "me", our experience in life could possibly suggest that outcome is not something to run from, given that we tend to run towards it while living.
  • The God Debate: A Children's Merry-Go-Round
    Welcome Luis, happy to have you here. For the historical record :-) you are the site's second member, a pioneer. The first fellow to join was Nick who just received his doctorate in molecular biology.

    Yes, I'm sure many or most atheists would dispute my description of that perspective. They've been doing so for years, as is their right of course. Those who are sincere about reason can be receptive, those seeking a superior ideology, not so much.

    In other words, it's built into our very nature to want to be as long as possible.Luis Razo Bravo

    Ok, that makes sense. Thanks for introducing that concept. As it happens, just yesterday they posted a great video about our relationship with death on BigThink which you may find interesting.



    If this is the case, then it stands to reason that one common ground on which we might build a case for or against God and address the underlying need is to figure out how we can refrain from dying, both individually and as a species.Luis Razo Bravo

    I'm not sure. A search for some form of immortality would seem to be built upon the belief that life is better than death. I don't see any proof of that, or proof for any death theory. Given that, I wouldn't try to advise anyone else on the subject, but my personal inclination is to trust the system as it is.

    I don't have time to engage more here but would be happy to arrange some time to talk via Zoom in the future.Luis Razo Bravo

    I understand. We aren't on a schedule so happy to hear from you whenever your time permits. It's going to take some time to build this community, but over time I think we'll wind up with an environment more satisfying than Facebook.

    Believe it or not, as incredible at this may seem, :-) I've never zoomed. I'll look in to that. And honestly, I'm a print person, so I'm rather less interesting in person.

    There may be an opportunity for us to work together, given you are working in video and I'm in print. Should it ever interest you, I'd be happy to create a section of this forum dedicated to your YouTube channel and give you control over it. This would seem to create a better place to discuss your videos than YouTube comments. YouTube is great at hosting videos, but the comment sections tend to be far less than great.

    In any case, thanks for stopping by, and I look forward to staying connected by some method or another.
  • Are Academic Philosophers Rational?
    So what am I asking academic philosophers to do?

    As a place to start, let's get this out of the way. It's not politics.

    ACTIVISM?: Sure, if we were a rational species we'd all be down in front of the White House protesting nuclear weapons every weekend. But this is a responsibility of all citizens, and not academic philosophers in particular. So no, I'm not asking academics to wave signs and shout slogans.

    PARTISAN POLITICS?: Here in the United States at least, the Democrat and Republican parties typically ignore the biggest threat to the republic with equal measure. So even if a philosopher wished to fight nuclear weapons through political partisanship it's not at all clear what party they should support. So again, this is challenge for all citizens, and not a burden it would be reasonable to place on philosophers alone.


    What Am I Demanding?

    So if not politics, what then? What am I asking, or um, demanding that academic philosophers do??

    I'm asking academic philosophers to be philosophers. I'm asking them to be rational. I'm asking them to be relevant. Here's how.

    The threat to human welfare presented by nuclear weapons arises from a source more fundamental than global politics. This threat, like others such as climate change, arises from our relationship with knowledge.

    How can fundamental causes not be relevant to philosophy?

    How can our relationship with knowledge not be a topic suitable for professional philosophers to investigate?

    Our relationship with knowledge is a fundamental factor which will determine the course of the 21st century, and probably the rest of human history as well. How we manage this relationship will determine whether our future is full of glorious miracles, or a descent in to dystopian horrors. How our culture thinks about our relationship with knowledge will decide whether we are handing our children a garden of eden, or sending them in to an unbearable hell on Earth.

    To the degree professional philosophers ignore this all important relationship with knowledge, they are irrelevant to what matters most, the advancement of human welfare. And to the degree that is true, they will be forever condemned to continue writing obscure papers on arcane topics, papers that almost nobody reads. There's a price tag for being irrelevant.


    Who Else Can Do This Job?

    Who do we expect is supposed to examine our culture's relationship with knowledge?

    POLITICIANS?: In a democracy our political leaders are basically highly skilled sales people. They have a valid role in representing the will of the people, but surely we don't expect sales people who are always running for the next election to provide deep reflection on fundamental issues like our relationship with knowledge. I mean, c'mon, even our highest ranking national politicians can't focus on the nuclear weapons which could erase our society in less than an hour. They can't really do the job they already have, it would irrational to expect even more of them.

    SCIENTISTS?: Scientists are highly skilled at developing new knowledge. This is the job we hire them to perform, and they deliver. But knowing how to develop knowledge, and having an ability to reflect deeply on our relationship with knowledge are not automatically the same thing. In fact, because scientists were born to develop knowledge, and get paid to do that job, it seems reasonable to claim that, as a group, they have a built in bias which will make it difficult to impossible for them to observe our relationship with knowledge in a truly holistic and fully objective manner. Scientists are really good at what they're really good at. It would be irrational to expect them to be really good at everything.

    So who is it that should examine our relationship with knowledge? Oprah? Talk show hosts? Novelists? TV programming executives? Comedians? Internet blowhards such as myself? Who is it that is best qualified to inspect the relationship which lies at the heart of our modern science driven civilization?

    Philosophers.

    They're intelligent. They're highly educated. They're articulate. They've studied the history of Western thought in considerable detail. They have Phd's, cultural authority. They have offices in the ivory tower and funding from major universities. They have access to tomorrow's leaders, today's young people.

    Philosophers are the most qualified people for examining our relationship with knowledge. It's a very important job. It's their job. Now we just need to persuade them to do it.
  • Are Academic Philosophers Rational?
    As is so often the case, this question of whether academic philosophy is rational seems to boil down to how one defines philosophy. I would agree from the start that nobody including me owns that word, so each of us are free to define it through our own lens.

    If we were to define philosophy as a thorough study of the history of Western thought, as an intellectual business, or as the carefully crafted expression of a thinker's favorite ideas, then I would agree that by that definition academic philosophy is rational in that it clearly meets such goals. And I would agree that such definitions are widely accepted, and thus a reasonable use of the term "philosophy".

    For myself, I prefer a definition of philosophy along the lines of...

    Philosophy: The application of disciplined thought to the advancement of human welfare.

    It's from this definition that I'm questioning whether academic philosophy is rational.

    Attention to nuclear weapons is of course not the only yardstick by which we might measure how well academic philosophers are addressing the advancement of human welfare. Nuclear weapons are just a simple, well known, and very dramatic example of a threat to human welfare which is easy to point to as an example.

    If a philosopher's focus is squarely on the advancement of human welfare, then it would be rational to focus one's work on one of the largest and most imminent threats to that welfare. Nuclear weapons can destroy everything, in just a few minutes, and that could happen at any time without warning. Large. Imminent. Threat.

    Focusing squarely on the advancement of human welfare would also be a rational pursuit of the academic philosopher's own self interest because serving the public, in a manner the public can access, is the most logical path to the field of academic philosophy earning the professional respect which it so often seems to be in search of.

    There is a very important role that professional philosophers can play in our society. Academics wish to inhabit such an important role, and we in the public who typically fund their enterprise would like them to as well. If hard working waitresses and plumbers are going to be required to take money out of their paychecks and send it to academic philosophers, they would of course like to be able to see a return on that investment.

    As we proceed below, we'll look at how such a mutually beneficial state of affairs might be brought in to existence, through the lens of nuclear weapons. Let's also demonstrate how mentioning the phrase "nuclear weapons" doesn't automatically take us out of the realm of philosophy.
  • Our Relationship With Knowledge
    Given how many millions of times I am likely to reference this issue in threads, it seemed it might be helpful to summarize my obsession with this question.

    Is the knowledge explosion sustainable?

    To address this question, let's examine some key components of the knowledge explosion.

    REALITY: First, the scale of reality seems vast beyond comprehension, and the more we dig in to our study of reality the more complexity and detail we seem to find. Thus, it seems we don't need to worry about running out of things to learn. We'll cross this off the list of obstacles for now, for a long time, perhaps forever.

    KNOWLEDGE: Second, the knowledge explosion feeds back on itself, leading to an ever accelerating development of new knowledge. The classic example here is the invention of computers, which has greatly facilitated research across almost every field. And now artificial intelligence is coming, which will further accelerate our learning. Given how the knowledge explosion feeds back upon itself, it seems reasonable to assume that for the foreseeable future there is no practical limit to how fast we might learn.

    So far we see: 1) a seemingly limitless amount of things available to learn, and 2) no known speed limit on how fast we might learn. Thus, when looking only at the nature of reality and the nature of knowledge, it seems we could reasonably answer yes, the knowledge explosion is sustainable.

    HUMAN BEINGS: Here's the part of the knowledge explosion equation I don't see being adequately addressed, if it's even considered.

    How much knowledge can human beings successfully manage? Put another way, how much power to edit our environment can we handle?

    We can explore this question in more depth as we continue. For now I ask, pretty much everyone I meet everywhere, only that this question be put on the table for examination.

    As an aspiring person of reason I decline to do what seems so common, blindly assume that human beings can handle ANY number of new powers of ANY scale delivered at ANY rate. That is, I decline to join the "science clergy" and their many followers in assuming that we are gods.

    All of the above can be very reasonably debated, and one of my goals for this site is that we do just that.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    In general, I would challenge you to hold your own viewpoint that the unending pursuit of knowledge will lead to the end of civilization to the same standard of proof you are demanding of what you call science culture.Nick

    Fair challenge of course. I can't provide proof, but I can provide evidence.

    - A single human being can now bring modern civilization to an end in just minutes by pushing a button.

    - We are typically too bored by this ever present existential threat to bother discussing it, even
    in presidential campaigns.

    To me, these well established real world facts are not evidence of a species which is ready for ever more knowledge and power at an ever accelerating rate without limit.

    Not proof for sure. But pretty strong evidence.

    PS: I'm hijacking my own thread. I may not be ready for editing even two members. :-)
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    Yes. I won't claim to understand the mechanics fully, but we can remote control mice with electrodes in their brains and it's clear that things like the amount of beer or sleep I have affects my behavior in pretty predictable ways. We understand how individual neurons work.Nick

    Ok, but understanding how a mechanism works doesn't really tell us whether there is some source of intelligence beyond the creature in question. I could take a car completely apart and come to understand how all the parts work, but doing so wouldn't rule out there being some unseen source of intelligence that created the car and guides it's operation.

    I'm not really arguing that such a "Global Intelligence" exists, for of course I don't know. I'm just stating that I don't see a compelling reason to rule the possibility out.

    You are conflating the practice of science as a knowledge-generating process and the decision of when and how much to use that process.Nick

    It's true, science is just a tool which does what we ask of it. I agree that science is a neutral, neither good nor bad in itself. So I'm really referring to science culture, which includes pretty much all of modern civilization. Or if you prefer, I'm referring to our relationship with science. It's true that I could express such things more precisely than I sometimes do.

    You seem to be making a value assessment on how much we should engage in science which is a social/political question, not a scientific one.Nick

    Why isn't it a scientific question? That is, why can't our relationship with science, the degree to which it is safe to seek new knowledge etc, be studied in a scientific manner? And perhaps it already is, and I just don't know about it. That would be good.

    No faith required, just the way science works.Nick

    The faith I'm referring to is not in regards to scientific theories, which I agree are reason based, and not faith based. I'm referring to what seems to be a largely blind and unexamined faith in the ability of humans to successfully manage ANY amount of power which may emerge from an ever accelerating knowledge explosion.

    I don't have faith that we will be able to manage anything we could possibly discover, I think it's possible we could destroy ourselves. I think you could ask almost any scientist and they would say the same.Nick

    Can you point us to any scientist who is arguing at conferences that we should do less science? Or that we should slow the pace etc? What I see are physicists who learned how to split the atom earnestly digging ever deeper in to the fundamental nature of matter.

    There are many, many research projects that don't get funded (something like 5% of NIH grants are funded), so the decision of whether more is better when it comes to every science project the answer is no.Nick

    Right, funding is limited, and only the most promising projects make the cut. But if funding was unlimited, then those involved with all these projects would push them forward, yes?

    Science moves slowly, experiments and funding decisions are planned carefully, and there are institutions in place to govern the implementation of technology that have done a pretty good job so far.Nick

    Seriously? We have thousands of massive hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats. Isn't that evidence that governance of technology is largely an illusion? You know, we could decide to out law nuclear weapons, but if the North Koreans see a competitive advantage in having nukes, the technology pushes forward.

    There are some cases where global bans of a technology may have been effective, but such rules survive only until it's in somebody's interest to break them.

    but I think what you're suggesting is that we stop learning based on the faith that we will discover something that will be our ruin.Nick

    I'm not suggesting that we stop learning, but that we are now required to develop a more sophisticated relationship with knowledge than "more is better". I'll put up an article tomorrow which makes this more clear.

    Please keep in mind that obviously I'm not a scientist. I am instead a, um, wannabe philosopher typoholic. I see my job as testing any group consensus which may not have been subjected to sufficient scrutiny. Given the central importance of our relationship with knowledge, that seems an appropriate target.

    Finally I'm SO GLAD I created this forum, and that you've been willing to participate. I've spent twenty five years searching for conversations of this quality, and they are not so easy to find.
  • Are Plants Intelligent?
    I came across a great article on BigThink called The Secret Social Life Of Trees which provides a brief review of a book by Peter Wohlleben called The Hidden Life Of Trees.

    The article on BigThink reports that trees are continually communicating and examining their environment through a relationship with tiny fungi that combine with the tree's roots. Using this method the trees can determine whether the trees around them are of the same species.

    Trees will assist other trees of the same species when a tree is in trouble by feeding it nutrients. Some trees can identify and assist their own offspring. According to The Hidden Life Of Trees trees even have memories which they can share with their offspring.

    Are trees intelligent? Well, that brings us back to the question of what we mean by intelligence. It does seem clear that there's considerably more going on with trees than we typically think.

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  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    You're leaving out humanity's tendency so far to use new technology to make life better for most peopleNick

    Not leaving it out, just asking....

    Is more always better? Without limit?
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    Science is an invention that allows for self-correction and revision which is fundamentally different than religion.Nick

    Do you have faith that human beings will be able to successfully manage ANY power which may arise from the knowledge explosion? Isn't modern science built upon such a faith? If you share that faith, have you examined and challenged that faith? Do you have any proof that human beings can manage any power you might unleash as a scientist?

    I'm making this too personal, sorry, my bad.

    What I really mean to do is challenge science culture as a whole. To me, the whole thing is basically built on faith. As example, medical science spends trillions on trying to keep people alive as long as possible. Where is the proof that life is better than death? There is none. Faith, belief without proof.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    but I have never seen any evidence to suggest there is something more required.Nick

    Fair enough. That's surely a reasonable position. I'm not really debating it, just exploring beyond it. I don't have evidence either, and surely not proof.

    Do you consider your own very intelligent behavior to be purely mechanical?
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    Of course, there is no way to know this without knowing everything we could discover.Nick

    My theory is that we don't actually need to know what every emerging power will be, which of course is impossible. What we need to know is the nature of we who will possess these powers. This seems knowable to me.

    Here's a possible example. 3,000 years ago someone wrote the first book of the Bible which discusses eating an apple from the tree of knowledge, resulting in expulsion from the Garden of Eden. One way to read this story is as a pretty accurate description of what is underway right now. climate change etc.

    Assuming no gods are involved in authorship, how would a human being living 3,000 years make such a prediction? By understanding the human condition.

    As example, as you get to know me you'll be ever able to predict that my next thread is likely to be some grand big picture theory built of wild speculation. You won't be able to predict the details, but you'll be able to see generally where my posts are headed, by knowing my nature.

    This Genesis story is just a theory which interests me. I'm not religious, and no, we won't be singing weepy hymns to Baby Jesus on the forum. :-) At least I won't be.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    It makes more sense to me to think of the laws of physics (here I'm including those we understand and those we don't) are reality itself.Nick

    Yes, well put. That's what I'm shooting for as well, though I may be struggling to express it. I often put it this way....

    We are observing a single unified reality, broken in to conceptual parts by the inherently divisive nature of thought. More on this to come...

    The question "is reality intelligent?" demands we define what intelligence is, which I'm finding increasingly difficult to do. Until recently I just blindly assumed to know what intelligence is, and it's now becoming clear such an assumption isn't that intelligent. Perhaps this will help....

    I'm typing this post. This can be explained in purely mechanical terms such as blood flowing, neurons firing, muscles moving etc. But is a purely mechanical explanation really adequate to the experience of thinking, writing, communicating, rethinking, creating, crafting ideas etc? Isn't there something more going on?

    Whatever such a something else may be, whether we call it intelligence or apply some other label, maybe it too is reality itself.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    Just want to pop in and point out that CRISPR isn't an imitation of what bacteria do, it is literally the exact machinery that bacteria use taken out of their genomes and put into other species.Nick

    Thanks for the clarification Nick. It's clear that I don't understand this yet. It's going to be a writing challenge for you to translate such understandings in to a general public level.

    Moral of the story: keep funding basic science that seeks to understand the weird obscure parts of biology even if there isn't a clear practical application.Nick

    But first, let us be one of the many intelligent species, and ask this question. Can human beings successfully manage whatever may arise from basic science research, no matter what that turns out to be?
  • Toward a cautious CRISPR future
    Thanks for lending your expertise here Nick, I'm looking forward to learning more about biology. There's a LOT to discuss here, so bite off whatever interests you most, and I'll follow where you lead.

    To set this stage for readers, Nick is a biology expert, whereas my main accomplishment in the field was to pass a "Biology For English Majors" class about 50 years ago.

    A decade ago, making a single transgenic mouse took an entire PhD (~5-6yr) now you can do it in 3-6months with CRISPR (if you’re an expert). That’s by far the most powerful implication of the tech.Nick

    Ok, I understand this part, CRISPR makes gene editing far more efficient. Does CRISPR also make gene editing easier? Or just faster?

    Superpower #2 of CRISPR is that it requires a very small number of components to be operationalNick

    Can you give us a glimpse in to what such components are?

    This opens up the possibility of making changes in fully-developed adults. In the past, we thought the best you could hope for with gene therapy was to maybe prevent you from passing something on to the next generation.Nick

    So CRISPR opens a door on genetic based medicine? And what is the proper name for that?

    To make a transgenic mouse line for a reasonably talented student coming in with a BS in molecular biology would probably take 1-2yr to learn all the skills involved.Nick

    That's why I framed the question as I did. This suggests that many intelligent educated persons could probably access this technology if they put their mind to it. This matters to me as it suggests the potential for widespread adoption beyond the reach of governance mechanisms.

    If we’re talking about the raw materials cost assuming you are a pro, you could probably make 2 transgenic mouse lines with 10k.Nick

    Ok, so the learning time involved in the main barrier to entry, more so than other costs. Right?

    With regard to the potential of CRISPR to be a civilization-ending power it’s important to think not only about what is possible today, but what will be possible in the future. It will only get faster and cheaper.Nick

    Yes, that is my concern. Faster, cheaper, easier, more powerful, and more accessible to more people.

    This is just my speculation, but I'm guessing what seems to currently be the primary barrier to entry, knowledge, will be lowered over time.

    It will mean that if the technology is implemented laissez faire (this is not a given, but let’s take the most extreme example to err on the side of caution) eventually it will become trivial to make whatever changes to an organism’s DNA you want. Ok, granted.Nick

    We're agreeing here. What do you mean by "implemented laissez faire"?

    the power of computer programming is primarily limited by the user’s creativityNick

    This is a good example.

    but the end stage of any genetic engineering tool is you can trivially make any change you want.Nick

    Yes, we're on the same page. I'm obviously not that knowledgable about the details of how CRISPR currently works. I'm just attempting to use basic common sense to predict where this is going, and I see what you just said. Sooner or later, by some method or another, editing genes becomes trivial, and in the hands of an ever expanding group of users.

    I'll explore this in another thread, but to summarize, my concerns are less about CRISPR in particular than they are about the knowledge explosion as a whole. More on this later...

    Great first post from the forum's first member! I'm stoked!
  • DMT: The Spirit Molecule
    Mathematician Ralph Abraham compares his experiences of LSD to DMT.