Comments

  • Toward a cautious CRISPR future
    Does CRISPR also make gene editing easier? Or just faster?Phil Tanny

    Both. In some sense faster and easier are not effectively different in a world where time, money are limited. But there are fewer steps involved that take less time.

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

    People are tinkering around with lots of different versions of CRISPR so the components can vary (CRISPR evolved in the wild so it comes in many different flavors) but the thing they all have in common is at least one protein that grabs DNA and cuts it and a guide RNA that integrates into the protein to tell the complex where to bind. The Cas9 protein, which is probably the most famous right now, can do all the protein functions itself, so you can have a functional compiles of just one protein and one RNA.

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

    I would say the door was already opened and was opening wider and CRISPR started us opening it faster than we thought we could. Lots of terms for it, people would know what you're talking about with your term but gene therapy is one I see thrown around too. Genetic medicine could also include treating someone taking into account their genetics without making changes so is a bit less specific.

    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.Phil Tanny

    I agree that it puts it in reach, but I don't agree that just because something is widespread means it can't be productively governed (I know you'll have lots of thoughts on this, but I'm going to leave it to that for now to try to get through some of your other questions).

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

    Depends on whether your time or money are more limited. I think the point is that either way, the barrier isn't insurmountable.

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

    Full steam ahead, no regulation, no moratoria.

    I'm just attempting to use basic common sense to predict where this is goingPhil Tanny

    I think you're coming at this from a good place, but humans have a pretty terrible track record of predicting anything with common sense (or uncommon sense for that matter). Given that there is a definite cost to not researching and using gene therapy I think the path forward should be carefully advancing technology, not stopping because of predictions that may never come to pass.

    We will of course disagree on the word "careful" but as I've mentioned (I think in our previous discussions, but maybe not on Thoughtage) when compared to pioneers of previous technologies, Jennifer Doudna has been an uncommonly strong voice for the regulation and education of a new, powerful technology.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    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.Phil Tanny

    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. The work you are calling for is itself prone to the same "we might find something dangerous" that you are trying to avoid in the first place
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    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?
    Phil Tanny

    I don't know about discarding the idea of intelligence, it's certainly useful as a term to describe certain behaviors but as an objective category of behaviors that are somehow special and separate from mechanics I think it fails. I think that intelligence exists in the same way that life exists. The idea of living vs nonliving helps us communicate and think about things we find in nature. 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.

    Properties of life or intelligence can arise in systems that most people would agree are non-living or non-intelligent but I think this is because of the limitations of language and the human habit to want to fit things in boxes. I don't think it makes sense to say that intelligence is a global property of reality in a concrete sense just because we can draw ever larger boxes and point to things inside them and pass them off as "intelligent".
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    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.
    Phil Tanny

    I suspect that there are many philosophers of science who have examined these questions, but I am not familiar with that literature, so I can't speak to it. I will say that to study anything scientifically, you must continue to get more data and do experiments. Therein lies a paradox. 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.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    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.
    Phil Tanny

    I'm not claiming it can be ruled out, it's rarely possible to prove a negative. That's not really how scientists think about things. If I understand how each piece of the car works and those functions are sufficient to explain the observed behavior of the car, I wouldn't say "well yes the drivetrain could certainly provide the torque that turns the wheels, but how do you know that there isn't also an invisible gremlin in there turning the wheels?" Our understanding of human intelligence is surely incomplete, but moves consistently in the direction of molecular processes being sufficient to explain cellular scale behaviors, and circuits of cells performing the computational processes required to generate complex organism scale behaviors. There are, of course, an infinite number of more complex explanations that invoke things which we cannot observe and therefore cannot be falsified. Many religious cosmologies fall into that category and I think the idea of the inverse being intelligent as you have written it does as well. I don't think that is a reason not to talk about those cosmologies per se, but I don't think it's compatible with the tone you have adopted here in asking for proof and evidence.

    I'm all for "woa dude" discussions about how the universe is interconnected and what our place in it is, but it is difficult to engage critically with arguments that call for negative proofs (of which I've spotted quite a few here).
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    Do you consider your own very intelligent behavior to be purely mechanical?Phil Tanny

    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. We understand how basic and some not so basic neural circuits work. We understand how storing, retrieving, and computing information can give rise to behaviors we would consider intelligent. There are many, many, details to fill in, but all the necessary components are there, it's only a matter of time before we understand how they fit together

    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 faithPhil Tanny

    No I don't and no it isn't. You are conflating the practice of science as a knowledge-generating process and the decision of when and how much to use that process. It is a fact that more, better data leads you to a more complete understanding of the system you are studying scientifically. No faith required, just the way science works. 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. Maybe that's what you mean by "science culture", but that's a very important distinction to make. Science is not a faith-based belief system and comparing it to religion on that basis is not a valid comparison.

    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. I think you're painting scientists with a broad brush that makes it seem like we haven't considered our stances. You will not find people who are more comfortable engaging with the uncertainty of their stances than scientists. That's basically what the entire field of statistics is and all we do is make each other consider whether our experiments actually back up what we claim we know. The entire scientific publication and funding apparatus is built around placing value on certain lines of scientific inquiry based on its value to society. 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.

    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. Those are all pieces of evidence that go into my assessment that we should keep doing science. Not every single possible experiment, but we should keep thinking about what we're doing before we do it. That's not blind faith, its a decision made based on incomplete information, which is to say, a decision. There are no true proofs in real life.

    Where is the proof that life is better than death? There is none. Faith, belief without proof.Phil Tanny

    No one is claiming that there is evidence that life is better than death. It's a value assessment made by our society that we want to make extending healthy lifespan a priority. I think it's a mistake to equate blind faith with having preferences or priorities. Also, I'm not sure I understand your concern over science inadvertently ending civilization if you're not willing to accept improving human life is a positive outcome.

    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. It is not possible for you to prove that it will end us and to claim that we currently know everything we will need to prevent the destruction of society from any number of other non-human threats is also unsupported. The pursuit of further knowledge can tell you whether something is actually dangerous or how to control it, 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.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    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.Phil Tanny

    I think this is true to some extent, but it's also engaging in some hedging logic used by psychics, negativity bias, and confirmation bias. You're leaving out humanity's tendency so far to use new technology to make life better for most people on the planet an to so far mitigate the negative consequences of our most powerful technologies (fossil fuels are a possible exception here, jury's still out). That story is part of the human condition, but certainly not the whole. The human condition isn't one story.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    But is a purely mechanical explanation really adequate to the experience of thinking, writing, communicating, rethinking, creating, crafting ideas etc?Phil Tanny

    I would say yes. I'm open to being wrong, but I have never seen any evidence to suggest there is something more required. If you dig into the cutting edge neurobiology, it's getting pretty hard to find a gap in which to claim that "something more" exists. Ironically, I think your search for a secular notion of universal intelligence has led you to the same place as those who invented gods as a way to set aside human consciousness from the physical world.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    I've long suspected that a supposed huge divide between religion and science may be somewhat illusory. It wouldn't surprise me if at least some of the ancient sages who founded the major religions of the world were pointing to some aspect of reality which is real, but they did so using a now out of date cultural language which many people of our time can no longer relate to.Phil Tanny

    I think this is a mischaracterization of the difference between science and religion, and one that is pretty prevalent, so worth clarifying here. The distinction is not the explanation we have for the universe (intelligent design/evolution for example), but how we arrive there. "Science" is not the facts that are in a text book, but the process of refining a model based on an ever-increasing set of data. Science is an invention that allows for self-correction and revision which is fundamentally different than religion.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    "Can human beings successfully manage whatever may arise from basic science research, no matter what that turns out to be?"

    Of course, there is no way to know this without knowing everything we could discover. Surely there are technologies that could destroy us, but we already have some of those and ultimately, it comes down to humans to wield our intelligence in a way that allows us to play with fire without getting burned.
  • Is Reality "Intelligent"?
    It seems like the language you are using first assumes a reality and then layers the laws of physics onto that reality. 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. Not behind a curtain, but the whole auditorium itself. I think that tweak in perspective actually fits nicely with many of the other ideas you raise. Our "venue" (reality) can only accommodate certain phenomena to play out on the stage based on its intrinsic nature. Like the bouncing ball, things we describe as intelligence are permitted by the laws of physics and complex behaviors arise in many systems living or otherwise.
  • 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. Great as a human technology, but also completely novel in the sense that this is an adaptive immune system. We knew before that bacteria had a sort of innate immune system (restriction enzymes) to non-specifically degrade foreign DNA/RNA, but this more complex system that can learn was a shock. Interestingly, restriction enzymes also won a Nobel prize (1978) and also were used as a molecular genetics tool that revolutionized modern biology. 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. You never know where the next world-changing discovery will be, and they are often in those cute little bacteria!