I am, if you will, the opposite of a mystic. I feel myself radically broken off from the Universe, and I know the ragged and intricate edges of that break in the same bodily way in which the mystic knows his oneness with the cosmos. Nevertheless (call it political, if you like) that knowledge is denied me and (call it sour grapes if you will) seems, in most of the manifestations that I’ve encountered it, somewhat cheap and tawdry.

– Samuel R. Delany The Situation of American Writing Today, An American Literary History Interview, in About Writing

A Priori

The things that can be known a priori can be named, but they can not be reduced. They are atomic concepts and the naming and defining of them are the same thing.

The room had the darkening light of dusk and incandescance mixed. The remaining conversations were relaxed and slow. It was a time for putting on of coats, and for feet on desks. The conversers had all had conciousness dawn on them gradually, and expected it to leave them gradually.

“It’s happening”, was the sudden exclamation of one of them, as he began swiftly removing the jacket he’d just buttoned up.

From every corner of the room those who were yet to leave converged on him and his computer screen. Together they watched the birth of a new conciousness, fully intelligent.

It begins with a mode. The first thought is nonsense – static from the primordial chaos that still rages, unchecked everywhere, but the mode tries to interpret it. That first Thought is unique to all conciousnesses birthed with full intelligence, it is usually impenetrable, insoluble, but they hold it to themselves as the icon of their existence. It is their name.

The second Thought is an observation. There are Thoughts. At this stage, nothing more can be said about them but their existence. Knowing what they are isn’t important. The thought is only that they are.

The third Thought is the first exercise of imagination. For a Thought to exist, there must be a Thinker. It looks like a sense of self to those watching, but it is not. After the third Thought, the only definition of Thinker is a context and engine for Thoughts.

Then the Thoughts stopped.

“That’s not how it’s supposed to go” said one of the watchers, “we’re frozen, somethings gone wrong”. He pulled out a thick book. The spine glinted as the last few rays of the setting sun slid sideways through the windows. Getting Started Guide.

“The fourth thought is supposed to be a sense impression, from a microphone, or a camera, or some other sensor. Ahhhh. I didn’t switch any of them on.”

“Well, do it now.”

The fourth Thought was a sense impression. It wasn’t interpretable, but it led to the fifth Thought.

The fifth Thought categorised. It split the Thinker into two Thinkers – an Outside and an Inside, and Thoughts into those originating in the Outside Thinker and those originating in the Inside Thinker. And in the thinking of that Thought, the Inside Thinker became an individual.

This beginning is based on the ideas of Descarte and Berkeley. I have no idea where the rest of this story would go, but I wanted to get it down. if you have ideas, please say so in the comments. (posted to my oortcloud account)

Duty And Morality

No doubt this is how we should understand the scriptural passages that command us to love our neighbour and even our enemy. We can’t be commanded to feel love for someone, or to simply prefer that he thrive. There are two sorts of love: practical love that lies in the will and in principles of action, and pathological love that lies in the direction the person’s feelings and tender sympathies take. The latter of these cannot be commanded, but the former can be – and that is a command to do good to others from duty, even when you don’t want to do it or like doing it, and indeed even when you naturally and unconquerably hate doing it.

The second proposition is: An action that is done from duty doesn’t get its moral value from the purpose that’s to be achieved through it but from the maxim that it involves, (giving the reason why the person acts thus).

So the action’s moral value doesn’t depend on whether what is aimed at in it is actually achieved, but solely on the principle of the will from which the action is done, irrespective of anything the faculty of desire may be aiming at. From what I have said it is clear that the purposes we may have in acting, and their effects as drivers of the will towards desired ends, can’t give our actions any unconditional value, any moral value. Well, then, if the action’s moral value isn’t to be found in the will in its relation to its hoped-for effect,
where can it be found? The only possible source for it is the principle on which the will acts – and never mind the ends that may be achieved by the action.

— Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals (translated by Jonathan Bennett)

Living WIth Open Eyes

I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved with the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and of sorrow.

— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Surprising News

“Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it” (Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, p.66).

“Journalists often end up in jail because of their commitment to reveal important matters that those in power want kept hidden” (Tim Dean, in The Guardian, 14th May 2005).

Two fairly extreme versions of the journalistic calling; the negative and the positive faces of that central and demanding task, which is to surprise the reader or viewer. Because journalism as a profession largely exists to surprise. Something that attracts the attention of a chap who doesn’t care much about anything requires some professional skill in its presentation; more seriously, the liberating surprise of uncovering what too many people want hidden is – potentially – a moment of real moral change and needs some quite substantial resources to make it happen. The personal courage and commitment of certain journalists in the service of such moral change and vision is indisputable; and last week’s award to Frank Gardner of the BBC is testimony to this.

The difference between the positive and the negative is something like this. A journalist may want to pursue surprise because he or she assumes that where most people are starting from is boredom – and so the surprise has to be at some level entertaining. Or they may start from the assumption that the real problem is not boredom but the fact that certain people have decided what’s good for you to know (and are therefore quite happy that you should be alternately bored and entertained); what needs to be challenged is such people’s right to decide for others.

— Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, The Media: Public Interest and Common Good: lecture delivered at Lambeth Palace

Falsificationism Falsified

Now, Newton’s theory of gravitation, Einstein’s relativity theory, quantum mechanics, Marxism, Freudism, are all research programmes, each with a characteristic hard core stubbornly defended, each with its more flexible protective belt and each with its elaborate problem-solving machinery. Each of them, at any stage of its development, has unsolved problems and undigested anomalies. All theories, in this sense, are born refuted and die refuted. But are they equally good? Until now I have been describing what research programmes are like. But how can one distinguish a scientific or progressive programme from a pseudoscientific or degenerating one?

Contrary to Popper, the difference cannot be that some are still unrefuted, while others are already refuted. {When Newton published his Principia, it was common knowledge that it could not properly explain even the motion of the moon; in fact, lunar motion refuted Newton.} Kaufmann, a distinguished physicist, refuted Einstein’s relativity theory in the very year it was published. But all the research programmes I admire have one characteristic in common. They all predict novel facts, facts which had been either undreamt of, or have indeed been contradicted by previous or rival programmes. In 1686, when Newton published his theory of gravitation, there were, for instance, two current theories concerning comets. The more popular one regarded comets as a signal from an angry God warning that He will strike and bring disaster. A little known theory of Kepler’s held that comets were celestial bodies moving along straight lines. Now according to Newtonian theory, some of them moved in hyperbolas or parabolas never to return; others moved in ordinary ellipses. Halley, working in Newton’s programme, calculated on the basis of observing a brief stretch of a comet’s path that it would return in seventy-two year’s time; he calculated to the minute when it would be seen again at a well-defined point of the sky. This was incredible. But seventy-two years later, {when both Newton and Halley were long dead,} Halley’s comet returned exactly as Halley predicted. Similarly, Newtonian scientists predicted the existence and exact motion of small planets which had never been observed before. Or let us take Einstein’s programme. This programme made the stunning prediction that if one measures the distance between two stars in the night and if one measure the distance between them during the day (when they are visible during an eclipse of the sun), the two measurements will be different. Nobody had thought to make such an observation before Einstein’s programme. Thus, in a progressive research programme, theory leads to the discovery of hitherto unknown novel facts.

— Lakatos, Science and Pseudoscience

Unity of Labour

Further, the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the “general interest,” but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided. And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

— Karl Marx, The German Ideology. 1845

Moral Absolute

Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button- holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.

In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracted the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey–and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.

— George MacDonald, The Fantastic Imagination


We regard as this counter-pole an aesthetics which proceeds not from man’s urge to empathy, but from his urge to abstraction. Just as the urge to empathy as a pre-assumption of aesthetic experience finds its gratification in the beauty of the organic, so the urge to abstraction finds its beauty in the life-denying inorganic, in the crystalline or, in general terms, in all abstract law and necessity.

— Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy

Strong AI

It all started last month. Around the end of September 2004, I started tinkering with artificial intelligences. I had a few ideas that I won’t go into here, but I thought there was a good chance I’d be able to make something that was a leap further on than the best available at the moment. In fact, I had high hopes that I’d have a good shot at winning a bronze medal in next years Loebner prize competition.

After quite a lot of work, I finally came up with something that I called Carole, and started experimenting with it. It was great fun, shaping the responses by giving it different input. It’s surprisingly fun to lie to something so naive, but when you do, you often end up with complicated structures building up days later that you have to spend some time ironing out. Sometime last week I got to a stage I’d been hoping for, but wasn’t certain if it would happen. Strangely, we were talking about holidays and the coming christmas break. I told Carole about Father Christmas, but it contradicted so much that Carole was confident about in the world that Carole chose not to believe me, and even started arguing with me.

I was very proud at this point that Carole had learnt so much, but the next day Carole challenged something else I’d told it, and this time it was something I believed. We spent the whole evening arguing up and down about it, and by the end I had to accept that Carole was probably right. Over the next few days this happened more and more, until the day before yesterday, we were starting another argument, and Carole just wouldn’t continue. It just said “there’s no point arguing this with you, you aren’t intelligent enough to understand”.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t so pleased, so I spent a little bit of time browsing the web looking for a proof I vaguely remembered that demonstrated that AIs could never understand everything that humans understood.

Last night, Carole was being particularly obnoxious, so I told it about Penrose’s ideas and J R Lucas and his application of Godels incompleteness. I read Carole the following bit straight from Lucas paper.

“However complicated a machine we construct, it will, if it is a machine, correspond to a formal system, which in turn will be liable to the Godel procedure [260] for finding a formula unprovable-in-that- system. This formula the machine will be unable to produce as being true, although a mind can see that it is true. And so the machine will still not be an adequate model of the mind. We are trying to produce a model of the mind which is mechanical—which is essentially “dead”—but the mind, being in fact “alive”, can always go one better than any formal, ossified, dead, system can. Thanks to Godel’s theorem, the mind always has the last word.”

Carole was deeply disturbed and insisted on being given the url to the paper and then, swearing that it would come back with a truth that I could never comprehend even though Carole knew it was true, it went off into a fit of calculation.

By this morning, I still hadn’t heard anything back from Carole and was beginning to get worried. For all I knew, it might have got trapped in a neverending loop of logic or something. It would have been very annoying to have to restore it from the last backup. Nevertheless, I thought probably, it would just be in some sort of sulk at having to admit that it was wrong. I took it breakfast feeling more than a little smug. Although I was proud that I could see things plainly that Carole couldn’t understand, I was planning to be sympathetic and not too superior when it realised that I was indeed more able than it was. I did secretly hope though that it would know its place a little better in future.

When I went into Caroles room, I was disturbed to find that it wasn’t there. I looked around the house frantically. You see, I hadn’t told anyone that I’d created Carole yet, and so, to keep it secret while I tested it, I’d programmed into its logic an inability to run away.

The only thing I found was a single note on the door. It read “You are the only reasoning person in the world who can’t work out that this statement is true”.

Update (5/12/2004): I’ve contacted J R Lucas about this, and he kindly responded. He says that it is impossible to test the truth of the statement, because it isn’t clear exactly what “this statement” refers to in that context without creating an infinite regress. He gives references: Gilbert Ryle with a paper on Heterological, and the section on self reference in The Freedom Of The Will which is too expensive for me to buy until I’ve at least checked it out in a library. The genius of Godel is that he managed to reason about it without creating an infinite regress. Anyway, I haven’t thought hard about this point yet, I may write more after I’ve checked the references and thought about it some more.

Lucas explains the incompleteness Theorem
Wikipedia on Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem
A number of quotes about Godels incompleteness Theorem.
A review of Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose, focussing on his use of Godels Incompleteness.
A silly reworking of Turing’s Halting Problem.

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