Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Genetic Journeys

I signed up for National Geographic's Genographic project a while ago. They sent me a DNA testing kit in the mail. It contained two cheek swabs. You swirl the cheek swab around in your mouth, collect the DNA samples, drop the swab in a bottle and mail it to them. They create a web page with only your project number on it (for the sake of privacy) and you check your genetic ancestry there.

It turns out that I belong to the R2 (M124) Y chromosome haplogroup. Now, I'm no molecular biologist but will take a crack at explaining what R2 is. First, as a male, I inherited a Y chromosome from my dad and an X chromosome from my mom. The Genographic project only tests Y chromosomes in men, so the rest of the info below is restricted to Y chromosomes.

R2 (M124) is a Y chromosome haplogroup. A haplogroup is distinguished by a series of alleles at specific locations on the chromosome. An allele is a particular sequence of a DNA coding (GATC for example) at a certain location. [Here, GATC stands for Guanine-Adenine-Thymine-Cytosine each of which is a chemical compound made up of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.] What this boils down to is that molecular biologists look for specific patterns of alleles. In order to classify people into haplogroups, they look for Short Tandem Repeats (STRs) which are repeating segments that have a high mutation rate. [For example, I have a repeat of TAGA 12 times at a particular location which is considered significant for classification purposes.]

To cut a long story short, after examining the Y chromosome for significant repeating patterns, the chromosome is classified into a haplogroup. My haplogroup is R2 (M124) which basically means that my chromosome is the result of a specific set of mutations - M168 -> M89 -> M9 -> M45 -> M207 -> M124 of an African ancestor who was born about 60000 years ago.

For more information, please check out National Geographic's Genographic project, ysearch and the DNA forum. And for more information on R2, please see Jean-Gregoire Manoukian's paper.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nagarjuna and Emptiness

I've always deeply admired Jay L. Garfield's stunningly beautiful translation of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā or "The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way." It is very demanding reading but will pay off especially if you have an analytic philosophy background. Garfield's translation is rigorous and precise - hence the effort needed to comprehend it.

Rather than babble about emptiness (Śūnyatā in Sanskrit), I think it is better to let other more qualified people give a description. Emptiness refers to our innate ability to see forms, patterns, events, possibilities and perspectives as they are rather than the way we'd like to see them. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" - another phenomenal book [:-)] - describes emptiness as: "So form is empty. But empty of what? Form is empty of our preconceptions, empty of our judgments. If we do not evaluate and categorize the maple leaf falling and landing on the stream as opposed to the garbage heap in New York, then they are there, what is. They are empty of preconception. They are precisely, what they are, of course! Garbage is garbage, a maple leaf is a maple leaf, "what is" is "what is." Form is empty if we see it in the absence of our own personal interpretations of it." [page 188]

Unfortunately, and because of the subtlety of emptiness, we can be misled. Emptiness does not mean that we should see - let's say - a physical world for what it is rather than our preconceptions of it. The problem here is that the very notion of a physical world is a concept and obscures the real world. And it does not help to equate emptiness with a Buddhist no-self position either since the concept of no-self is, er, just another concept.

As Garfield's translation gathers pace, he writes "The root delusion---the fundamental cognitive error---is the confusion of merely conventional existence with inherent existence. The realization of emptiness eliminates that fabrication of essence, which eliminates grasping, contaminated action, and its pernicious consequences." [page 248]

And this is followed by,

Chapter 18:6

"That there is a self has been taught,
And the doctrine of no-self,
By the buddhas, as well as the
Doctrine of neither self nor nonself."

To neither the concept of self nor to no-self does there correspond an entity. These designations are conventional through and through and the mistake we keep making is trying to reify conventional designations. Garfield writes "To say neither self nor non-self is, from this perspective, not to shrug one's shoulders in indecision but to recognize that while each of these is a useful characterization of the situation for some purposes, neither can be understood as correctly ascribing a property to an independently existing entity. And if they cannot be understood in this way, what are we really saying?"

And almost immediately following this, he says "Nagarjuna begins to move toward his famous and surprising identification of nirvana with samsara, and of emptiness with conventional reality." [page 249]

If there are no entities lurking behind our conventional designations, aren't our conventional designations, er, merely conventional and empty of being ultimates? It is our tendency to reify conventions that causes problems, right?

Nāgārjuna's Śūnyatā is literally groundbreaking - sorry, sorry, couldn't resist - and paved the way for tantra and the realization of only Ati to emerge.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A tribute to Starless

We are often cursed with liking a piece of music which leaves our friends and lovers cold and underwhelmed. I've often thought that the song "Starless" off of King Crimson's Red album was a pinnacle of rock music. It is one of the few songs that I can listen to over and over and over.... "Starless" has often put me into that "eye of the hurricane" state that you access when listening to really intense music and usually leaves me breathless and wanting for more.

But we have the web which can be used to hunt down people who also like what we like. There's comfort in collective solipsism :-).  I found the following three reviews by Stephanie Sollow, Eric Tamm and George Starostin to be more than adequate validation for my beliefs regarding "Starless."

Here's an excerpt from Stephanie Sollow: "You are being wound tighter and tighter and the scale is being slowly climbed, higher and higher you go…and then off into another direction, though tighter still till we explode into a flurry of saxophone notes. We are now scattershot, pieces of the self here, there and everywhere - chaos ensues. Oh, this goes through so many different tempos and moods, I'm not really going to try visualize them all. But, my god, this is some damn terrific stuff. What was I thinking in not playing this often?"

And this one from Eric Tamm: ""Starless" is more than all that, though: in my opinion it is simply the best composition King Crimson ever committed to record. It is also the only King Crimson piece that has ever made me weep - those tears that tend to issue out of a direct confrontation with what we feebly call "artistic greatness" but is really a portentous and rarely glimpsed secret locked away at the heart of human experience." Later on in the same review, he writes "It is the curse of the scholar/writer/musician to be driven to rip apart that which he loves, dissecting and disemboweling, in a vain and perhaps pointless attempt to reduce the primal musical experience to words, formulas, theories, charts, diagrams, numbers, and so on - an exercise pleasing enough to the intellect and yet somehow painful for the heart. What follows, therefore, is not for the faint of heart, and if the reader does not give a hoot about formal musical analysis, she or he would probably do just as well to skip it. On the other hand, lest I paint myself into a corner of total futility, let me affirm my belief that at its best, analysis can be a valid form of translation - from the language of the heart into the language of the head. And inasmuch as head and heart are generally not so much in the habit of conversing amicably with each other as they could be, the translator's enterprise is perhaps not entirely meaningless. From listening to the music itself you can tell something about what the musicians are feeling, and open a door into that world of feeling within yourself; through analyzing the music seriously you can get some inkling of how the musicians think (and believe me, think they do, and think they must, in order to produce as coherent a piece as "Starless"), and in that process allow your intellect to go into sympathetic resonance with the intellects of those who are making the music.

And finally from George Starostin: "A dark, bitter tune, it's probably the closest they ever got to replicating the bliss of 'Epitaph' (Fripp even uses the same guitar pedal he used on the intro to 'Epitaph'). There are tons of beautiful, emotional guitar lines, Wetton's singing has never been better, and the lengthy solo passage is breathtaking. It seems that Fripp keeps repeating the same note on his guitar over and over, but he manages to build up the tension so well that I'm left almost stunned - just because of the very nature of this paradox: this is maybe the simplest musical idea that Bob has ever put to life and it works so much better than tons of far more complicated ones".

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does physicalism entail panpsychism?

Galen Strawson asks "Does physicalism entail panpsychism?" and answers in the affirmative. I don't think so. I used to think that it does but have since changed my mind. I'll explain why.

The problem of experience is one of the most challenging problems facing science and philosophy today. How does our first person experience - our qualia - relate to the physical world? It is a serious problem for physicalism - the view that everything is physical. And different approaches such as idealism, mysticism, emergence, and dualism do not help  since they have to first come to terms with the stunning effectiveness of physicalism.

I've always liked Galen Strawson. For a philosopher with his pedigree, his writing is amazingly accessible. If you're interested in the mind-body problem, read everything he writes. Strawson begins by arguing that everything is physical. This means that your first person experience is physical. This has unexpected consequences. If you accept that experience exists and must be explained, and not explained away as philosophers like Daniel Dennett are wont to do, you have to relate experience to the physical. Since, in this physicalist view, you are nothing but an arrangement of physical "stuff", it follows that an arrangement of physical stuff has experience - or has an interiority with events happening in the interior. Strawson follows this particular rabbit hole as far as it goes, and after rejecting radical emergence - the doctrine that experience emerges from the physical only at a certain level of complexity - he is forced to accept the conclusion that experience is a fundamental aspect of nature. That is, nature has an interior aspect which is fundamental. Panpsychism - the theory that fundamental constituents of nature have experiential aspects or properties - looms.

In a previous blog entry, I explained how Daniel Stoljar cleverly avoids panpsychism by appealing to our ignorance of the true physical. His argument essentially is that, even if our present physicalism - call it physicalism A - cannot accommodate experience, there is no reason why a new physicalism - call it physicalism E - cannot accommodate experience. Since this issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies has reviews and responses to Strawson's target article, I wanted to see Stoljar's criticism of Strawson and his response. Their exchange is disappointing. Stoljar argues that Strawson's belief that "there is no non-experiential fact n such that it is intrinsically suitable to wholly yield the experiential fact" [my edit] is wrong. Strawson accepts Stoljar's point but counters with "I will not be greatly troubled, for until more is said it amounts to simply dismissing of the considerations brought in favor of the intuition that the experiential cannot emerge from the non-experiential". What he means is that Stoljar cannot give a positive account at the present time of how a new physicalism can accommodate experience and since such an account is unavailable at the present time, one should accept that the "experiential cannot emerge from the non-experiential." And let's leave it at that for now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Physicalism and Experience

Daniel Stoljar in his book "Ignorance and Imagination: The Epistemic Origin of the Problem of Consciousness" argues that consciousness is logically supervenient on the physical, i.e. experiential facts can be "read off" from more basic physical facts and laws.

David Chalmers in his book, "The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory" argues that consciousness is not logically supervenient on the physical, i.e. experiential facts cannot be read off from more basic physical facts and laws.

On the surface, these two statements are contradictory and yet there are grounds for believing both. Obviously, there must be some ambiguity. And it turns out that the ambiguity is in the usage of the word "physical." Dave Chalmers has in mind our good ole third person physicalism with its third person facts and abstract laws. On the other hand, Daniel Stoljar has in mind something much more radical. His physicalism, if you can even call it such, is a physicalism that entails first, second and third person facts. He cleverly uses our own ignorance of the relationship between first person facts (experience) and third person facts (neuronal spike patterns, brain imaging, etc.) to posit that there must be a basic physicalism that we are not yet aware of. If we were, we would not have the problem of experience.

I used to believe after metabolizing Dave Chalmers [the book, not the person :-)], that experience was basic and that some form of panpsychism or dual aspect theory was true. That is, I believed that either experience was fundamental (panpsychism) or that nature itself had a fundamental division between interior and exterior (dual aspect). I read Wilber in "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution" as upholding a dual aspect theory. Later when Gregg Rosenberg came out with his brilliant book "A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World" which laid out a sophisticated, panexperientialist foundation for consciousness and causation, I thought that the problem of experience was solved - finally.

And then everything started to unravel. I started wondering why everyone assumed that physicalism meant third person physicalism, i.e. a physicalism with "objective" facts and laws with no room for "subjective" facts. Didn't this already assume a distinction between interior and exterior (dual aspect) and therefore leads to a circular argument where a basic distinction - interior versus exterior - is assumed, leading to a distinction between first person facts and third person facts? (Never mind the second person or the fourth person... for the moment.)

Daniel Stoljar came out with his ignorance hypothesis at just the right time for me. I had been mounting a defense against the "new physics mysterianism" of my colleagues for years. This is mentioned in Chalmers' book as a way to avoid his logical supervenience argument above. Misgivings started to mount when some of them would question the a priori commitment to a dual aspect theory.

if we do not a priori assume a distinction between interior and exterior, then physicalism ceases to be third person physicalism. In fact, it need not even be called physicalism. Better words might be naturalism,  truthism(?) etc.  Most people think third person physicalism when you mention the word physicalism and so the criticism - at the level of what word to choose to call this hypothetical theory - is very valid. Stoljar has tried to clarify some of the terminological issues in his new book "Physicalism" which I'll try and cover soon.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The problem of consciousness

The person who has done the most (in my opinion) to resurrect the problem of consciousness and bring it back to the forefront of analytic philosophy is David Chalmers. Chalmers has two important and highly public achievements.

First, he overpowered Daniel Dennett in a knockdown, take no prisoners metaphorical battle. (This battle was also a generational conflict in that it pitted a boomer against a Gen-X). Two of the very best books on consciousness in the 90s were Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained and David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind. Dennett's book is about the best you can do if you wanted to fit consciousness into the existing scientific framework. In retrospect, Dennett's deconstruction of the self - as a "center of narrative gravity" wherein the one and the many are simply two focal endpoints in perspective - is brilliant in the way it uses deconstruction as a tool to accommodate consciousness. In sharp contrast, Chalmers - after exhaustively searching for a way for scientific materialism to be true - comes to the conclusion that consciousness cannot be explained in the current scientific framework.

Second, Chalmers in the course of showing that consciousness cannot be accommodated in the natural order, also comes to the conclusion that almost all varieties of emergence cannot be sustained either except for a radical emergentist view wherein consciousness 'pops out' at a level of complexity. (All other forms of emergence are shown to be fundamentally inadequate.) Radical emergence becomes rapidly unpalatable when you carefully examine it in this light. For a former emergentist such as myself, it took a very long time to finally accept that Chalmers was right and that one must look elsewhere for a fundamental theory.

Two possible fundamental approaches that survive this treatment are i) panpsychism and ii) dual aspect theories. [Idealism in most forms is not really on the table.] Since dual-aspect theories have to assume that nature has an interior aspect, these two (can and) are often clubbed together. Before you start asking if panpsychism implies that 'rocks have feelings', the kind of panpsychism envisaged these days is one wherein the interior aspect of nature informs the categorical (as opposed to dispositional) bases and that full blown qualia only exist in 'complex' beings such as ourselves.

A deeper, fundamental (or should it be fundaphysical?) approach is to revamp physicalism itself so that it can accommodate consciousness. But, this rests on drawing a distinction between physicalism and materialism which again turns the conversation very esoteric and therefore the topic of a new blog entry.