Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In Praise of Porcupine Tree

I've been listening - rather obsessively I must admit - to Porcupine Tree of late. I started following Porcupine Tree in 2007 but didn't become a full blown fan until now.

Porcupine Tree started life as a parody - a Spinal Tap of progressive rock bands if you will - but as is starting to become common in the irony-drenched era we live in (Sarah Palin anyone?), parody gave way to reality and the mythical 70s supergroup became an actual 90s post-progressive outfit.

Early efforts by Porcupine Tree track the evolution of Pink Floyd rather closely but updated for the 90s - think trance rather than psychedelia. It was not until the middle of naughty oughts (00s) that more mature works like In Absentia and Deadwing appeared. In these two records, Porcupine Tree started including elements of metal and grunge - arguably staking a claim to being really progressive (in the sense of the term). Critical and commercial recognition followed firmly establishing the band as a leading progressive outfit. The two more recent releases - Fear of a Blank Planet and The Incident - showcase the diversity of the band (within the narrow rock context). The former is a clever synthesis of trance, soundscapes, psychedelia and hard rock whereas the latter revisits the concept album motif (popular in the 70s) but is more musically straightforward. As we enter a new decade, the band is a leading live act with band founder Steven Wilson (singer, songwriter and guitarist) hailed as a genius.

Recommended songs:

  1. Anesthetize
  2. Arriving somewhere not here
  3. The Creator has a Mastertape
  4. Time flies
  5. Waiting phase one
  6. Heartattack in a Layby
  7. Start of something beautiful
  8. Way out of here
  9. The sleep of no dreaming
  10. .3

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Subject matter of science

I just finished reading Daniel Stoljar's "Physicalism" and David Chalmers' "The Character of Consciousness." Putting these two books together, here's my current impression of the state of consciousness studies. Chalmers' point always seems to be "Why is it accompanied by experience?" That is, he relentlessly asks why any theory should entail the presence of experience. This is a strong charge and almost forces us to consider experience to be fundamental. Galen Strawson, as we previously have seen, approximately follows this line, embraces panpsychism, and launches a broadside on emergence.

Stoljar's approach is more subtle and is the one that appeals to me. His book - distilled into a few lines - makes the claim that we don't have to abandon physicalism for the simple reason that physicalism has never been tried! There is no present theory that is worthy of the name. Why does he claim this? At the risk of distorting the technical contributions in the book, this is due to the fact that present day physics is so far removed from our daily experience that it becomes impossible to rule out fantastical entities - angels and ectoplasm for instance - while accounting for everything else.

Stoljar's characterization of physicalism gives us an avenue to proceed. The steps needed to build a new physicalism that can accommodate experience are: i) Tease out the fundamental characteristics of experience and work out the minimal requirements for a physicalism to entail experience. ii) Go underneath present day physicalism and build a new theory that can accommodate the requirements of (i). Obviously a tall order but if we don't do this, we'll be stuck with radical emergence, panpsychism and idealism which are all unappealing.

While both steps outlined above are challenging, the first step seems to be much more daunting than the second. After all, once we know what entails experience, we should be able to modify present day physics to account for it. Now, I obviously don't have a proof that the idea presented below is the only way to proceed, but it is offered as a possible approach.

The new idea that is very appealing to me at the moment is to consider subjects of experience to be fundamental physical entities. That is, instead of making experience fundamental, I wish to make subjects fundamental. This obviously raises the specter of idealism, but as long as the subjects of experience are i) many and not necessarily just one, and ii) momentary in the sense that they can pop in and out of spacetime, I think the threat of idealism is diminished. With fundamental subjects included in the physicalist base, we can answer Chalmers' question: Why is it accompanied by experience? Answer: "It is accompanied by experience because it is accompanied by experience." Unpacking this answer, for us, subjects are its and accompanied by experience. The immediate question then is: What about objects? For us, objects like fermions and bosons are no longer fundamental and become something more akin to computational entities. In other words, we (when we are a we) are subjects in a computational universe. But what is the universe computing? That will have to be another blog entry.

Why should a subject be accompanied by experience? That depends on how the word "subject" is unpacked. I believe that we can make progress by defining subjects in such a way that it becomes obvious that they are carriers of experience. And by eliminating all objects from the category of fundamental entities, we do not run the risk of objects being carriers of experience. We will later elaborate on this basic theme.