July 28, 2010

The Mind Isn't a Camera

Sorry, for the recent inactivity I've been in the midst of the awful task of looking for a new job and haven't been too motivated to write anything, although some ideas have been floating around waiting to be put into text. I came upon this topic when an older episode of House came on, I can't find the specific episode by browsing through IMDB, but if you know which one it is just leave the information in a comment and I'll add it. The episode involved a woman dreaming, and House and his team watching that dream on a monitor and interrupting the dream to find a cure for the the woman.Someone was getting high, reading Freud and thinking about the future when this episode was written...

Now looking at a live feed of someones dreams and interrupting them to find a solution to someones health problems brings up enough questions for this blog to talk about for the remainder of the year. How does that machine work? How does it translate thoughts to a video feed? Why does looking at a dream have any relevance to solving someones health issues? Couldn't the time be spent in a much more productive fashion? Those would all be the start of deep questions about the issue raised on the show, but I'm going to constrain myself to what I view as a more fundamental problem.

That problem is encapsulated partly by one of the questions, but it differs slightly. Could the mind ever really be translated into a video projection? This question also deals with the fallacy many people have of treating memory and imagination as if they existed in a series of created photographs. That fallacy and many others can be found at Religious-Tolerance.org, and their reporting on Recovered Memory Therapy.

Now here I am admittingly leaving the realm of science and knowingly entering the realm of speculation, but I think that there is enough of a knowledge base to at least limit the plausibility of any such device to ever being created, especially within the near future.

1. The imagination and memory aren't pictures to be looked at when the mind brings them up, they are associations and pieces connected together with a great deal of plasticity.

Now a this can be shown a number of ways, but the there is one way that you don't even have to leave your chair for. All that has to be done is to imagine a huge temple with numerous pillars. Once you have your 'image' of the temple in your mind, then try to count the individual pillars. The mind can't keep the 'picture' of the temple and while trying to count the pillars. There isn't an image of a temple being created when you think of a temple, but more of a rough framework of the idea of a temple. I'd like to say that, that example was mine, but it isn't and I think it can be credited to Spinoza, although I'm not entirely sure it was him. Anyway, on to more examples of memory not being like the playback of a video tape.

2. Plasticity of memory: How suggestible memory  is and how even sure 'flashbulb memories' can be false.

For suggestibility Elizabeth Loftus shows how a memory can be implanted into the mind, even a traumatic memory.

"A14-year-old boy named Chris Coan, was describing a visit to the University City shopping mall in Spokane, Wash., when he was 5. "I think I went over to look at the toy store, the Kay-Bee toys," he recalled. "We got lost, and I was looking around and I thought, 'Uh-oh. I'm in trouble now.' " He remembered his feelings: "I thought I was never going to see my family again. I was really scared, you know. And then this old man, I think he was wearing a blue flannel, came up to me." The man, old and balding with glasses, helped Chris find his parents." 

This surely would be a traumatic event in a persons life, being lost all alone in a mall, but this memory never really happened.

"Jim, had made it up as an assignment for Loftus' cognitive psychology class. Jim, pretending the story was real, had fed Chris the basics—the name of the mall, the old man, the flannel shirt, the crying—and Chris, believing his brother's fabrication, had filled in the rest. He had proved what Loftus suspected: If you were carefully coached to remember something, and if you tried hard enough, you could do it."

Loftus went on to implant memories of near-drownings, chokings, animal attacks, and demonic possession in thousands of people. Memory is too suggestible to resemble anything close to a rigid video of the past.

That is only a problem with the suggestibility of memory, there is another problem that exists  even when events are real. Memories often are 'recorded' wrongly. Daniel Greenberg shows this through the use of the recollections of former President George W. Bush.  Bush gives three accounts of what happened on the infamous day of 9/11.

In the first account Bush notes that he saw the first plane hit a tower and attributed it to pilot error. He was notified later by Andy Card that a second plane had hit the towers while reading to children.

In the second account Bush notes that Karl Rove brought him the news that a plane had hit the towers, but assumed it was pilot error and was then notified  by Andy Card that a second plane had hit the towers.

In the third account he saw a plane hit the towers on tv and attributed it to pilot error. He was then sitting and listening to a briefing when he was told a second plane had hit the towers.

Now these accounts have conflicts that have been used to point out that Bush must be hiding something, but there is a simpler explanation. Bush's memories are like others that have seen traumatic events that are said to burn into a persons mind what that person was doing and where they were. Greenberg shows this by citing that,

"Neisser and Harsch (1992) developed a rating scale to try to quantify changes in memories of the Challenger explosion. Twenty four hours after the disaster, they asked people how they heard the news; then, 2.5 years later, they interviewed some of those participants again. When they compared the consistency of the two answers, they found that people did quite poorly: the average score was 2.95 out of a possible 7."

Memories are not burned into the mind as some would suggest and many more believe. Even memories of traumatic events and memories that people are sure of are just as fallible as any other memory. Its not that the mental pictures are recorded wrongly, or that the minds images have changed over time, it is that there are no mental images to speak of.

The mind isn't doesn't work with pictures and by replaying videos, it instead uses parallel processing and ideas.  The image to the right is a common misconception. The mind is not a series of images or videos. It is closer to a group of sand dunes where the individual grains of sand are memories. Those grains can be formed with flaws that then get blown around by the wind of suggestibility and weathered by time.

Because the mind doesn't work with images there would have to be a conversion to make thoughts able to be seen on a screen as they were in the show House. At minimum there would be something lost in translation between the thoughts and the pictures, as there is a loss in any conversion, and I think more correctly the task could never be done well enough to have any confidence in being able to see someones thoughts.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

July 14, 2010

World Cup Review: A Look at Paul the Prognosticating Octopus and the Jubulani Ball

Before I dive into some talk about the World Cup, I'd just like to briefly announce that I am proud to have Thoughts Explained join the Atheist Blogroll, to which a link is now permanently added to my sidebar. The Atheist Blogroll is a community building service on which many blogs with subject matter like this one can be found. If you have a blog that would like to be a part of this community then visit Mojoey, at the Deep Thoughts  blog to get the information needed to join. I encourage you to explore and join the community.

That being said I'll get right into the great spectacle that was the World Cup, but this isn't a sports blog, so I'm going to talk about the two related subjects that really interested me, the Jabulani Ball and Paul the Octopus. These two topics are interesting for individual reasons. The Jabulani Ball is interesting because of its relation to physics and expectations, while Paul the Octopus is interesting though probability and psychic power. 

I'll start with the Jabulani Ball because of the number of complaints that were made about it.  Keepers through-out the tournament have complained about the ball. Englands keeper let in a howler of a goal against the USA in opening game and the players blamed it on the movement of the ball.

Despite the criticism Adidas says that the ball is the culmination of years of scientific excellence, made with bonded 3-D panels. It is also touted as the roundest ball ever and by, "Being towards the higher end of the allowed [weight] scale means the flight will be truer and more predictable making keepers happy, but also rewarding accuracy for strikers."

So why then does the ball fly in an exactly opposite manner? This freekick by Diego Forlan is an example of that as it shows the ball moving back and forth as it moves toward the goal (Sorry about the music in that video, but it was the best one I could find of the balls flightpath).After the goal the keeper motions with his hands that he was fooled by the movement of the ball by moving his hands back and forth in a motion to his teammates. There is also more too this than some video evidence and the comments of the players who used the ball. Scientists have actually shown the the 'roundest ball ever' is too round. It is too round because when the foot hits the ball, the ball ends up with a tendency not to spin. Further problems of perfection exist in the internal stitching of the ball. The internal stitching causes no impurities on the balls surface to create a regular motion. 
This all adds up to the ball not flying in a predictable motion like a football spiral, but rather like a baseball pitcher throwing an unhittable knuckle-ball. That video of the knuckle-ball is great because you can actually see the laces of the ball and how the ball is not spinning at all, all this from the master of the knuckle-ball Tim Wakefield.  The lack of spin causes the ball not only to dip and dive, but move side to side and in an erratic manner making impossible for the pitcher to control and the hitter to know where the ball is going to go. When Adidas was thinking about making a perfectly round ball without any stitching they were making a ball made to knuckle, this was a huge oversight by them. Adding to the problems people had with reffing, was a ball that was made almost perfectly horrible for soccer.

From the unpredictable comes the one thing that did seem know the future, Paul the Prognosticating Octopus. Going 8 for 8 in the final stages of the Wold Cup and 10-12 total Paul did seem to know about what the result of future matches were going to be and has even went on to become the inspiration for an application that makes yes or no choices on the Iphone, and that isn't his only opportunity as he is said to be able to make millions. Yet, he is near the end of his life span and has retired from predicting anything further.

Yet how remarkable is Paul? I can say that he did better than I did, but how hard would it be to go 8 for 8 in guessing something that only has 2 outcomes. The answer is that the chance of going 8 for 8 is one in 256, which isn't that hard to do. So if different animals each make one of the possible 256 outcomes than one has to be right, which really wouldn't be too big a job for any one person with a farm to do. Each person could have their very own animal soccer predictor that always gets the answer right, so long as they did it in streaks of 8, when you start getting higher the odds really raise at a dramatic level (For instance if you wanted to try this in streaks of 12 instead of 8 you would need 4096 animals to ensure that you had one that had the correct outcome).

In doing research for this post, I came across a blog post from Propter Hoc entitled 'Flipping Our Coin'. Which does a great job at talking about probability and coin flips. It points out that any ordering of coin flips would still be 1 of 256 and that people only take into account patterns that are special as interesting because they are poor judgment makers of probability. When someone gets all the predictions right or all wrong then something miraculous has happened, but when they get a few wrong and a few right then, it seems to be ordinary. The problem is that getting a specific set of 4 wrongs and 4 rights is just as likely as getting all of them wrong or right, but we only attribute meaning to the latter.
Paul is a lucky mollusk (Great ween album), because we see his predictions as special, and not any of the other 256 possibilities.
Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

July 12, 2010

Comparing God and Taste

First off let me apologize for my last post. It was something I felt compelled to write about, but I think it fell below the standard that I try to maintain. There are some redeeming qualities about the post and the comparison between denialism and skepticism will be a future full length post. Anyway, onwards and upwards.

I talked before how it is useless to make arguments about taste. No one ever changes their opinion, the forms of the argument are fallacy filled appeals with nothing real to appeal to, and despite what people think the matter really isn't important for the most part anyway. Now I was thinking of how the argument for God's existence is similar enough to provide a comparison about it. In this comparison I will forgo any claims of evidence of proof of God's existence (the design of the universe, the first cause and arguments like this) and limit the talk on the claims are unverifiable by their nature.

Arguments about taste and arguments about Gods existence can be categorized as the same through the types of appeals they make, appeals devoid scientific evidence. People can support why they like a certain movie like Crash, with an appeal to the awards it won and the critical acclaim that it received. They can also point to its popularity and appeal to people who have taste that I respect (i.e. Roger Ebert liked the movie you should too).

The problem is that despite all that I still think the movie was hallow and reduced the characters motivations to purely racial interactions. I was horrified when it won best picture, and further horrified when they showed it in a political science class I was taking. Taste just appeals to how one person feels or how many people feel about the subject and this is the same, for the most part, with the appeals claiming God's existence.

This similarity can be shown in the way people justify their belief in God.  Proponents of Gods existence note that 92% of Americans have a belief in God, and that respected scientists from Copernicus to Einstein believed in god. They are supporting their views in the same way that they support the issues of taste by using appeals to popularity or authority.

So, God is a matter of taste? Well no. The problem with putting belief in God in the realm of a taste decision is where taste and the belief in God differ. The difference is that in arguments of taste there are a few accepted points that necessitate the argument, the main one being that the there is something to like or dislike that is agreed upon by both parties.

When someone of inferior intelligence says that Crash was a good movie and I say that they are sorrily mistaken, and both us agree that Crash exists. Further we agree that the movie we are both taking about is the same movie. Of course I may be referring to the 1996 film Crash, but if I am then we really aren't arguing with each other, we are instead having a misunderstanding.

When someone says that they believe in God (whatever they think that is), there is a contention to be had  with the subject matter before any issue of support can be brought up. To talk about appeals is to skip the level of agreement about the existence of the subject.

So when someone says, "I believe in God and it is my choice." they are not saying anything like, "I like the band Primus." They are making a statement of belief, but that statement isn't akin personal taste. It is more like an appeal to the existence of extraterrestrials, bigfoot, or the Easter bunny, because the subjects existence isn't already agreed upon.

When someone says, "I like Crash" I dislike their taste, but really can't criticize them too much about it. They just enjoyed the film and that's fine, although  I think there are good reasons for not liking it as well. When someone says something that isn't built on any foundation and the subjects existence can't be shown then there is a real reason to say that the belief is unfounded. You are no longer questioning a persons taste, you are rather looking into their logic for believing in something and their ability to weight evidence. I think a good future post will be a comparison between ethical beliefs and beliefs in God done in this same sort of manner.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

July 8, 2010

Richard Dawkins: Activist or Philosopher?

I'm back after the long weekend and ready to post. This topic came to me through an unresolved argument that I had with one of my professors, who was teaching a medieval philosophy class. It was a one on one class, where I still had to do a presentation on at least two topics. As one of those topics I chose Aquinas's proofs for the existence of  God, which for the most part can be found here.

The start of the presentation went pretty well and I broke down the arguments and talked about them, but then I ran into a problem that really wasn't anticipated. I started giving quotes from famous people today and their reasoning for belief in God, and compared them with Aquinas's proofs. This was an attempt to show how the discussion really hasn't progressed very much in the past centuries, then I pointed out how Richard Dawkins still felt the need to respond to some of those proofs in The God Delusion. Well this was apparently was a direction that the professor felt the need to criticize heavily. His main point of contention was that Richard Dawkins was someone arguing from a pre-dictated position; he was an activist or proponent and not a philosopher. Richard Dawkins lost creditably to this professor by being a reputable biologist!

I'm not sure what the ultimate consequences were for being a activist or proponent, but I can assure you that it meant in the very least that this professor didn't feel the need to take him seriously in the realm of philosophy. He obviously felt that there was something disingenuous with the position Dawkins was taking and because of that the message he was presenting could be belittled, something I couldn't disagree more about.

He was arguing that Richard Dawkins scientific background was making his philosophical views and that he couldn't have any other kind of view because of his background; Science was poisoning the well.

This is like the burden between a denialist and a skeptic.  A denialist can write arguments off for things they know aren't and cannot be true. Have you looked at Dean Radins research into peoples ability to change the randomness of a random number generator? No, people can't affect machines like that, Dean Radins a crank! While a skeptic has to look at each argument and evaluate it on individual merit no matter where it comes from.  Have you heard about Sheldrake's work with dogs knowing when their owner will return? Yes I have looked into it and it seems interesting, but I don't think it really proves anything and there were some methodological contentions that I have with the work that was performed.

There is a wold of difference between these two positions and it really shows what the burden of being a skeptic is.  As a skeptic I can't write off a belief someone else has without looking into it myself, or looking up information other people have gathered. The belief then has to pass a reasonable level of a burden of proof the differs depending on the belief. My professor was a denialist; he didn't need to listen to Richard Dawkins because of the background he was coming from, and he is much worse off for taking that position.

Not only does he not get the experience of seeing and thinking about the arguments Dawkins is bringing up, he is also losing some of his intellectual integrity. He is achieving the intellectual dishonesty he is accusing Dawkins of by becoming a denialist.

Is Richard Dawkins an activist or philosopher? The answer really irrelevant. His methods are rigorous and his thinking is well thought out. He has done enough to at least earn a place at the table and to be listened to. 

Thanks for reading,
- the moral skeptic