Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter.

Hofstatdter is the author of one of my favorite books: Godel, Esher, and Bach. published in 1979 and is a fascinating interplay between the works of the three men named in the title. Mostly, though, it is a long proof, and not and easy one, of Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. In his current book, I am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter returns to the themes from GEB to better nail down how he thinks the loopiness described by Godel is responsible for our consciousness or our “I”. Heady stuff.

Before 1931 Bertrand Russel and Sir Alfred Whitehead thought they had totally nailed down the fundamentals of mathematics. They produced a system of axioms and rules to apply by which all the properties of mathematics could be systematically proved (or un true statemens disproved). In this system, and central to mathematics thinking, is that true statements are proveable and proveable statements are trure. The converse is equally correct, namely, unproveable statements are false and false statements are unproveable. The renegade Godel (only 25 at the time) produced a paper in 1931 which showed that not only this system but any logical system is doomed to failure. The essence of the theorem is the idea of self-referencing. Call the Russell/Whitehead system RW. Godel produced a theorem that basically said “This theorem is unprovable in RW”. Think about that. If you did prove it then it is true. . . but you already proved it! If it cannot be proved than it is false which means it should be provable.

Statements that contradict themselves have been an entertaining curiosity for eons but Godel’s theorem is actually deeper than that. Still, wacky sentences like that will give you the flavor of the problem. Here’s another example. There’s a game you can play (although not that fun) whereby you try to express numbers in english sentences in as few a number of syllables as possible. For example, 1024 could be expressed as ‘one thousand and twenty four’. 7 syllables. But you could also express it as ‘two to the tenth’. Only 4 syllables! So, I’ll make up a number, call it B. B is the first number that cannot be expressed in less than thirty syllables. Got that? But wait. I’ve now completely described this number in twenty syllables! But by it’s very definition it CANNOT be described in less than 30! Loopy.

It is this kind of self-referencing that Hofstadter is talking about. You can think of the operation of our brains in two ways. One way is at the basic level of atoms and synapses. At this level you will never come to any greater understanding of consciousness. Say you hear a song and it makes you remember a long lost girl friend. You’d be hard pressed to identify exactly which neurons (if any) are exactly responsible for either remembering the song or connecting it to the girl. Perhaps much more advantageous to work at the ‘symbol’ level of the brain. The brain retains an interconnected set of symbols for that song and that girl. The symbols are responsible for moving the atoms around and not the other way around! Now extend the idea of the symbols to being loopy and the loopiest of all in that it points to or references it’s own loop is the symbol that we call “I” - our consciousness or our soul. Hofstadter uses the word soul a lot but not in the Judeo-Christian sense. He uses it to mean that inner voice. That “I-ness”.

I should point out that these ideas are drawn out via a multitude of analogies and stories from his personal experience and I only offer a sketch of the big ideas.

The later part of the book goes into how the symbols of one person can be incorporated into another. Like when we adopt another’s mannerisms or shared memories. A jump is then made to perhaps even incorporating a grainy version of the other person’s “I-ness”. The question then comes up, if one person dies is that person or at least some of their brain symbols and perhaps even a crude “I-ness” still around in the other person’s brain?

Understand all of this is from a guy who is professor of Cognitive Sciences at Indiana University. While some of the ideas may sound mystical there is actually nothing in his writing to suggest that at all! This is an interesting but tough read and you don’t really have to read GEB as a prerequisite. He does a pretty good job of giving a shorter proof of Godel’s theorem in this book. You do need to read slowly and stop and reflect on occasion.

I have a few chapters to go and am interested to see how he wraps all of this up. In a strange loop I would guess!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Moving Forward

Sometimes I get tired being drug back into the muck arguing about religion. Also, the 'idea' of atheism is a negative. It is reactionary. It is a response to the overwhelming weight of theism in which we must live. Sometimes you just need to step away and think in a more positive way.

Rather than the label of atheism I'd prefer to think of myself and many others as rationalists. People who in the face of no evidence of magic in the universe take a rational approach to their world. Having been largely caught up in the now boring arguments about religion vs atheism I'd like to try to 'move on'. I'm pretty done arguing with theists and by the way I won. Now maybe it's time to think more deeply about the truly pestering thoughts about existence, consciousness, and what the hell are we doing here anyway? Those kinds of questions can and should be approached in a reasonable way.

Lately, I've been printing religious nuttiness and then responding to it. In retrospect most of this is a re-hash of my main rant that started this blog. I'm a little tired of it but may come back to it when there is something especially funny (that's not hard!). Instead, I hope to take a slight turn in this blog to the more interesting and positive ideas that truly boggle our minds. I intend to start by writing notes/reviews of the new book by Douglas Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop. He is the author of Godel, Esher, and Bach which is an immensely fascinating book from 1979.* He wrote that when he was 27 (by hand on lined paper). Now he is 62 and is still working on what might be the key ideas to the nature of consciousness. I've only just begun and will be writing my impressions and ideas along the way.

So, stay tuned. I'll try to write more often and you try to comment!

*Interesting to us rationalist is the key idea from this book which is really a long proof of Kurt Godel's icompleteness theorem which proved that no matter how logicial of a logical system you create there will be a way to create crazy 'sentences' that contradict themselves without breaking any of the rules of logic. Heady stuff and perhaps a key to our consciousness. . . ?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nobel Prizes

Do Nobel Prizes tell us anything about a country and perhaps its' educational foundation? Upon looking back at Nobel prize winners for the 20th century I find only 4 prizes to Japan in Physics, Chemistry, or Medicine. We are constantly hearing how Japanese kids are killing our kids in test scores and they are. I've always contended that good test takers make good worker bees (Japan loves those) but are bad at original thinking which is exactly what is needed for Nobel Prize winning work.

Furthermore there are NO Nobel Prize winners from any middle eastern, Muslim state. None. Not surprising as original thought is deemed heresy by these knuckle heads. Not to mention all the time wasted in prayer 6 times a day! When some of these idiots scream that they want a government that is based on the Koran I always ask what successful model they are looking at? Give ONE example where this has worked. Of course like all religious arguments, they are not based on data or facts but rather emotion . . . especially anger.

So, to advocates of No Child Left Behind (or as I like to call it, All Children Held Back) and all the standardized testing that goes with it, be careful what you are trying to "fix".

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Prayer in School

Twenty-nine states have now enacted laws requiring a minute of silence, quiet reflection, or meditation. That's right REQUIRED. It is the current round in the age old fight of prayer in school. In 1964 The Supreme Court correctly banned prayer in school as an obvious violation of the separation of church and state. Of course the religious right can't leave anything alone (Roe vs Wade?) and have been trying to sneak prayer back in ever since. This leads to several questions.

1. Why? Why do so many people think that this is important? Why can't they pray at home? They could even go for more than a minute at home. They could pray until their brains fell out if they want. Why must they have EVERYONE somehow hooked into prayer in SCHOOL?

2. To what end? What are they trying to fix? What evidence would you look at between 1964 and now and be able to isolate a measurable effect that is ONLY attributable to the lack of prayer in school that these new laws would then fix?

1. Because the religious right is probably the most reactionary and paranoid bunch of people on the planet. They only feel OK with their own beliefs if everyone is doing it. I am all for freedom of religion but even more so I'm for freedom FROM religion. Do what you want but leave me out of it and keep it out of my elected government.

2. This group doesn't make decisions based of facts or evidence. If they did they'd quickly find a better way to spend their Sunday mornings. They make decisions based on "feel good" phrases. "Support our troops, God loves you, Jesus died for our sins, etc." So they want prayer in school because it feels better than to not want it. Feelings are what they are. They are different for everyone but powerful for all. But, are they the trigger by which we should be making decisions about the school day?

Now you might be thinking that they are NOT requiring prayer - just silence with which the kids can do whatever. How many crazy parents out there are instructing their kids to pray their asses off (hands folded and mumbling) during that silence to 'show' those bad kids what it is all about. There is nothing better for a Christian than when he can really wear his religion on his sleeve for all to see. Can Catholics haul out their rosaries during this minute? Can the Muslims get up, kneel and face Mecca? Can the Jews throw on a yarmulke? What is the line as to what a kid can do with his minute?

This is just another reason why reasonable and intelligent parents are saving their money and sending their kids to private schools.

BTW. The link above is a religions one but outlines the history of the prayer in school pretty well. On the other hand one of the links there is really choice. Check it out. Turns out sometimes prayers aren't answers because you just don't do it right! This site can help you out with 'proven prayer methods' (a $147 value FOR FREE). I won't comment on it line by line. It stands by itself as a model if idiocy. But really, where do you get the number $147?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Well, do they?

I was sitting around trying to not kill myself over the 07 Cubs when I thought, Do animals have souls? Well, through the 'magic' of the Internet (actually it runs by "electricity") I found this article from the ARK which speaks directly to this question but also brings up some other tid bits from religious thinking. My comments are interspersed in green.

Do Animals Have Souls?
By Deborah Jones

'Only humans matter: they have souls. Animals don't.' This has been said, millions of times. People often use it as a mantra, not because they are necessarily helping to alleviate human suffering, but to justify their lack of concern and compassion for the suffering of animals. Of course humans matter - but so do animals: and animals have souls too.

Catholic teaching has never actually denied this, following St Thomas Aquinas in this as in most things, although it has not yet developed a fully positive understanding of the place of animals within the order of salvation. This is a subject being grasped by some of the best theologians of our time, as they realise that this lack of understanding results in an untypically muddled response from the Catholic Church over an important contemporary issue - that of animal welfare.

I remember having this scary message being delivered to me by our pastor when I was a kid. We had a great dog, Shep, and I asked if he was going to heaven and was told no because animals don't have souls. I cried.

The first thing to unravel from the various strands of tradition is the meaning of the word 'soul'. It is not really helpful to talk of people or animals 'having' souls - as you might 'have' a wristwatch or brown eyes or curly hair. Body and soul are not simply two factors existing alongside or in each other, but form an indivisible whole. A person, or an animal, is wholly body and wholly soul and both are at all times the whole being. In other words we do not only 'have' a body, or 'have' a soul - we are both body and soul. The Hebrew language does not talk of the two as separate entities, as we shall see in the Scriptures. Pagan Greek and Roman philosophers, whose thinking played such a leading role in influencing Christian theologians through the ages, did make the separation between spirit and matter, placing reason and soul in the higher, spiritual sphere, and according body and matter a much lower status. We shall see how this came to effect the way in which animals, and the rest of the nonhuman creation, came to be viewed.

Well, it sounds nice to say that we are both 'body and soul' but on what do you base such a statement? If I say, no, I think we are only a thinking organism, what evidence could be brought to the table to say that we are both? I'll listen to it what ever it is.

Living souls

In the beginning of our Scriptures, we see God creating 'every living creature' (Genesis 1:21, 24). The Hebrew words (transliterated) are 'chay' (living) and 'nephesh' (soul). 'Nephesh' is mentioned over 400 times in the Old Testament signifying soul. The words 'chay nephesh' are used from chapter one, verse 20, when the waters are filled with living creatures. The close translation from Hebrew is: 'And God said: Let the waters swarm [with] the swarmers [having] a soul of life …' and in the next verse: 'And God created the great sea animals, and all that creeps, [having] a living soul …' (The words in square brackets are not used in Hebrew, but are understood.) In verse 30, God provides food - purely vegetarian - to every living thing, in which, the Hebrew adds, '[is] a living soul'. There is a definite separation here between 'every green plant', which of course are living things, and every creature possessed of a 'living soul'. In chapter two, the second, and older Creation account, the first human being was created from dust, then God 'blew into his nostrils [the] breath of life and man became a living soul', a 'chay nephesh'. Here we have the real sense of 'nephesh', or soul, as a being animated by the breath of life. This reminds us of the glorious invocation of psalm 150, where 'everything that breathes' is to praise the Lord.

Surprise! The whole argument for the existence of a soul is based on it saying so in the bible. By the way, when 'God said. . . .", to whom was he speaking? Oh, I know that is just a metaphor, right? Well, then where does metaphor stop and actual information begin in the bible. I feel that people draw the line wherever it helps them the most to make whatever argument they like (gays are bad, abortion is bad, smite your enemy is good, etc.)

Oh, and I do like God having the waters swarm with swarmers. That seems like a good plan.

Pope John Paul II: 'animals possess a soul'

When Pope John Paul II declared in a public audience in 1990 that 'also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren' some people must have thought this was a new teaching, unaware of the Holy Father's scholarly familiarity with the authentic Hebrew texts. When he went on to state that all animals are 'fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect' and that they are 'as near to God as men are', animal lovers in the audience were ecstatic! The Pope mentions the special relationship of mankind with God as being created in His image and likeness. 'However,' he goes on 'other texts state that animals have the breath of life and were given it by God. In this respect, man, created by the hand of God, is identical with all other living creatures. And so in Psalm 104 there is no distinction between man and beasts when it reads, addressing God: " … Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth." The existence therefore,' the Holy Father reminds us, 'of all living creatures depends on the living spirit/breath of God that not only creates but also sustains and renews the face of the earth.'

OK, now animals have a soul because the Pope said so. Being pope he doesn't have to provide any evidence. Of course since he stated exactly what the author wanted to hear she doesn't question his statement. This is in direct contrast to real research. When a real searcher of truth gets a result that agrees with their hypothesis they immediately try to shoot it down. You question your own result even though it would maybe help you out. That is a real and valid approach to shaking a little truth out of the world.

This could be a slippery slope for the church. I think when this author says 'animals' she is only thinking of 'Shep' and other cute, furry creatures. What about snakes? How about spiders? Did the good lord only mean mammals? Does a cock roach have a soul or are they just minions of Beelzebub? Coral? Bacteria? Where does it end. . . or start? 90% of all animals on the planet are extinct? Did they all have souls and if so are they ALL in heaven?

The other thing you see here is that the Pope is INTERPRETING the bible. You see it has to be interpreted because it is such a crazy collection of ancient thinking that no intelligent human being could take it literally. But why does the word of GOD have to be interpreted? Why can't he just come out and say what he means? And, after about 5000 years, how about a 2nd edition?

This discourse caused a stir around the world, and was especially encouraging to Catholic animal welfare groups which had begun to despair that anything 'animal friendly' would ever be heard in Rome. The then professor of theology and dogma at the University of Urbino, Carlo Molari, called it 'very important and significant. It is a "sign of the times" because it demonstrates the Church's desire and deep concern to clarify present confused thinking and attitudes towards the animal kingdom. There should be no need, but the Pontiff, in reiterating that animals came into being because of the direct action of the "breath" of God, wanted to say that also these creatures, as well as man, are possessed of the divine spark of life and that living quality that is the soul. And are therefore not inferior beings or only of a purely material reality.'

The image of God

In the ten years that have passed, not a great deal has changed in church-goers' understanding of the souls of animals. Could that be because so little is ever taught or preached or prayed about them and their undoubted suffering at human hands? More is known about mankind being 'made in the image of God' and about having 'dominion' over the natural world. That is too often used as justification for treating the world as one great natural resource for human benefit, and all the other creatures in it as designed for mankind alone.

But what did 'image' really mean? Statues, or images, were and are used to represent kings and rulers. Think of the number of statues of Queen Victoria there are scattered around the former Empire. Human beings are living statues, living representatives - in much the same way as ambassadors represent the head of state of the country they come from. We human beings are to represent the rule of God in the created world, using delegated powers to see that the world continues to function and flourish in the way the Creator intended. To be shepherd-kings, not 'as those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them', but as 'slave of all' (Mark 10: 42-45). St Francis came close to this model in treating all other created beings as 'brothers and sisters', rather than as most people do today, as disposable things whose only value is in their usefulness to us.

You can see in this paragraph that there is still an implied hierarchy. We are clearly the top of the heap because of our large brains. This is very wrong thinking. . . I think. Every creature is at the current pinnacle of its own evolutionary thread. An osprey is a great flier/hunter as all the lousy ones have been sorted out. An osprey will never be a computer programmer but that doesn't put him somewhere below us. ALL the creatures are on the top of their own heaps. I AM pleased that as crazy as the thinking in this article is it does tend to lead to an idea of all the creatures being ONE thing as opposed to man vs beast. The north American Indians (luckily having NOT been indoctrinated with Christianity) spoke of the streams and the beasts as their brothers and we thought they were waxing metaphorically. They were NOT. They were very literal and thought of themselves as part of the whole rather than lords over it.

Also, does being made in the image of God mean he has form like us? He's a guy like half of us? Again, a pleasant Sunday school story but based on what? This thinking leads to so many crazy questions as to be laughable. Where was God before creation? Why would God need legs if there was no firmament yet? Moreover, if God was just God by himself and he looked just like any other guy why would he need a. . . well, YOU know? What would he do with it?

We have elevated the human being beyond all other creatures until he has even taken the place of God. Secular rationalism would do away with the concept of soul altogether. The French philosopher, Descartes (1596-1650), divided the human person into the 'thinking part' res cogitans and the body res extensa. He saw the body as a machine, which had to be governed by the self-awareness of human rational thought. He dropped the word for soul 'anima' and replaced it with the word for mind 'mens' What animals lacked, so he said, was the human rational thought, therefore their status was purely that of machines - and machines cannot feel. The screams emitted by tortured animals were no more, he said, than the squeaking of mechanical parts and of no consequence. That attitude to some extent still exists, even though scientists are now discovering that even relatively simple life forms are capable of feeling pain and stress.

The Age of Reason was typified by Descartes and by Kant, who wrote that 'So far as animals are concerned we have no direct moral duties; animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man.' For them might have been written those chapters in Job in which God asks: 'Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?' (chapters 38 and 39). However, they had been influenced more by Aristotle and the Stoics than by Scripture. These ancients held that animals, while possessing 'animal souls' (as distinct from 'vegetable souls') lacked reason, and demonstrated their lack of reason by lack of speech. They were not to know of the complex communication abilities of many of the primates, dolphins, whales, etc. What is worse is that they considered that lack of speech gives us the right to exploit them! Stoics also thought that animals cannot learn by experience - but then, they never watched 'One Man and his Dog'!

I'm not sure what the author is going for here. It is true that the rational thought of Kant and Descartes put animals at some lower level than man based on the idea of consciousness. Certainly it is true that we are the only conscious creatures on the planet. We are conscious because we possess language. The fact that these guys may have done harm to the status of animals was not by their lack of religious training but rather their lack of understanding of how ecology/evolution work. Both of these guys lived up to a century before Darwin.

What is definitive in Christian understanding of animals in the order of salvation, is that, with the incarnation of Christ, with God taking flesh, there is a new connection between all that shares the matter of flesh, of bodies: as the Holy Father said, a 'solidarity' between us and our brothers and sisters, the other 'living souls', the animals.

By the way, order of salvation is no easy topic. Check out the 'flow chart' from the 16th century!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Politicians and Faith

I read recently that a whopping gazillion percent of the voting population 'think' it is important for a candidate to be a person of faith. That is, they want their candidates to believe in invisible people, miracles, ancient texts, etc. I'm sure the requirement for faith indicates to the theist that this person is then also a person with a moral center. A "good" person. Right. Let's not even go down the path of the religious who have committed atrocities. I'd like to focus more on the very idea that belief in impossible things somehow (ok, wait I get it...via even MORE magic) gives you a leg up in the moral competition.*

But how would that work? Why couldn't a candidate refute belief in crazy, invisible things and come down hard on being for such things like fairness, justice, beauty, the environment, etc. These concepts do NOT require belief in a Deity. The golden rule itself is the golden rule because it makes SENSE. Common sense and rational thought can be a great guide to making decisions. Perhaps the ONLY guide?

Tell me, do you really want a person in a high office who believes that no matter how high his or her office is, there is REALLY a higher one? Would that be fair to all. Our freaking president right now, what's his name**, says that he speaks directly to god (I think through Cheney on a conference call though). Well then no problem going to war if you got the message right from the big guy himself. Plus, there's no way to even check this. I could say the same thing. Are you telling me that god does not speak to atheists? Damnit!

To hell (or wherever) with 'does it make sense'? Is it the best for everyone involved? Is there another way? Can we wait and collect more data? Who needs THAT kind of convoluted, brainy thinking? Got the message already from the big guy. As Richard Nixon said, "Don't confuse me with the facts"!

Americans love quick answers to their questions. Good school? Show me a test number. Good morals? Show me a picture of some dope walking out of church. OK, check and check! Where's my TV clicker.

*Here's another thoughtful take on the concept

**Here's an excerpt from an article by Jim Hoagland at the Washington Post:

Let me rephrase that: In contrast to its foreign policy, the Bush agenda at home is a collection of smoldering ruins. The administration has illogically dismissed deficits and balanced budgets as decisive economic factors, alienated Congress on every conceivable issue, left its tax cuts vulnerable to reversal, and enveloped Social Security reform in a poisonous political atmosphere.

Bush's most durable support comes from a coalition of social conservatives who usually define their politics in religious terms -- whom Bush has pleased or placated by nominating John Roberts and Sam Alito to the Supreme Court -- and the pro-democracy activists of the right who agree with him on pushing democracy in Iraq, Ukraine, China and elsewhere.