Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Beam me up...

Again, I have heard of this question before and I was beaming :)... Interestingly, I heard of this problem from the character Dr. Sheldon Cooper, from the sitcom, "Big Bang Theory". The original source is from "Reasons and Persons", by Derek Parfit.

The question is this - Stelios has come up with a teletransporter that can transport a person within minutes to Mars. Sort of like the phenomenon of Apparation, from Harry Potter. The teletransporter scans every cell of our body and brain and stores this information. Then it destroys the current form, and recreates the person cell by cell, in Mars. So you fall asleep and then wake up in Mars. The question is - is Stelios actually killing a person and then recreating their clone on Mars? Will you be the same person on Mars, or is it only your clone?
People who have used it, don't lose any of their consciousness. They still know they are themselves when they land up in Mars, and they could continue with their life as if nothing happened. But wasn't their physical body destroyed on Earth? For a few brief moments, they did not exist... so doesn't that mean death?

My thoughts - I have wondered what the difference between sleep and death really is. Death is when someone never wakes up, and probably doesn't dream when they don't wake up, and continues to "sleep". In addition, the physical body degenerates. BOTH these criteria need to be satisfied to call a person dead.... their consciousness is dead and so is their physical body. I know for sure that the teletransporter destroyed the body, but the consciousness seemed to be intact, for the person "woke up" remembering who he was. Or was consciousness also destroyed and recreated?

Our clone is not the same person that we are. A clone may physically and biologically be identical, but not mentally. If you're psychologically "the same person", then you're not a clone. So far, Baggini's views resonates with mine. But for those brief moments, I don't know if the person's consciousness also ceased to exist. What was the person going through when he was teletransported.... did he have visions and dreams or did he have nothing? Well... some people don't have dreams when they sleep, so what is my rule to understand if consciousness did exist when the body was destroyed... can consciousness exist without a physical body or a brain?

I don't think the teletransporter can scan the "mind and consciousness". They are not physical entities to have shape, or structure or properties to be stored. Yet the person on Mars did not lose his consciousness, which lends me to think of two possible explanations for his consciousness to have been retained:

1. "consciousness" is indeed a property that emanates out of the unique composition of our physical brain. When a jar of jasmine perfume is opened, one smells the scent of jasmine and not rose. So, when the chemical structure of jasmine is scanned and recreated, it will emanate the same smell, although the scent by itself was not stored. If we were to imagine the brain to be a hard disk, and the transporter scanned the hard disk, then the data is preserved and hence the "program behavior" is preserved. If this is the case, then, when the brain was destroyed, the "scent" or program was also destroyed, because it doesn't exist without the physical structure. And hence the person was dead for those brief moments. The person on Mars is not a clone... just a recreation of the person. Sort of like waking up from being dead, like we've heard of some patients in surgery whose heartbeat stops for a few seconds and then revives.

2. "consciousness" is probably the soul. A soul exists without body or mind. If this is the case, despite the physical body being destroyed, the soul was not destroyed. Since this soul took up the same body and remembered everything and retained the identity of the same person, the person was not technically dead. In Hindu beliefs, when souls take on another body and lose their memory of past life, it is called Re-incarnation of the dead. Here it is not re-incarnation.

I don't know which of the two explanations is true, or rather which one I tend to believe more :). "Logically", 1 seems more appropriate to me at this point, for 2. has a lot of unaccounted questions themselves - what is the soul, is there a soul, is re-incarnation possible? I don't have answers to 2., but I tend to not dismiss it just because I don't have the answers. So I'm undecided between the two....

Baggini argues that the person is not dead, since by the theory of "psychological continuity", the consciousness was continued, and as long as consciousness was intact, the person is the same person, not a clone. Hence he was never dead, for the dead cannot come to life.

The Evil Demon

The basic question posed in this chapter is taken from Descartes's, "Meditations". When I saw the source, I was as happy as a child that I was aware of this discussion and what Descartes had to say about it :).

Descartes tried to explain the working of the human mind, and to understand what goes inside our mind. The first question he poses is - how self-evident is everything around us? Is it true that the grass is green as seen by you and me? Or am I just led to believe that we both see the grass to be green, yet what I call green is actually seen as red by you? Can we believe everything that we perceive in the world to be the truth, or is there some "evil demon", or God who has programmed us to view, act and behave the way we do. Are we living in a dream? To a hypnotized person who has been "programmed" or "instructed" a certain way, two plus two is five and that is the truth to him. If hypnosis is possible, are we all then "hypnotized" by such an evil demon? Can we really trust what we see and believe as facts, to be the truth?

"Matrix" series is what springs to my mind. When I started reading a few paragraphs by Descartes describing and reasoning about this, my head started to ache. According to me, one of the reasons why Philosophy is probably taken to be such a dense and hard to reach science is the way the philosopher communicates. The paragraphs are riddled with dense and complicated sentences, and almost all views are expressed in such a seemingly convoluted and lofty style. I will try my best to not sound so.

So here is what I have thought - As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have sometimes felt like I am a third person looking at a movie of this character (me) and experiencing what she goes through, just like how one would get engrossed in a movie or a novel and start associating themselves with the character. I really cannot fathom what will happen when my consciousness ceases to exist, or when my character exits the stage. I may be living in a movie, dream or be hypnotized. But in whatever state I am in, people around me seem to share the same belief on many aspects of this world, making me be harmonious with my assumed-reality. I may be led to believe so, and I may never know. Using Fodor's principle; my mental model of the world is nothing but rules and representations of my beliefs of how the world is, as perceived by me. In which case, there is probably no absolute truth, which is why I see everyone of us trying to solve the mystery and have our own interpretations based on our beliefs and perceptions of the world.

So is there anything that can be trusted as being true without a doubt? To this Descartes says, our ability to doubt and reason, is probably the only thing that is self-evident without doubt. And I agree. I don't know if the grass is indeed green or if the sun does rise in the east, but I do know I am questioning their truth and validity... and hence I'm certain of my ability to constantly doubt and reason. I am also certain that IF I am programmed by certain rules to view the world in a certain way by the demon, THEN my belief, representations, and actions hold good and are true. If I am led to believe that I cannot walk on water, then me trying to not walk on water is a true logical consequence and is hence Truth to me. If I have been programmed that 2+2 =5, and I believe that the answer to 2*2 must then be 5 as well, then given the belief system, my ability to reason is the only thing true here, although both answers may be False. How good my ability to reason is, and whether it helps me reach the right conclusions every time, given the premise... I don't know.

The Pig That Wants to be Eaten

Quite an intriguing title isn't it? :). I noticed this book with R and I had to get it. I finally bought the book last evening and I couldn't wait to read it... long has it been since I read a good book? When I read the preface, I smiled all the way through and felt like calling every other person who has accused me of over-analyzing situations and ridiculing the concept of discussing abstract ideas.

And just today I came across a blog where the irate author rants about Internet Poetry, and the uselessness of silly fools who write, appreciate and try to decipher them. I was amused :). I hear plenty of such statements, "Of what use is it to talk of such useless stuff?", "There are no answers to this, it's so silly", "What a waste of time", "I am a lesser soul, not an intellectual"... and many more comments. And I tell all of them the same answer - I am no intellectual myself. I strongly believe that these puzzles jog your mind and stimulate your thinking. They help us crack open our minds... a teeny tiny bit at least, to consider problems and situations in different perspectives, and to sharpen our ability to reason. It makes us realize how mundane our day-day grievances are and how solutions are simple, if only we opened our minds :).

And here's what Julian Baggini says, "Imagination without reason is mere fancy, but reason without imagination is sterile. The purpose of such "thought experiments" is to strip away the things that complicate matters in real life in order to focus clearly on the essence of a problem.... like scientific experiments, they aim to isolate key variables, the specific factors under examination, to see what differences they, and they alone, make to our understanding of the world.... the experiment is a tool to aid our thinking, it does not pretend to describe actual life... sometimes they make us see problems which don't seem like problems until you follow through their implications... Many lines of thought can be started from this book. But none ends in it."

Beautiful!! It feels good when someone expresses my views in such a coherent and delightfully beautiful manner. Baggini presents 100 philosophical questions inspired from a myriad sources; Descartes to Plato to Hume to Spielberg. He presents his own view of the problem, ending with a statement to provoke the reader's thoughts. So I have taken it upon myself to write my own views on each of the 100 puzzles discussed in the book, and I would love to further the discussion.

I am, as the book says it, a mere armchair philosopher. I admit to having lots of half-baked thoughts and I am trying in earnest to bake them to perfection :). So try to be tolerant if you find this page a drivel :)...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Truth is Beauty, and Beauty is?

I was taking a random trip down memory lane due to my utter lethargy to complete the last question on my last assignment for the semester (wow time does fly!). I often fall into this numbing hole of procrastination when I reach very close to completing a tedious/laborious/plain uninteresting work. It could be the last paragraph to write, the last chapter to study, or the last question to answer, and I become restless to finish it, equally excited that I am almost done and become complacent to put it off for a while and laze around. I have reached that state.

Enough of that boring intro... so what I started to think about was the teddy bears I had when I was young (since I happened to glance at the fat white bear sitting on the shelf... a stimulus to my thoughts if you will). I got them when I was around 6 or 7 and I was very attached to those two that even after reaching my twenties I would possessively hide them when young cousins and kids visited my place. No, no, I don't need therapy...I was just reluctant to let a precious part of my childhood be chewed on, torn apart and dragged on the floor by all those adorable kids :). Being the only child, and mostly a loner, these dolls formed a huge part of my childhood... being my pals.

A barbie doll was one among them... although I was never attached to it, for the main reason that you couldn't cuddle one. Almost all my friends and cousins had one at that time. These days there are talks on how perfectly pretty barbies could instill an "unhealthy" body image on young girls, laying ideas on perceptions of beauty. Well, I'm really curious to truly investigate this... talk to a few young girls or probably read more about how valid the fear/hypothesis is. When I was young I really don't remember noticing how pretty a barbie was. I'm stumped if that doll probably had some impact on my image of beauty.

Cambridge dictionary defines beauty as, "the quality of being pleasing, especially to look at, or someone or something that gives great pleasure, especially by being looked at." I'm surprised at the heavy connotation of physicality in the definition, and something predominantly experienced by our sight! I beg to broaden the definition....

They say beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, but what makes the beholder view something as beautiful? There are a few people/things/aspects in life that most people will unanimously agree as being beautiful, and this is probably an objective measure of symmetry etc. But what about the rest?

As Keats said, is beauty just truth? Well... there are some truths that are ugly when revealed, I can't find a trace of beauty in them. Is our perception of beauty just emotional bonding? I don't know, but I know I loved a ragged 2 rupees doll in comparison to a barbie and I loved my two teddies that were patched up and kept together with stitches, and I still search for a bear that resembles those two. Maybe I'm in search of memories but I would still call the bears cute, pretty and use other nice adjectives (or am I using the adjectives on my memories?). There is a saying in Tamil that I'm inadequately translating as, " To the mother crow, her young one appears like a golden chic." Crows are supposed to be "ugly" since they are black, but a mama crow thinks its little one is a pretty golden bird. Of course "golden" is a could signify physical appearance, and other general characteristics.

Beauty by itself then becomes a metaphor. A metaphor to symbolize and probably qualitatively assign our appreciation in response to positive feelings and emotions that get evoked. Most times, these feelings are evoked through people or objects and we place our appreciation on them, thereby making them special and seeing them as beautiful? Sometimes it's an event, a phase of life, riveting memories, and we often scrounge around to find an object to pour the sense of beauty we want to treasure in an effort to make the memories as "real" and "physical" and as alive as possible.

I don't know why I end up relating everything to emotions and sentiments... I sound sappy. But really, a challenge that AI faces is in simulating these emotions in order to "program" a computer to recognize or subjectively categorize an object as being beautiful even though it fails all the objective measures of beauty.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Consequences of Technical Education

I started this blog two or so years back and I am ashamed to see the few posts, and worst of all the lack of creativity in my writing. Those so-called abilities of mine have either rusted or just gone. I am sad. There was a time when I couldn't stop writing, and used to easily fill pages and pages out of mere nothing. Now I struggle to get through a page :(.

I blame it on my technical education. Engineering started and it left me with hardly any time to read good books. I was caught with the necessity to read technical books, non-fiction-course-related-jargon-laden books. And then there were two years of my Masters during which time I had impeccable training on technical writing, with a perfectionist of a professor not happy with 18 pages of my writing when a conference paper was only supposed to be 8 pages long. I have imbibed tricks and tips to shorten sentences, to avoid adjectives, to use as minimal words as possible, to be careful of the choice of words, to be precise and to the point, to eliminate speculation and just state facts. And I am now reduced to a creativity drained "scientist" who starts to reason about statistical validity and logicality of statements, who even reasons while watching animation movies :( (How can a giraffe be attracted to a hippo?!). I am extremely saddened.

I should probably shift focus from training just one part of my brain (whatever that is) and start using both sides of my brain...Interestingly I have just realized from one of the papers I read, that one cannot really demarcate the left and right sides of the brain and attribute them to talents. It's true that some modules (that help us draw for example), are located on a distinct side. But every activity is such a complex amalgamation of various modules of the brain spread in so many domains that one cannot really call a person right or left brained. And that shows you how I have started viewing everything around me in terms of facts and experiments.

I cringed away from biology and medicine because I was too idealistic to see the human body as mere flesh and bones, and to talk and study about it like a machine, in a matter of fact. Now I am studying the human brain/cognition, and day by day I realize that I am studying the mind as a machine.... far worse. But if there is one thing that I am all the more intrigued about, it is the complexity of living beings. Each branch of science has been struggling to discover the ultimate mysteries and is ventured in the quest for truth. We all stumble upon one major block that is almost impossible to be answered or unraveled. All branches of science seem to assemble at this junction where they each have a question - a single question that holds the key to many fundamental questions. This question seems to be the borderline between Science and Spirituality. For example, consciousness. Some scientists have written proofs as to why it is impossible to study, let alone figure out consciousness. "What is it being like a bat?", is a popular phrase. "What is it being like me?"... is it the same as being like you? Can I experience what is it that you are?

I tried to answer that question to myself... What is it being like me. And it led me to this weird state of feeling, where I felt like a third person looking at this girl and what she was going about doing. It gave rise to a whole lot of interesting, albeit creepy thoughts about who I really am, where I came from, where will I go in the end, is consciousness nothing but my soul... etc. Half way along I realized that those questions are precursors to lead one on a spiritual quest... a quest for self-realization. It's not surprising that most renowned scientists were also philosophers. It almost seems inevitable. I am not equating myself to a good scientist, let alone even a scientist, but it's a wonderful revelation to reach this juncture where I am humbled by Nature and its creations. It has opened my mind to questions that I merely dismissed a few years back; it has made me question those "facts" of life that I took for granted.

So yes, it is a curse that I have become too inquisitive about life and I have already started doing crazy things like placing my phone in the fridge and running around in circles, but I hope I haven't lost all of my idealism and insane imaginations.