Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It’s a Sad and Beautiful World

“It’s a Sad and beautiful World”. These are Tom Wait’s expressive words in the Jim Jarmusch film “Down by Law”. Such a simple phrase, but so apt.

When tragedy strikes our friends or family members, or when some large scale disaster occurs, I suspect we are inclined to dwell more on the sad, or ugly, aspects. When thinking about the mysteries of the cosmos, or when on a walk on a gorgeous spring day, perhaps we focus much more on the beautiful. I wonder if it is possible to keep both in the mind at the same time?

There is a field of theology; called, I believe,“theodicy” that deals with how to reconcile the sad (or cruel or ugly or evil) aspects of the world with a “loving creator”. The popular Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote a book “The Problem of Pain” deals with this. Of course, as Lewis points out somewhere in that book, this is only a “problem” for people who are believers in some kind of God. Certainly for us agnostics, the difficulty of reconciling the negative aspect of the world inclines us a little more toward atheism. I also have to add that, even though it has been some years since I have read Lewis' book, I recall it involving relatively weak (by his standards) arguments.

There have of course been a great many attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with an infinitely good God. The most common justifications seems to involve mankind’s free will and his/her subsequent “Fall” (consisting of the free choice to disobey God’s rules). Related to this, I think, is the concept of “original sin”, which I admit to not understanding, and further do I do not understand its relation to “the Fall”. In any case, this argument tends to not appeal much to the skeptics among us, since it is not clear how all of humanity can be held accountable for an act of disobedience on the part of a distant ancestor.

An added difficulty is that pain and evil can be divided into “natural” and “human caused” portions. The former being tsunamis, earthquakes, and the like, the latter being murder and other crimes committed by people against other people. With a stretch, one can perhaps imagine the “Fall” causing the latter. But how could that explain the natural evils? Of course, we hear today, after every major disaster, some highly dubious pronouncement by a fringe element about how the disaster was punishment for sin, but such claims are rejected by the vast majority of the clergy of all religions, as far as I can tell.

The late philosopher Robert Nozick made a fascinating point in his book “The Examined Life” that I don’t think I have ever heard before, or thought of. I believe Nozick was a non-believer, so his argument, though ingenious, did not succeed in convincing him. It went like this: suppose there is a deity that considers making a vast spectrum of worlds, or realms, such as ours. The spectrum could be continuous (infinitely many) or it could be discrete. Further, imagine ranking them according to their foreseen “good (G) to bad (B)” ratio. It does not matter here how the G or B values are determined, we simply postulate that the Deity is sufficiently clever to be able to accurately make such an assessment. Now suppose that the Deity decides to create, or to embody with reality, all of the worlds where the G/B ratio is higher than some cutoff value. It might be a ratio of 1, or it might be a ratio of 1 million—the point is that a great many of the created worlds would involve B being non zero. So on this model it is not clear that one could necessarily “blame” a Deity for creating a world with evil in it. I think Nozick goes on to admit that this model is not very consoling; but I have to admire him for coming up with a novel and clever idea.

It is odd that the modern “Creationist” seems to object to the theory of evolution on the grounds that it implies many millions of years of animal suffering (“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw” ) , and indeed, it does. Their position seems to be that this is inconsistent with a “loving creator”. Again, indeed it does seem to be so. But how is this suffering any different from what goes on today in nature all around us? For an example, see “March of the Penguins” , or any nature show about animals in the wild. Surely the animals cannot be held accountable for man’s “Fall”, can they? Well, for completeness, I must add that in addition the “Creationists” tend to take the Bible literally, and hence they see evolution as contradicting that source. But surely nobody would really take all of it literally today, would they? To consider just one example, does any sane person believe in killing their recalcitrant children ?

Monday, November 22, 2010

A couple of thoughts regarding free will, consciousness, God, and Intelligent Robots

Consciousness and Free Will: these two mysteries are, I suspect, intertwined. I feel fairly certain that both are largely unsolvable, in that the methods of science cannot fully explain them in the sense of understanding their origin and their mechanism. The reason for this is that consciousness is by its very subjective nature not amenable to direct, objective observation. This is of course disturbing, as we do not like to confess that a prominent feature of the real world is forever beyond our grasp. But it is also scary for a practical reason: the human race will surely soon create artificial life forms, i.e., highly sophisticated robotic beings that will by all outward appearance be conscious. Will we give them the “benefit of the doubt” and assume they are? Will we extend the same rights to them as are extended to humans (and to some extent, to other animals)? Will we hold them blamable for crimes? These questions are not urgent today, but perhaps in the next few decades will begin to be.

Now, I have little doubt that evolution has produced consciousness by purely natural means, and that it has its function and origin entirely within the neuro-chemistry of the brain. My point is only that we can not observe it, and hence study it in the way we do other phenomena of nature. And hence we cannot be sure when it is present in a “system”, and so the philosophical problems alluded to above. It is true that we do not, for example, directly observe quarks, but we do observe them indirectly through their predicted associated particles. But it is different there, because of course no conscious beings existence is threatened if we are wrong about the existence of quarks.

The concept of God: I do not see how the Judeo-Christian “concept” of God can be rendered coherent. We have no way to model, in out brains, the existence of a solitary, infinite, outside-of-time Being. This is one of the main reasons I consider myself an “agnostic”. But I resist the term “atheist”, in spite of the excellent defense of that term given by the likes of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, because I think physics has taught us to be wary of expecting reality to be describable in terms that seem coherent to our common sense. The prime example would be quantum mechanics, the theory that applies to the micro world, i.e., atoms and smaller. Even Einstein balked at this theory because it did not conform to his idea of what the world must be like. But it does now appear that his dislike of quantum theory was unfounded, since quantum mechanics seems to work, and the common sense ideas of classical mechanics have seemingly been shown to be invalid through Bell’s Theorem.

Well, I for one do not know if there is a God or not, or if the idea even makes any sense. But I suspect that “there is something going on”. While I very much doubt whether anything like the God of the major religions exists, the universe and conscious life is probably not an accident (whatever an accident means when we are talking about universes). As many of Albert Einstein's writings suggest, it does seem that there is some kind of "mind" involved in creating the awesome and intricate complexity of physical existence. We are either not expected to know what it is that is behind it all, or our brains are simply not suitable for the task of understanding it all.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A plausible resolution of the free will paradox?

The question is not so much, “Do we have free will?”, as, “What would free will even mean?" There does not seem to be a way to make the concept of free will coherent. If there is no way to render an idea sensible, then what sense would it make to ask if the idea is correct?

The paradox comes in because I believe we all assume that we have free will, and usually that others do too. And we blame and punish wrongdoers, i.e., criminals, as if they were free do not have committed their crimes. We try to convince others of some idea, or to persuade them to do something, all of which seems nonsensical if their behavior and their thoughts are determined. To complete the paradox, consider that no one can consistently maintain strict determinism, since they would make to make the tacit assumption that they were free to have arrived at that conclusion.

Consider this: you by a new Mac. It comes bundled with software and firmware, that is, an operating system along with a host of standard applications, but of course this all runs on a particular hardware architecture that is presumably identical to all other instances of that particular Mac model. Certain settings are peculiar to your machine, as you fire up the machine and choose preferences and various control panel settings. As time passes, and you begin to use your computer, you create files, and download and install certain additional programs. Very quickly your computer is like no other. The computer acquires what seems to be a “personality”. You yell at it such things as “Oh, come on, I didn’t say to do that”! and so forth, even though you know it is just a machine, doing what its hardware and software dictate it will do. To this, we can in principle add randomness, that is, such things as a power surge, or cosmic ray induced bit flips, and so on, which can cause it to deviate from a predictable path on occasion.

Now I want to make the analogy that the initial state of the machine is like our genetic makeup, with the aforementioned “preferences” added, while the installed software is analogous to what an organism learns and adapts to through experience. So, just as the hardware and installed software entirely determine what the machine will do (excepting the small input from random perturbations), so genetic makeup (“nature”) plus the build up of life experiences (“nurture”) entirely determine how an organism will behave. If you doubt this, please tell me what these other factors might conceivably be.

It does no good to say that there is some kind of “internal you” or “self”, that decides what to do, because we cannot imagine where that self has emerged from other that from experience plus genes. “Nature plus nurture” seem to be the only conceivable process that could have created a conscious self.

Some people have suggested that the existence of a spirit or soul might be injected here to leave room for escaping from the hardware plus software factors. I disagree, because the same problem emerges even then. As long as we postulate that that spirit or soul has a beginning (in some sense, not necessarily temporal), the determining factors would seem to shift to some kind of “supernatural hardware” plus experience (in the natural world plus in the postulated “super-nature” or transcendent realm).

So, what is the proposed “solution”, or “resolution”, I mentioned in the heading? It is, not unexpectedly, difficult to explain. I believe that it is that, to be able to render the concept of determinism coherent, we would have to be outside “the system” of existence we are all in. Only a being outside of that would have the intellectual basis to observe that we are all determined beings, without free will. Since we are all inside, and not outside, nobody can get outside to make the consistent observation that we are all determined. We are trapped, “within the system”, and all have to make (what is at least a consistent assumption) that we are possessed of free-will. But all of us knowing that, at some level of reality beyond the one we have access to, we all have to be determined. In other words, we have no choice but to consider all of human-kind to have free will.

This has perhaps some similarities to the Godelian idea that mathematical systems are either incomplete or inconsistent. Only here we have a concept, “free will”, which cannot really be defined in a coherent manner, but one that we must necessarily assume exists. This appears to be a consistent approach, in that by symmetry everyone can assume everyone else has free will, knowing that our understanding of what it means is fuzzy and incomplete. The opposite position, that everyone is determined, is not a symmetrically consistent ‘solution”, since the person maintaining it would seem be excluding himself or herself as a determined being (since he/she would not have been free to use reason to arrive at that position). This is all an odd state of affairs, to be sure, but we know going in that it has to be, since philosophers have struggled with it with limited success for a good chunk of recorded history.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Story of the Blue Eyed Islanders

One of the most perplexing problems I have ever encountered is the infamous “Blue Eyed Islanders” puzzle. The perplexing aspect is a seeming paradox I will get to shortly, but the nominal solution involves straightforward induction, and is relatively easy to understand. It is possible that the story also has some applicability to more realistic human societeies.

The puzzle may be stated as follows:

There is a village where everyone has either blue eyes or brown eyes. Each person can see what eye color everyone else has, but each does not know the color of his or her own eyes. It is strictly forbidden for any islander to tell anyone else what color he/she has. If on a given day one happens to find out the color of ones own eyes, one must hurl oneself into the volcano at dawn the next day.One day an outsider comes to visit, a person who is known to always tell the truth. This person asserts for all to hear that “some of the people in this village have blue eyes”. Within a certain number of days, all in the village have killed themselves.The relatively easy parts of the puzzle are "why", and "when" does this happen?

Assume first that there is only one blue eyed person. He does not know that he has blue eyes until the fateful day of the outsider’s statement, but he does know that all of his fellow islanders have brown eyes. He thinks it is possible that he has brown eyes himself. But after the statement that there is at least one blue eyed person, he knows that it must be he himself, and the next day he commits “volcanacide”. If he were to see any other blue-eyed persons, he would not do himself in on the first dawn. So when the remaining brown eyed people see him do the deed, they all know that he saw all brown eyes, and thus they all have brown eyes. On the second dawn, they too jump into the fiery pit.

It is easy to see that if there were two blue-eyed persons, say Sam and Sara, each would think it possible that the other blue eyed person is the only one. But Sam sees that when Sara does not jump into the volcano upon the first dawn, he knows that he also has blue eyes, and on the second dawn Sam jumps in, and so does Sara, for exactly the same reasoning with regard to Sam. All the rest would jump in the third day, since they then deduce that they all have brown eyes, since evidently only Sam and Sara had the blue eyes the outsider noticed.

From induction, it follows that for a village population of N people, with X blue-eyed people and N-X brown eyed people, all of the blue eyed people will hurl themselves into the volcano X days after the outsider’s assertion. On day X+1, the brown eyed people will follow.The paradox is that every individual person in the village already knew, before the outsider’s visit, that there were some people in the village that have blue eyes (assuming that there was more than 1). They simply could see them, because if you were a blue, you’d see X-1 blues, if you were a brown, you’d see X blues. So what did the outsider tell them that they did not already know? That is, what specific new information did the outsider give them that led to the mass suicide of the village?

To illustrate this more concretely: What if there were 1000 villagers, 400 (say) with blue eyes. Before the outsiders visit and his unfortunate faux pas, each native knew that there were at least 399 blue eyed people on the island. Doesn’t it seem absurd that the statement that there is at least one would cause all 400 of the blue eyed people to hurl themselves to their doom on the 400th dawn, and the rest of the browns would follow on the 401st dawn? Thus, in this example, it would take over a year for the village society to cease to exist.

It seems that if one accepts logical induction, as surely one must, this surprising outcome must occur. The situation was stable before the outsiders made his observation, but the observation rendered that society unstable, and it rather quickly became extinct. It makes one wonder about possible applicability to more realistic human societies: could it be that some of the seemingly arbitrary taboos that have been put in place in various closed civilizations could somehow serve to stabilize them? In the example above, the particular taboo seems silly and unrealistic (and have they no mirrors or reflecting surfaces?). And even if an arbitrary taboo does bring about stability, we must also ask whether it involves a morally acceptable restriction, and if it is the only way that such stability could be achieved.

Perhaps the morale to this story is that there should be no taboos, but rather that human societies should be based on universal morality, that in turn is based on game theoretic reasoning such as is involved in the “prisoners dilemma” (this is really a sort of a generalized “golden rule”, wherein each person respects the rights of others to “live and let live”). But that is another tale, hopefully to come in a later blog.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Regarding putting a Muslim building close to the Twin Towers site

This has created quite an outcry from people who should know better. I simply do not get it. It was not Islam per se that did the terrible 9/11 crime, but rather a small number of Muslims. How anyone can want to pin a crime committed by a few members of a religion on all of their members just boggles the mind. Surely nobody would object to Catholics building a church close to where some slaughter of Belfast Protestants by Catholics (or vice versa) took place.

I often hear people say that they do not dispute the right of the Muslims to build there, they just think it is “insensitive”, or “in bad taste”. Why is that? Again, though it seems so obvious it shouldn’t even have to be said, most Muslims are not guilty of the attack on the World Trade Center. And while it is true that the United States is currently at war with two predominantly Muslim countries, we are of course not at war with the Islamic religion.

If the proposed mosque (or Islamic community center) were known to be an al Qaeda cell, or any group claiming to be responsible for the WTC attack, then the issue would be different (although one might feel even then that there is an advantage to keeping ones enemies in a known place where they can be more easily watched).

Assuming the property is owned and the project is funded by a Muslim institution, there are no conceivable grounds for preventing them, or even discouraging them, from building it. We should even be proud of having them from putting it there, as it is a clear demonstration of our basic rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, as well as the recognition of property rights. Maybe it will even serve as a good example to the many religiously dogmatic Muslim states.

Political opinion: gay marriage and marijuana

I don’t usually like to ponder politics much, but I cannot help this one. How could that California Proposition 8, about banning gay marriage, even get on a ballot? I do not understand how that could happen. Anything involving the basic rights of US citizens should not be decided by majority vote. This is why we have a republic, not a strict democracy. The rights of any minority group are protected from being violated by majority sentiments. The judge that ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional was definitely right.
I see in the various opinion forums and OpEd pages certain patterns in why some people oppose gay marriage.
The often used “slippery slope” argument, that allowing gay marriages opens the door to marriage among multiple individuals, to animals, to underage children, etc is ridiculous. Allowing gay marriage is better likened to repealing the laws against interracial marriage (some of which existed into the 1960’s I believe); that is, allowing individuals the freedom to pursue happiness and live and love the person of their choice.
People who counter that proposition 8 did allow civil unions between gay couples miss the point. There are financial advantages that are associated with the government recognizing the marriage relationship—to give just a single example, and probably far from the most important one in terms of the amount of money involved, the “married, filing jointly” option is an advantage in most cases in filing federal income taxes. And if such advantages are there for straight couples, it is wrong (discriminatory) to deny them to gay couples.
Further, anyone who can muster up much energy and enthusiasm for objecting to gay marriage is not only being wrongheaded, but also needs to “get a hobby”. There are real things out there to worry about, folks, and this is not one of them. One should “live and let live”.
One frequently hears or reads the argument that gay marriage will undermine the traditional marriage. Well, so what? The divorce rate associated with traditional marriage is very high, so I would say it has already been undermined, and in fact the institution of marriage is often hypocritical (a vow “Till death do us part” is now apparently uttered without conviction in many cases). But that said, I do not even see how gay marriage would even affect most married people. Are these people thinking that there will be some massive rush for heterosexuals to divorce, and marry members of their own sex?
I saw one letter to the editor in the local paper today that asserted that government should be concerned with stopping anything that “weakens the moral fiber of the nation”---or some such nonsense. Has this person never read anything about Nazi Germany? I have little doubt that that government would have considered that to be within its scope. No, worrying about something as nebulous as “the moral fiber of the nation” is most certainly not the role of the government. The State, according to the philosophy of the “founding fathers” and the US constitution, is limited to securing and protecting the rights of the individual. I have to add that there is something really revolting about denying an individual the right of an association with a loved one for some dubious and vague purpose such as the “moral fiber of the nation”.
Here is a practical reason why everyone should support gay marriage: given that males tend to be polygamous, whether heterosexual or homosexual, the institution of marriage has a tendency to minimize (not eliminate, of course) promiscuity. So, if marriage is available to gay male couples, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases would be very likely to decrease in frequency.
Many of the letters to the editors of the media seem to confuse the strictures of their religious beliefs with what should be binding legally. But no!---remember the separation of church and state principle---you must differentiate between what you believe God approves of, and what the US government allows. This seems so obvious to me that I really do not have the energy to elaborate on it much.

And what’s up with this widespread stupidity in Colorado of trying to get the medical marijuana dispensaries shut down? What hypocrisy, since my suspicion is that many of these objectors use alcohol, tobacco, coffee, etc. I do not have the facts at my fingertips, but am certain that from a practical standpoint—which by the way is not the only, or even the main, consideration here---that liquor causes much more socially negative behavior and damage than marijuana does. It is odd---I would have thought that as the generation older than baby boomers begins to fade (I hate to say, “die off”), that people would come to their senses and stop the idiotic “war on drugs”. Of course, I believe the first order principle involved here is that it is not the business of the government to tell us what we can and what we cannot imbibe (of course, it should be a crime to drive on public roads while under the influence of alcohol or drugs).
Wouldn’t a great many of the human caused ills in the world be greatly mitigated if people would learn to just mind their own business, and to take a “live and let live” attitude. But, it seems that very hard for us humans to do.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Some Philosophical Musings

Consider the concept of the “multi-verse” . There are, of course many other equivalent, or at least closely related theories, such as “parallel universes theory”, “the many worlds interpretation”, etc. (the wikipedia site just referenced has some good descriptions of these related ideas). But all of them, as far as I can tell, do not admit of any kind of empirical verification, and hence it is dubious to consider them science. One almost wonders if this kind of speculation should be considered “religion”, since I suspect a strong motivation for it is to avoid the implications of this universe seeming to be the product or creation of some kind of mind (whether a deity, deities, or something not yet even imagined by humankind).
Now, I am not saying that the existence of parallel worlds is necessarily wrong, just that we will never know if it is right or not. It is beyond the methods of science. Perhaps this is a good example of how something like “Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem” has applicability applies to physics and metaphysics as well as to mathematics. That is, there may be truths that can not be broached by the scientific method.
Perhaps this seems a “duh”—but I don’t think it is, because I often find that people imply that ideas that can be shown to be unverifiable are thereby false. Now maybe it is rational to decide that we can’t know whether they are true of false, and therefore decide that they do not matter in our practical everyday lives.

I noted with interest the other day that the Templeton Foundation offers grants to study and make progress on the subject of “Free Will”.
How, I wonder, would one propose to investigate that? I am inclined to think that most people, and even many philosophers, do not fully realize the deep mysteries and paradoxes involved in this subject. Determinism in some form seems inescapable, but impractical, since it seems we cannot act upon it, and we all assume that we are not determined. Indeed, the assumption of absolute determinism seems to render absurd any of moral notions, and hence any kind of blame or punishment. Everyone learns in a college “Ethics 101” that “ought implies can” (a Google search on this phrase will bring up thousands of hits on the topic).
The odd thing is that we cannot coherently specify what the concept of “free will” would even mean. It seems that everything a system does is either the result of its physical makeup (i.e., for animals, genes), external forces, or previously stored information (this latter being the result of delayed external forces). And yet, we all assume in practice, even the “deterministic philosophers”, that we have free will. I am inclined to say that we “know” that we do. This is an odd thing, that there seem to be two all inclusive opposites, free will and determinism, and yet neither seems quite right. Is there some “third way” out of this that no one has yet thought of?

When we ask, “Why is there Something and not Nothing” are we committing a fallacy of sorts? (Again, one gets thousands of hits with a Google search on this phrase, so there are a lot of us that wonder about this question.)
Within our experience, that is, within the part of the universe that we inhabit, we have observed that when something is “there”---that is, in some region of space and time---then there is some reason for it to be there. Someone has put there, some inanimate object has knocked it there, and so on. But can such a cause and effect relationship be expected to hold for “Existence Itself”? No, from a purely rational perspective, it seems we must accept the fact of existence as axiomatic. But this will never satisfy most of us psychologically. And, along the lines of the “multi-verse” idea mentioned above, it may be that there is a reason for “Why is there something and not nothing”, it is just that we can never know, using any kind of exploration or verification methods we have, what that reason is.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Universe as an example of Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking? Nah!

Though I doubt if anyone could really believe what I am going to speculate about here, it is perhaps an interesting idea. Let me add that I may not have thought of this myself, but may well have read about it in some of the speculative cosmology and physics books.
In answer to the famous question “Why is there something and not nothing?” might we suppose that it is an example of what in modern physics is called “Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking” (SSB)?
SSB is a simple but elegant idea, and is usually illustrated by the image of a pencil balanced on its tip over a flat surface. The pencil of course wants to fall to a position of lower potential energy, and when released it will “choose’ an angle to fall to on the flat surface. Note that the initial position on its tip is perfectly cylindrically symmetric about the axis of the pencil (make the idealization that the surface is infinite and perfectly flat and smooth, and the pencil is perfectly symmetric about its axis). But—here is the odd thing---the later, lower energy, state of the pencil is not cylindrically symmetric.
In physics terms, one says that “the ground state of the system does not have the symmetry of the dynamical expression that describes the initial state of the system (technically, this expression is called the Hamiltonian of the system).
Other more complex examples of SSB are ferromagnetic alignment when a sample of iron is cooled below the Curie temperature, and the Higgs Boson that will be sought after by experiments on the LHC. But these will not be considered in this short note.
The point is, imagine a “state of nothingness”. Well, ha ha, we probably really can’t, but maybe we can at least try. In any case, it would seem that a state of nothing possesses a high degree of symmetry: No direction in space could be defined (even if there were space), no angles or orientations can be imagined, etc. In fact, it seems that “nothing” represents perfect symmetry in every sense. Now the actual physical Universe does not seem to be as symmetric as “a state of nothing” is symmetric. Could it be that in some sense, “a state of nothing” involves a tension, an energy, that is just not stable, and it must “fall” (in some unimaginably complex hyperspace) to a lower energy consisting of a bunch of random stuff—i.e., a vast collection of matter and energy, a Universe? Well, as I said at the outset, I can’t buy this, but it is at least an amusing speculation.

Monday, April 26, 2010

About the Healing Power of Music --Part 3 (of 3)

We may also divide music into fun levels and serious, soul feeding levels. For example, ragtime can be really catchy and fun, but does it suggest deep metaphysical connections? Early rock n roll is fun for me, but not suggestive of depth. Of course, my guess is that not everyone wants to hear depth in music---maybe some find it depressing or even existentially terrifying.

Certain forms of music can have a mathematical aspect, which can be especially appealing to those of us inclined toward math appreciation. Indeed, the opposite could be claimed, namely that to some of us mathematics itself can have an aesthetic component. Equations and proofs can strike some of us a very beautiful, and can excite wonder. But admittedly the person for whom this is the case is probably in the minority. The music of Bach comes to mind here---indeed, I believe that late in his life Bach did join a mathematical society, and provided a fugue or a round as his requisite mathematical work.

I think another level involved in appreciating music is just an appreciation of the level of virtuosity required to play it. Classical piano has an obvious athletic appeal when certain spectacularly difficult and fast pieces are played, such as “the Bumble Boogie”, many of Chopin’s Polonaises, or Liszt’s virtuoso pieces. Or think of Paganini’s music for the violin, which appears almost impossibly difficult. Of course, a great many other virtuoso showpieces by numerous composers could be mentioned. But are such pieces reaching us emotionally and in terms of pure music?

Yet another consideration is whether music, to be appreciated in some ways or at some levels, needs to be uplifting or healing. In a way that is analogous to tragedy in the theater arts, perhaps dark “depressing” music has an essential place in the musical palette of some of us. Of course, it can be argued that while such music is superficially a “downer”, it may on the whole have a positive effect on the listener that seeks it out, just as tragedy does in literature and the other s arts.

To return to one the original questions about what kinds of music are useful in “music therapy”, I think all of the above considerations tend to show that the topic is very complex. In particular, people who merely assume without much thought that “music is healing”, or that “music is uplifting”, have probably not thought through all of the issues. And I suggest that a “one size fits all” attitude to the music therapy issue is as ridiculous as assuming that one particular medicine would cure all the various forms of sickness and ailments that human being can have. Just as in the case with any treatment--medicinal, surgical, or otherwise---the music that might help a given patient will depend on many factors, particularly that individuals tastes, as well as the patients mood, context, and condition at a given time.

Me, I find music indispensable, and certain forms bring enormous joy to my life. But by no means do I love “all kinds of music”, and I strongly suspect that few, if any, really do, in spite of the frequently heard claim.

To sum up, the appreciation of music is a highly subjective and complicated thing. For some of us, music represents the noblest and holiest art form available to us in this world. It can obsess us, and seem to be something we cannot imagine living without. For others, it seems to be primarily a form of pleasantry, something to provide an ambience, or a badge of showing what social group we identify with. Music therapy is likely; it seems to me, to be most effective with the former type.

About the Healing Power of Music --Part 2 (of 3)

For me, the ultimate music is that of Johann Sebastian Bach. And of course there have been many claims by music therapists that his music is somehow almost mystically healing. I recall back in the 60’s and 70’s there were claims made that plants grew more lushly when Bach was played in the air around them. I was always skeptical of this, but suppose I liked the idea from a poetical standpoint. Websites claiming this can still be found (1,2).
(Interestingly, both of the above sites claim that both Bach and Indian sitar music were most effective an enhancing plant growth.)

The music therapist Andrew Weill has written a book about what composers (in the “classical” realm) are effective for healing purposes and which ones are not. Bach along with Mozart and Brahms are composers he seems to find effective for therapy and healing of body and spirit.

But I have number of very good friends who do not seem to enjoy Bach’s music at all. A frequent claim from some of them, which I find astonishingly incomprehensible, is that they find it mechanical. I had another friend, an older gentleman that flew planes in WW II, that even went so far as to claim that Bach’s music was “noise”.

And think not for a minute that a person has to be Christian or even religious to greatly appreciate Bach—prominent atheist Richard Dawkins has asserted that Bach’s St Matthew passion is the one work that he would take with him to a desert island, were he forced to choose only one piece (in BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs )

I know some of my friends and colleagues find “new age” music soothing and relaxing. Though I have heard exceptions, generally I find music that falls within this genre tiresome and even irritating. It tends to stay on the same harmony for too long, and generally involves an unacceptable (to me) degree of repetition of phrases and themes. So for example, if I were confined to a hospital bed, and were to be subjected to this type of music, I imagine my health and general disposition would deteriorate rapidly.

Another aspect of this issue we must consider is the time interval of subjection factor. To take an example from my personal experience: I will frequently turn the XM dial to the bluegrass station (channel 14 at the present time), and become quite enthused and emotional for some interval of time. Typically 20 to 30 minutes. But after that time, the appeal of it will tend to lessen, and I’ll change to another station (or quite often decide silence is the best environment within the car---such as it is in city driving).

So, generalizing recklessly, I suggest that there are forms of music that may appeal to a given person for some interval of time, but not for an indefinite time. For example, one often hears another person say something like, I enjoy listening to bluegrass (or bagpipes, or pipe organ, or flamenco guitar , etc) for a short time (e.g., maybe 20 to 30 minutes), but after that it all starts sounding the same to me, and loses its punch or appeal.

The social context necessarily enters into ones appreciation and dislike of a certain form. For example, I suspect that “country” music has a strong socio-economic correlation. The life style, tending towards a “red neck” one, that tends to be represented in C&W is something that not all of us city bred folk can relate to. The same thing probably works in reverse with regard to classical or jazz, i.e., people whose live contexts are primarily rural and/or blue collar may find it difficult to relate to these forms, because they tend to (perhaps in some cases rightly) associate the followers of those styles with “elitists” and even pretentious snobs. I realize I am generalizing outrageously, and there are a great many exceptions on both sides of the equation. The point I am trying to make is that the life style and context of a person’s life is probably statistically correlated to what kinds of music they like. This is perhaps strongest in connection with rap and hip-hop, where the music has originated in a black inner city context. That the lyrics are often obscene and violently racist is a further turn off to a lot of people that live outside of that environment.

Do people sometimes posture as liking a kind of music that places them in a desirable (in their mind) group? I suspect that yes, this is often the case. Maybe classical music would in fact be a good example here, where an appearance of being interested in “long hair” music can easily be associated with being “intellectual” and a member of the social elite.

Nostalgia plays a very key role, I am sure. For example, when I hear Rock a Billy or pre 1965 black blues, I am thrown back to my youth. Would I love that music if I were hearing it for the first time, with no memory involved? I don’t know (but I am guessing that I would love the pre 1965 black blues—it had an immediate appeal to me as a teen, in spite of it not being a mainstream, popular (among suburban white kids) form.

We must also consider the situation that one is in. If I am driving in heavy traffic, it is not a good time to appreciate an intense, deep form of music such as a Bach organ fugue. The harp music of the Irish bard Turlough O’Carolan can evoke wonder and imaginative images, but it will not be likely to do so if I am having a cavity drilled in the dentist chair. Maybe the deepest music requires a context where on can be in repose.

Yet another aspect of music that might affect ones judgment of it is the physical. That is, the timbre and tone and volume of the particular musical style or piece. Examples: some love the Scottish bagpipes, while many profess to hate them. Doubtless there are cultural associations at work too, but it is likely that the physical characteristics of the bagpipes sound, even when well played (maybe especially when well played, ), offends some ears. In my case, while I love the bagpipes, I could probably not enjoy listening to solo pipes for more than about 30 minutes or so. The effect, pleasing and exciting at first, begins to pall after a time. I know people who dislike the sound of the pipe organ---the opposite of me, as I love it with a passion---but perhaps the sound causes some kind of unpleasant resonance effect in their ear drums, precluding any enjoyment of the composition itself. The guitar is an instrument that, assuming it is reasonably well played and, most importantly, in tune, appeals strongly to me in all of its various forms. Even a piece of “new age” music, if not too heavy on monotonous repetition or simplistic harmony, can have some appeal for me. So if I am typical, certain instruments have an inherent appeal simply because of their physical characteristics, such as overtones, volume etc. I must add a personal note: I had not thought much about this until writing this essay, but in my case there are not really any conventional instruments that rub me badly. But there are certain ones that tend to inherently appeal more to me: the classical guitar, the organ, the piano, the lute, the fiddle (played in folk styles such as Celtic and bluegrass), the trumpet (in a bebop or post bop style), the saxophone (in rock n roll or bebop like Charlie Parker), the pipes (Irish or Scottish), the Irish flute, the cello, the harp (folk or classical), the oboe, the clarinet, and the harpsichord. Instruments that tend to have a more limited appeal (in spite of there being appealing musical pieces using them) are the flute (the classical metal one), drums (in isolation from pitched instruments).

(continued in Part 3)

About the Healing Power of Music--Part 1 (of 3)

What kinds of music are healing, what kinds of music are uplifting, or pleasing in various (sometimes subtle) ways. This is a topic of some interest, not only to me, but to many people in the field of, for example, “music therapy”. It is of immediate and pressing interest to me at the present time, being involved as I am in playing music for patients in hospitals and sometimes even for hospice patients. I want to be assured that the music I play (on classical guitar) helps them, and above all, is not hurtful to them in any way.

Of course, the issue of the effects of music on people is of practical monetary interest to such groups as the advertising agencies, since usually music accompanies an ad, and they want it too be effective---and this certainly means, at the very least, not annoying to the potentially buying public. Also, restaurant owners would seem to have an interest in the issue, since most restaurants today use “background music” (in some, such as the typical “TGIF” watering hole, it is not even background, but often “in your face”, making it difficult to converse). But I will not be concerned with such commercial issues, only more or less with the therapeutic aspect.

I believe that the simple truth is that we in the western world hear too much music today. What with iPod’s, MP3 players, iTunes, Pandora, XM radio, Youtube, plus the usual fm & am radio and the easy availability of music CD’s, it is almost impossible to find a public place where some kind of music is not being played.

So what is “too much music”? I would suggest it is analogous to what a life of constant nibbling on snacks does to the enjoyment of good food---it tends to minimize its effect, reduces its enjoyment, and most people actually tend to “tune it out”. A shame really, as this means that too many people today are losing the ability to really get a big bang out of music.

Contrast this with what surely must have been the situation throughout most of human history, certainly prior to the advent of electronic recording media, where music was necessarily restricted to live performances. For example, somewhere I read classical guitarist/composer Andrew York’s poignant speculation about a rural person in the 1500’s making a trip into a city, and happening to pass by the outside of a cathedral from whence the practicing of a choir could be heard. York imagined that the person had never heard such music in his/her life, stood transfixed for a few moments, and for the rest of his/her life would savor and never forgot that experience. A poignant image, although hard to imagine ourselves in that situation today.

Of course, the music we hear now is a mixture of music we choose---such as that we might listen to in our car’s CD player or on our ipod—and music we do not choose, such as what is played in airport lounges, restaurants, gyms, etc. In the latter case, the music is quite often, and dubiously in my opinion, functioning as “background music”, and is not always intended to be listened to that way one would be expected to listed to a symphonic or jazz concert. Exceptions here are cases where the music is at such a strong volume that it is not easily possible to tune it out, and in fact can be difficult to converse with associates over the music. And rock concerts, in my experience e, far exceed even that level, and may require the use of ear plugs to reduce the sound level to non-painful levels. (I admit to be completely contemptuous of this latter phenomenon, which seems the height of irrationality---seeking out and paying for experiencing music at levels that can permanently damage or degrade ones capability for fully hearing music in the future).

Is there ever a place for background music, we might wonder? Actually, maybe---for me, certain forms of jazz can be effective. But since we all differ in what we consider acceptable and unacceptable forms of jazz, even that would seem to restrict its use to situation involving persons of like tastes (such as might happen at a private party).

Some forms of music can be relatively controversial, such as rap or hip-hop (I know some will immediately say that “that is not music”, but rather a form of rhythmic chanting---I disagree, and do recognize it as qualifying as music in the general sense of the word).

Musical forms exist today in an amazing variety. One cannot even sensibly speak of classical, jazz, rock, and folk, as there are dozens or even hundreds of sub genres and nuances within each of these broad labels. I am always amused, and privately very skeptical when people give the common reply, when asked what kind of music they like, “I like all kinds of music”. In the first place, I am pretty sure they do not, and in the second place it is unlikely that they have any idea what exactly “all kinds of music” involves. I am sure I do not.

The Onion has spoofed this “I like all kinds of music” response . And by the way, a google search on “I like all kinds of music’ will bring up a great number of interesting blogs and discussion forums, most of them seemingly poking fun at the people that make this statement. I am not the only one that is skeptical about that oh-so-common claim.

But surely most everyone today has heard, whether they explicitly realize it or not, a great many kinds of music. Maybe some of it was in the background, and was largely unheard consciously.

I want to suggest that most people really like some small set of musical types, perhaps 4 or 5 genres that they might actively seek out. How do I think this is plausible? Well, partly based on my perusal of friends and acquaintances “shared iTunes libraries”, where I usually see a mixture of folk and rock with a bit of light classics thrown in. Admittedly, this is based on very limited “statistics”, so I am indeed going out on a limb here. But this is really not my main pointy that I want to make—rather I want to say that it is probably rare to find two people with exactly the same palette of musical genres that they actively collect and listen too by choice. And I suspect that in general, persons A and B chosen at random would probably find that some of the genres in each others palette are mutually agreeable, while some are neutral, and quite a few positively annoying.

If I am right about this, it raises some doubts about the general efficacy of “music therapy”. Are there, let me ask, forms of music that virtually everyone would fine agreeable, let alone profoundly uplifting and “healing”. Maybe there are, but I am not sure.
(to be continued in Part 2)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Two kinds of intelligent design

Today, there is a strange movement afoot referred to as “Intelligent Design” (ID). I say strange because the motivation behind it is to me not so clear. It appears to be culturally related to the earlier and very dubious “young-earth creationist” movement. But whereas one could perhaps understand (but not condone) the theological motivation behind that (shifting the blame apparently for animal suffering from God to mankind’s “fall”), I wonder what the motivation is for this newer movement?

Well, I know that it focuses on claiming that certain animal cells or parts could not have evolved in the gradual manner that Darwinian evolution postulates. Simply put, a principle of evolution is that for a trait or organ to evolve in stages, it must represent an advantage to organisms at each stage along the line. For example, for an eye to evolve, partial light sensitivity must be useful for organisms in the lineage (and I think it is easy to imagine that it would be useful to have even a very slight degree of light sensitivity). I believe that the flagellum is one example of “irreducible complexity” that ID proponents use, and I do not pretend to know anything about these biological systems, I find it dubious on the surface to argue that some trait can not have evolved gradually just because it isn’t clear how it could have. A great deal of info can be found on the web about this controversy, but most of it seems to claim that there are plausible ways that it could have evolved in the gradual way that Darwinism requires.

From a theological angle, what does this “biological ID” solve? If young earth creationism tried to provide a way around the “problem of pain” in the animal world, this latter form seems to do nothing of the kind. Animals would seem to have still killed each other and suffered long before man appeared on the scene (it is my impression that the ID movement does not dispute the billions of years old earth idea).

For my part, I think it very likely that Darwinian Evolution (in the modern post gene discovery era where it is called Neo-Darwinism) can account for all of the life forms, given that life somehow started. Now whether we will ever fully understand how exactly living forms got started, I do not know, but again my strong suspicion is that life did begin in some natural manner. I do not believe this in a dogmatic sense, but I would be surprised if it were not true. Proving it to be true is another manner, and, short of actually producing life from non-life, it is possible that we never will.

But I want to distinguish what might be considered a different kind of ID from te biological version, one that wonders if the physical universe is somehow designed by (in some sense) an enormously subtle intelligence. It could be something like a “God”, though by no means necessarily the type of God that the world’s theistic religions imagine. Or it could be a collection or panel of supernatural beings, or some kind of entities that we cannot even possibly imagine or grasp. The point is, there might be conscious agency involved in designing the laws of the universe. Suppose that the emergence of life was designed to an inevitable outcome from the initial conditions of the Big Bang, for example. It would not be necessary to imagine that a particular form of life (such as humans) might have been foreseen by the designer---indeed perhaps the chaotic, unpredictable nature of things required something like evolution to eventually produce life forms that are conceptually aware. In this view, there could be countless billions of intelligent life forms scattered through the universe, or there could be just one (us). We have no data on this.

One can imagine hundreds of variations on this idea, some involving the eventual spreading of consciousness throughout the universe. As numerous speculative science writers have pointed out, this could be the reason for the universe having “life built into it from the git-go”.

I do not, of course, know if this any of cosmological ID is actually true, or even close to the truth. I must confess that it does seem highly plausible to me that something like it is true. But I do want to point out that such a position might be called a form of ID—perhaps, “cosmological ID” would be an apt term for it—and that it would be vastly more plausible and respectable than the position represented in the current ID movement.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The different views about Consciousness

One of the hottest areas in philosophy today (based on the number of books about it) seems to be the “mind body” problem, which I believe is closely related to the study of consciousness. That is, how exactly does the conscious mind interact with the body and make it act? What causes that mysterious subjective sense of self, the feeling of “what it is like to be somebody”? Of course, this is not just an area of philosophy, but merges in many ways with psychology, neuroscience, and perhaps even quantum mechanics (or perhaps I should say the philosophy of quantum theory).

In doing quite a bit of reading on the subject as a layman, I believe we can see several distinct ways of thinking about it.

Behaviorism, perhaps not so important or widely held today, tended to ignore or even deny the phenomena of consciousness, essentially arguing that it is not an important aspect of behavior. Actually, I can sympathize with this position up to a point, in that consciousness is not an observable, and the behaviorist position, interpreted to mean that we should concentrate on aspects of reality that permit observation, seems to have much going for it. However, denying that consciousness exists, and denying that it likely has evolved for an important reason, seems foolish to me. Not that some kind of stimulus and response mechanism isn’t responsible for a lot of what causes some, or even most, human behavior. I suspect that it can go along way toward explaining much of it. It is just that it’s not the whole thing. Surely the quality of consciousness does affect some actions, for why else would it have evolved? Some have argued it is an “epiphenomena”, that is, something that has come about accidentally, that serves no real purpose. But it seems to me that nature does not waste effort in that way. Any trait that is there is there for a reason. Maybe the behaviorist would argue that it is there simply to make the animals that have it feel better about themselves, and perhaps, at the human level, to rationalize what they have done.

Reductionism, or materialism---the view that consciousness will be explained and even artificially created eventually (e.g., via AI or neural net techniques). This view rejects attributing any kind of mysterious aspect to consciousness, and argues that it is simply a quality brought about by natural selection that will soon be completely understood. Leading proponents of this viewpoint, at least in the popular press, have been Daniel Dennett, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Hofstadter. Probably a majority of today's philosophers and evolutionary biologists would be in substantial agreement with them, so this is probably the mainstream academic position, though no doubt there are many variations and nuances within the broader camp. Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis could be viewed as the quintessential argument for this perspective, maybe along with Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. In this view, consciousness does affect action, and in fact that is just why it has evolved, because it helps the organisms that have it survive and procreate, thus getting their genes into the gene pool. This school of thought also suggests that consciousness may have evolved because of the value to survival of there being an agent within the organism that cares what happens to it. I find this way of thinking plausible, but tend to go more with the next group.

The New Mysterians---people who argue that consciousness will never be understood, usually from the point of view that we do not have the mental capacities to solve the problem, and that furthermore, consciousness is entirely subjective and hence not amenable to scientific exploration. In this camp would be Roger Penrose, Martin Gardner, and David Chalmers, to name but a few. Even though I am a great admirer of, and largely a follower of, Dawkins, Crick, and Dennett, my sympathies tend to lie with these New Mysterians. I suspect those of the reductionist persuasion tend to be suspicious of religious motives in this camp, and that is quite possibly the case, in a sense. I think it depends on what exactly is meant by “religion”. I myself would confess to an inkling that there is something mysterious and other worldly about the existence of the “finely tuned” universe and the emergence of conscious observers within it. But that is a far cry from believing that the God of any of the world’s present religions is responsible in any way for it. Some in this broad school of thought would hold that quantum mechanics, with all of its strange entanglements, ghostly wave functions, and bizarre uncertainties may be involved, and would present a barrier to ever fully understanding consciousness. Some would argue that consciousness is even more fundamental that the existence of an objective world, something that certain interpretations of quantum mechanics would seem to support.
The New Mysterians seem more inclined than the other two branches to consider the moral implications of the non-observable nature of consciousness. For example, somewhere Penrose asks if it is moral to turn off a computer system that has passed the Turing test and hence might be regarded as being conscious, this dilemma in part arising for the very fact that consciousness is not observable.

Tied in with the mind-body problem and the nature of consciousness is the issue of whether the will is free. The first two camps would say no, while the third, the New Mysterians, would tend to argue that we can never understand the sense in which we are free or determined. While acknowledging that free will seems meaningless, since action must be caused by a combination of genes and experience, the view that it is caused only by those two mechanisms also leads to paradoxes. For example, the argument of a determinist is under cut and rendered invalid if the argument itself is caused by those factors. A sort of “garbage in, garbage out” argument.

To be continued in a later blog entry.