In his third lecture on the philosophy of life and death, Shelly Kagan begins presenting and refuting arguments for the existence of a supernatural or immaterial soul, or what he calls the "dualist perspective". He explains that one argument for the dualist perspective is that a supernatural or immaterial soul is required to explain the sorts of capacities that humans exhibit. He then appeals to technological advances, particularly computers and robots, to demonstrate that many of the capacities attributed to humans are already exhibited in bodies to which we do not attribute dualist natures. He ends by mentioning that he'll explore in the next lecture whether computers or robots might have the capacity for emotion. I agree with the ideas he expresses in this lecture, although I do think there is plenty of room for natural material spirits that are a subset of the total information that makes up a person. In particular, I anticipate, as it appears he does, that computers and robots will prove capable of exhibiting all of the characteristics that we now associate with persons. On the other hand, I also think it makes sense to talk about computers and robots having spirits, already primitive and forming in the causal information stream that is leading to their eventual emergence as full persons. Frankly, that's what I think we are: spiritual machines -- to steal a label from Kurzweil.
by Lincoln Cannon at 5/23/2009 05:18:00 PM
In a study at Bright University, a majority of test subjects given a particular pattern of brain stimulation had full-blown dog experiences. Such research is shedding light on the chemical reactions that take place in the brain when people feel they are encountering dogs.
by Lincoln Cannon at 5/17/2009 03:13:00 PM
Some have criticized Mormon Transhumanists, or even scientific- and technologically-leaning Mormons generally, as "looking beyond the mark" and not relying enough on faith, grace, priesthood, revelation, spirituality, God or something else presupposed to be at odds with science and technology. This criticism is entirely inconsistent with Mormonism, as I discuss a bit more in this post. First, here is an example of such criticism, originally posted as an anonymous comment on "The 'Mormon Transhumanist' Problem":
"While I believe your application of moral value to the advancement of technology is noble and somewhat intellectually enticing. However this technologically enhanced or assisted approach to doing the work of the Lord offers little more than interesting fantasies and logical exercises (which by the way are very impressive).
"Transfiguration and resurrection has been and will continue to take place without the assistance of scientific technology. It is done through the power of the priesthood. Yes, science is trying to discover and even counterfeit the works that have been done by the priesthood.
"Speaking heart to heart, I just think you are barking up the wrong tree here. I'd focus on what can be done by commanding the elements to combine etc. through righteous exercising of the priesthood. We know that illness is eradicated, we know that people are brought back to life, we know that the earth was created by the power of the priesthood coupled with faith. If you want to explore some of the deepest mysteries focus your attention on the principles on which faith and personal revelation operate.
"Again, It is these principles that make things occur. Science allows us to appreciate them all the more but focus on the basics. Priesthood power, faith and revelation.
"I am afraid you might be looking beyond the mark on this one. Stick to what the living Prophets have asked us to do note the respective proportions by which they invite us to do so. Yes we need to continue our knowledge and learning but be careful of the spiritual death trap of those who think they are wise. Again, don't look beyond the mark."
Are priesthood, faith and revelation sufficient for providing general conference to a worldwide church membership? Only if technology is considered a manifestation of priesthood, faith and revelation. How about the missionary effort or work for the dead? We simply could not scale them as we presently do without the assistance of technology. Do you carry a mobile phone? Is that compatible with relying on revelation? How about the use of the Internet? Why did you not merely pray that I would understand your differing perspective? Why did you leverage technology?
In the Bible, James clearly articulates the essential nature of the relation between spirituality and technology:
"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" (James 2: 14-20)
"Works" encompasses technology. Although Mormons value faith healing, we do not reject medical technology because we understand them to be compatible. Although Mormons value revelation, we do not reject communications technology because we understand them to be compatible. As Mormons, we have a long and well substantiated history of embracing technology, as all works, to empower our vision of the future. We do this while simultaneously recognizing that all the works in the world will never be sufficient without the grace of God, yet the grace of God likewise depends on us doing what we can.
It is not looking beyond the mark to consider science as inspiration from God, or technology as an endowment from God. To the contrary, the expression "looking beyond the mark", comes from a passage of scripture that criticizes precisely the opposite of embracing science and technology. The expression is used in the Book of Mormon, Jacob 4: 14, as an assessment of religious persons who want mysteries rather than plainness. The passage says such persons will lose plainness and receive that which they cannot understand, causing them to stumble in blindness according to their desires.
by Lincoln Cannon at 5/14/2009 05:50:00 PM
A couple months ago, my wife and I started taking resveratrol, a dietary supplement that appears to be effecting significantly extended and healthier life spans in mice and monkeys. Results have not yet been verified in humans, but here's a video segment from 60 minutes that may intrigue you.
by Lincoln Cannon at 5/12/2009 07:47:00 PM
At a recent LDS Church meeting for young adults, Elder David A Bednar commented on technology (thanks to Michael Ferguson for pointing this out). Here is an approximate transcript of a portion of his talk:
"We live in a time when technology can be used to replicate reality, to augment reality, and to create virtual reality. A medical doctor can gain valuable experience to learn a surgical operation without ever putting a patient at risk . . . However, please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, earbuds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person to person communication . . . If the adversary cannot entice us to misuse our physical bodies, then one of his most potent tactics is to beguile you and me as embodied spirits to disconnect gradually from things as they really are. In essence, he encourages us to think and act as if we were in our premortal, unembodied state."
While there is much in this talk worth discussing, I'd like to call your attention to the last sentence in the excerpt I've quoted. In those words, Bednar suggests equating information-based activities with the activities of unembodied spirits. If you're not Mormon, that may sound nonsensical, but it makes a lot of sense from a Mormon perspective, which holds that even spirit is material. Put another way, spirit IS information; and, like all information, spirit requires a substrate -- spirit is material in the same way information is material. In my view, this is not a hypothetical; it is a definition, or mapping into secular terms, of the word "spirit". An influential hypothetical among philosophers is that our minds (the pattern or process of information that is our identity) may be substrate independent. In other words, we may be able to preserve our minds on a new substrate even if our present body dies. The ramifications of this hypothetical, if true, are exciting for those of us who find esthetic and moral value in the religious ideas of transfiguration and resurrection, or secular ideas such as the Simulation Argument. These ramifications are explored in more detail in the New God Argument.
by Lincoln Cannon at 5/07/2009 08:24:00 PM
In this lecture, Shelly Kagan talks about life and death, as well as persons, in black and white terms. However, are there degrees of life and death? Are there degrees of consciousness? Are there degrees of identity? He also talks about the death process in linear terms: a person gradually breaks down at a linear rate; and, at a certain point, the person dies. However, could the break down be exponential, and thereby provide only an appoximation of black and white death in our unaided human observation? Finally, Shelly focuses on dualism and physicalism, associating dualism with immaterialism and physicalism with materialism. In doing so, he overlooks the idea of substrate independence, which is neither dualism nor physicalism, as he describes them. Could we be entirely material, having minds that are dependent on physical substrates generally, yet not dependent on any particular physical substrate? Could our minds be physical degrees of abstraction, like an atom is a physical degree of abstraction? And how distributed might a substrate-independent person be across even its environment and other persons? Shelly is setting up his lectures with definitions of life and persons that are too black and white.
by Lincoln Cannon at 5/07/2009 07:34:00 PM
I've begun watching Shelley Kagan's lectures on the "Philosophy of Life and Death" via Academic Earth, which links to thousands of video lectures from the world's top scholars. In this set of lectures, Shelley argues for the following perspective: "I'm going to try to convince you that there is no soul. Immortality would not be a good thing. Fear of death isn't actually an appropriate response to death. Suicide, under certain circumstances, might be rationally and morally justified." My initial reaction to his perspective is that I'll probably disagree with his definition of "soul" and "immortality", but that I'll probably agree with his assessment of these matters, given his definitions. If you watch the video, just watch the beginning -- about a third of the way through the lecture, he moves on to class business matters.
by Lincoln Cannon at 5/01/2009 03:28:00 AM
Susan Blackmore gave the following TED Talk on memes in February 2008. I agree with her application of the evolution paradigm to replicators beyond genes; however, I disagree with the way she interprets the ramifications (more on that below).
First, when she says (or quotes from someone else) that memes, like genes, result in design out of chaos without the aid of mind, what does she mean by "mind"? What if mind IS evolution at a rapid rate? Or what if mind is to memes as environment is to genes? Either way, it appears that universal darwinism may be understood as being dependent on mind quite as easily as it may be understood as being independent of mind. Maybe our genes are to God as our memes are to us? Or maybe temes are to God, as memes are to individuals, as genes are to anatomy? Something along these lines seems quite as plausible as the arbitrary claim that mind is not involved in any of this. Again, what is mind?
Second, I don't understand why she thinks non-human animals imitate hardly at all. On first hearing this claim, my initial impression is that she doesn't know what she's talking about. Here's one of a huge number of examples that come to mind quickly: parrots are the archetypical imitators. Why would they not be considered meme carriers?
Third, I disagree with the perspective she expressed with these words: "we think we're choosing these things, but the temes are making us do it" (by the way, in her view, temes are to memes as memes are to genes). Of course, she would express the same sentiment regarding memes and genes. They MAKE us do things. We don't choose. From such a perspective, there may be no choice whatsoever. Yet we all experience choice. How is that? Some say we're deceiving ourselves. Those who say so are holding dogmatically to a particular understanding of "choice". Others, like me, simply say: I know I choose -- and I'm curious to understand better what that means (whether or not genes, memes and temes end up playing a role in my understanding).