Monthly Archives: April 2008

Zombie Responses

Continuation ofZombies! Zombies?

I’m a bit tired today, having stayed up until 3AM writing yesterday’s >6000-word post on zombies, so today I’ll just reply to Richard, and tie up a loose end I spotted the next day.

Besides, TypePad’s nitwit, un-opt-out-able 50-comment pagination "feature", that doesn’t work with the Recent Comments sidebar, means that we might as well jump the discussion here before we go over the 50-comment limit.

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Brownlee on Selling Anxiety

Shannon Brownlee in the Post on drug companies inventing new diseases:

It turns out that much of what we — and our doctors — think we know about many health problems has been shaped by drugmakers and their marketers. … Osteoporosis and osteopenia aren’t really diseases. Before the 1990s, doctors decided that you had osteoporosis if you were elderly and you broke a bone. When the pharmaceutical company Merck came up with its anti-bone-loss durg Fosamax, it wanted a broader market than just elderly fracture patients. The solution? The company helped fund a panel of medical experts to create diagnostic criteria for osteoporosis so that a diagnosis could be made before the patient actually broke a bone.

The panel’s first step was to define "normal" bone density as that of the average 30-year-old woman. Next, the experts chose as their cutoff for osteoporosis a statistical point that was slightly below the bone density of their normal 30-year-old — a definition they admitted was "somewhat arbitrary." Finally, they came up with a completely new disease — osteopenia — for bone density that fell somewhere between that normal 30-year-old and their arbitrary definition of osteoporosis.

Voila — 30 percent of post-menopausal women suddenly had a disease that needed to be treated early in order to prevent a problem — hip fracture — that wouldn’t occur for many years, if ever. According to the new guidelines, millions more women now had osteopenia, which their doctors needed to watch like hawks so that their patients could be treated once they progressed to osteoporosis. Merck then took the added step of helping doctors buy DEXA scanners, X-ray machines needed to scan your bones to get that all-important diagnosis. …

Fosamax … can cause necrosis (death) of the jawbone. What’s more, there aren’t any valid scientific studies to show that treating osteoporosis early will prevent fractures down the road. The drug can also trigger serious heartburn.

Added 6Apr: More from Brownlee:

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Zombies! Zombies?

Doviende38008649Your “zombie”, in the philosophical usage of the term, is putatively a being that is exactly like you in every respect – identical behavior, identical speech, identical brain; every atom and quark in exactly the same position, moving according to the same causal laws of motion – except that your zombie is not conscious.

It is furthermore claimed that if zombies are “possible” (a term over which battles are still being fought), then, purely from our knowledge of this “possibility”, we can deduce a priori that consciousness is extra-physical, in a sense to be described below; the standard term for this position is “epiphenomenalism”.

(For those unfamiliar with zombies, I emphasize that this is not a strawman.  See, for example, the SEP entry on Zombies.  The “possibility” of zombies is accepted by a substantial fraction, possibly a majority, of academic philosophers of consciousness.)

I once read somewhere, “You are not the one who speaks your thoughts – you are the one who hears your thoughts”.  In Hebrew, the word for the highest soul, that which God breathed into Adam, is N’Shama – “the hearer”.

If you conceive of “consciousness” as a purely passive listening, then the notion of a zombie initially seems easy to imagine.  It’s someone who lacks the N’Shama, the hearer.

(Warning:  Long post ahead.  Very long 6,600-word post involving David Chalmers ahead.  This may be taken as my demonstrative counterexample to Richard Chappell’s Arguing with Eliezer Part II, in which Richard accuses me of not engaging with the complex arguments of real philosophers.)

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Reductive Reference

Followup toReductionism, Explaining vs. Explaining Away, Hand vs. Fingers, Heat vs. Motion

The reductionist thesis (as I formulate it) is that human minds, for reasons of efficiency, use a multi-level map in which we separately think about things like "atoms" and "quarks", "hands" and "fingers", or "heat" and "kinetic energy".  Reality itself, on the other hand, is single-level in the sense that it does not seem to contain atoms as separate, additional, causally efficacious entities over and above quarks.

Sadi Carnot formulated the (precursor to) the second law of thermodynamics using the caloric theory of heat, in which heat was just a fluid that flowed from hot things to cold things, produced by fire, making gases expand – the effects of heat were studied separately from the science of kinetics, considerably before the reduction took place.  If you’re trying to design a steam engine, the effects of all those tiny vibrations and collisions which we name "heat" can be summarized into a much simpler description than the full quantum mechanics of the quarks.  Humans compute efficiently, thinking of only significant effects on goal-relevant quantities.

But reality itself does seem to use the full quantum mechanics of the quarks.  I once met a fellow who thought that if you used General Relativity to compute a low-velocity problem, like an artillery shell, GR would give you the wrong answer – not just a slow answer, but an experimentally wrong answer – because at low velocities, artillery shells are governed by Newtonian mechanics, not GR.  This is exactly how physics does not work.  Reality just seems to go on crunching through General Relativity, even when it only makes a difference at the fourteenth decimal place, which a human would regard as a huge waste of computing power.  Physics does it with brute force.  No one has ever caught physics simplifying its calculations – or if someone did catch it, the Matrix Lords erased the memory afterward.

Our map, then, is very much unlike the territory; our maps are multi-level, the territory is single-level.  Since the representation is so incredibly unlike the referent, in what sense can a belief like "I am wearing socks" be called true, when in reality itself, there are only quarks?

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Arbitrary Silliness

When I visited Oxford a few weeks ago I brought up a subject which has been bugging me lately – we don’t understand what makes research topics “silly.”   For example:

Apparently most people the world over think aliens exist, think searches might find them, think that would be a very important discovery, but think the subject is way too silly to justify government funding.

Similarly, most people think futarchy (government by betting markets) is silly, even though most think it has a decent chance of performing well, and even though it isn’t obviously less likely to happen than a strong world government, which is not nearly as silly.  Or see this gigglefest on future robot threats.

At Oxford we listed possible obstacles to dealing better with global catastrophic risks, and we guessed the biggest obstacle is that the topic seems silly.  This puzzle of what makes topics silly seems to have stuck in the mind of Anders Sandberg:

Regarding some things as silly does not seem to result from an estimation that the probability is extremely low, it seems to be a direct rejection of it as unthinkable and irrelevant – not the same thing, although the rejector will quickly argue that the chances of the things happening are minuscule. The rejection has many similarities to the yuck reaction we see in ethics, where certain possibilities are rapidly rejected as immoral with little reflection (c.f. the work of Haidt). So maybe the best explanation of what makes a paper silly is just that it goes against the social intuitions we have built up about thinkable, serious subjects. Space travel is science fiction and science fiction has low status, so hence papers about the economics of space travel must be silly. Life extension is silly, so papers looking at its consequences must be silly. Framing world government in terms of non-silly globalisation makes it non-silly. (more)

This silliness-taboo has been a thorn in my side all my life, so I’m eager for any insight.

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Brain Breakthrough! It’s Made of Neurons!

In an amazing breakthrough, a multinational team of scientists led by Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal announced that the brain is composed of a ridiculously complicated network of tiny cells connected to each other by infinitesimal threads and branches.

The multinational team – which also includes the famous technician Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and possibly Imhotep, promoted to the Egyptian god of medicine – issued this statement:

"The present discovery culminates years of research indicating that the convoluted squishy thing inside our skulls is even more complicated than it looks.  Thanks to Cajal’s application of a new staining technique invented by Camillo Golgi, we have learned that this structure is not a continuous network like the blood vessels of the body, but is actually composed of many tiny cells, or "neurons", connected to one another by even more tiny filaments.

"Other extensive evidence, beginning from Greek medical researcher Alcmaeon and continuing through Paul Broca’s research on speech deficits, indicates that the brain is the seat of reason.

"Nemesius, the Bishop of Emesia, has previously argued that brain tissue is too earthy to act as an intermediary between the body and soul, and so the mental faculties are located in the ventricles of the brain.  However, if this is correct, there is no reason why this organ should turn out to have an immensely complicated internal composition.

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Open Thread

Here is our monthly place to discuss Overcoming Bias topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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Beware of Brain Images

Via the British Psychological Society’s excellent blog comes news of this study: MCCABE, D., CASTEL, A. (2008). "Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning," Cognition, 107(1), 343-352.

From the abstract:

Brain images are believed to have a particularly persuasive influence on the public perception of research on cognition. Three experiments are reported showing that presenting brain images with articles summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to articles accompanied by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination, and the credibility, of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images themselves. We argue that brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.

As the BPS blog elaborates:

David McCabe and Alan Castel presented university students with 300-word news stories about fictional cognitive research findings that were based on flawed scientific reasoning. For example, one story claimed that watching TV was linked to maths ability, based on the fact that both TV viewing and maths activate the temporal lobe. Crucially, students rated these stories to be more scientifically sound when they were accompanied by a brain image, compared with when the equivalent data were presented in a bar chart, or when there was no graphical illustration at all.

This fits in with the theme of how people tend to overvalue something that is dressed up in the attire of science. 

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