film – waking life

Last night watched ‘Waking Life‘ a strange film all about dreaming

We ordered it from amazon video (their subscription lending library), but not quite sure how we managed to do it. Certainly when it arrived and I read the description it sounded a little too arty … I of course like James Bond and Famous Five!

However, it was very enjoyable and has most stunning animation. It looked as if it had been filmed live, but then, either by hand or using computer, reduced to comic book effect. It chronicles a young man’s day or dream as he discusses (mainly listens) to various people talking about the philosophy of dreams and reality – I assume taken from lots of real philosophers, but I’m not well read enough to recognise many! All of this in a constantly shifting animation as if each object were half floating. Sort of Disney meets Derrida.

Two things struck me … well actually many more, loads of lovely quirky asides, but I forget most already ๐Ÿ™

First is how lacking in grounding so many of the philosophical ideas are; sitting somewhere between mysticism and reason. I’ve recently been reading Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis and got a similar feel there รขโ‚ฌโ€œ lovely stuff for a novel, almost poetic … but without solid ground. An age that has forgotten or rejected God and lost faith in rationality, but struggling to find something in the void.

The other thing was a point when one of the characters said to the protagonist (I misquote!) “your sneakers aren’t real, your feet inside your sneakers aren’t real, you are a mental model” … the character is referring to the fact you are not real in a dream, but to some extent this is precisely the self we experience, my mental model of me is the ‘I’ I know, so (and this was said elsewhere in the film), to some extent aspects of dreams are as real as anything in waking life.

absolutely nothing

I few days I was reading from George Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Places1, or rather reading is not quite the right word, Perec is an odd writer and the book is more something to dip into than to read in any concerted fashion.

Perec is writing about spaces without function and says:

How does one think of nothing? How to think of nothing without automatically putting something round that nothing, so turning it into a hole, into which one will hasten to put something, an activity, a function, a destiby, a gaze, a need, a lack, a surplus …?

This reminded me of another book, Edward Casey’s The Fate of Place2. Casey surveys various creation myths and finds that while at forst glance many seem to have a creation ex nihilo, in all cases the emptiness, the void is not so empty, either bounded, or filled with chaotic churning, unformed things. There is no empty space.

These myths are about the feelings and conceptions of people and tell us somehting deep about our inability to capture an essence of nothingness, just as Perec struggles. The concept of the number zero eluded (or appalled) the Greeks and the idea of the empty set causes problems for many students, perhaps only made palitable by the curly brackets surrounding the emptiness {} … “putting something round that nothing“.

They say “nature abhors a vaccum”, although I guess one wonders whether it is just people who abhor it. One of the surest forms of torture is sensory deprivation.

The role of the void in physics has changed over the years. From being simply the empty gap between things. 19th century scientists populated it with electromagnetic and gravitational fields – the void became the medium, a material internet through which forces rippled.

In Einstein’s General Relativity, space is no longer the medium through which gravity is transmitted, but instead it is the distortions of space-time that define matter itself. Space is not filled with other things, it is the things.

However, in Quantum Mechanics we find a world that is rather like the voids of those reation myths, empty space forever filled with zero-point energy. And in the emptiness particles and anti-particles constantly appearing and anihilating one another; a boiling broth not still waters.

Most strange, when empty space is bounded, the very walls are sucked in by an extra emptiness. The bundaries mean that certain modes of vibration of the space between the walls are not possible – like a guitar string that will only play certain harmonics – and those missing vibrations cause missing energy.

So, when Perec puts “something round that nothing” he in fact makes it less than it was before.

  1. George Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Places , (tr. John Sturrock), Penguin, 1997. ISBN 0-14-018986[back]
  2. Edward Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, University of California Press, 1998. ISBN 0-520-21649-0[back]

Dennett’s Sweet Dreams – consciousness and the Turing test

I read Dennett’s Sweet Dreams a few months ago. Although I am also interested in dreams this book is about consciousness … indeed subtitled “Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness”

The book is largely about one message – that a scientific study of consiousness can only take into account third party accessible knowledge about first part experience. In other words I can only base a scientific study on what I can tell of other people’s consciousness from their actions, words and any available brain scanning etc.

Dennett has a meticulous rhetoric, but I found two broad facets of his argument weak, one more about rheteric and one substance.

First somewhat disingenuously he does not say that a scientific study of consciousness would yield a complete account of consciouness, but effectively the implication is there. That is he does not say that consciouness is no more than its phenomenial effects … but implies it.

Second, being a philosopher he focuses on incontrovertible evidence, whereas as scientists and humans often reasonable evidence is sufficient.

The first point is obvious and yet easily underestimated. A ‘scientific’ study of literature could formulate many known literary rules (aliteration, rhyme, etc.) and may even find new ones, and indeed poets in particular are happy to perform such analyses. However, we do not expect such rules to be a complete account of literture.

The second point is more substantive, but does interact with the first.
Dennett takes issue with philosophers who posit some form of non-sentient zombie (often called ‘Mary’) who/which nonetheless behaves otherwise exactly like a human including things that might appear to be conscious. They then say “but of course Mary is not conscious”. Dennett objects to the ‘of course’, which is really a statement about prior beliefs/assumptions (although Dennett, of course, frequently does the same with his beliefs!).

Dennett posits a Robo-Mary which is entirely mechanical/electronic and yet emulates perfectly the brain circuitry of a person and so can work out how the person would react and then reacts similarly. From the outside and by all her (emulated) subjective reactions she appears to be conscious. She would pass any ‘Turing Test’ for consciousness and yet many, perhaps most, would say she is not. The implication (from the first weakness) is that we are no more conscius than she (it?).

Actually I don’t object to the idea that such a creature may indeed be conscious, but I’d need more evidence than I would for a human, not because Robo-Mary is a machine, but becasue she is designed to appear conscious.

Robo-Mary is in fact a Robo-Mata-Hari, a spy, a robot in human clothing.

A good enough actor may convince you he is feeling happy, sad, or in love, and you may not be able to tell the differece between the act and the real thing, but that does not mean happiness, saddness and love are no more than their appearance.

As a philosopher, you cannot have incontrovertible evidence that a person’s emotions are real, not just a facade. However, as a human it would be unreasonable to therefore dismiss all expressions of emotion.

Some (well many) years ago, I worked with people at York who creating one of the first ADA compilers. There was a validation suite of programs that had to compile and run correctly for the compiler to get an official stamp from the ADA standards agency. I used to wonder about writing a program that recognised each of the tests cases and simply spat out the right code for each one. Any other program given to the program would simply print an error message and stop. The program would pass the test suite and could get the stamp as being a validated compiler, and yet would be completely useless. It would be a cheat ADA compiler.

Imagine if I sold such a cheat compiler. Any judge would regard it as fraud – whilst it passed the test, it is clearly not an ADA compiler. The test is there to validate things that are designed to be ADA compilers, not things designed to pass the test. So, the cheat ADA compiler is not adequately validated by the test, just becase it is designed to pass it.

Robo-Mary is designed to pass the consciousness test … indeed any consciousness test. We perhaps could never incontrovertibly tell whether Robo-Mary was conscious or simply acting conscious. However, when faced with another human being, an ordinary Mary, who is not designed specifically to appear conscious, it is reasonable to assume that she experiences similar things to me when she describes her experience in similar terms. I can never incontrovertibly tell that Mary is conscious, but it is reasonable to believe so. And it is equally reasonable to base a scientific study on such defeasible observations.

Turning back to Robo-Mary; convincing machine cosciousness would not come from machines designed to appear conscious, but more ‘by accident’. Perhaps one day my intelligent automated vacuum cleaner will say to me “Alan, have you ever watched those dust motes in the sunlight”.