Friday, October 7, 2011

I’m taking the day off at random; it is very nice! We don’t have Monday off, so it’s a mere three-day weekend, but still.

Hos, Boobies, an’ Orgasms

So we signed up for HBO for a month, mostly so we could watch this George Harrison Special that they had. The program on HBOHD right before it was “Making it in America”, which seems to be a satirical comedy about naked people having uncomfortable-looking sex. Then the program right after it was “Cathouse” something, a hard-hitting documentary about what it’s like to be an escort, including numerous scenes of nudity and/or sex. And then after that was “Katie Someone on Sex Toys”, which featured sex, as one might expect from the name, and also a blonde ditzy stark-naked narrator with large artificial breasts (as one might also expect from the name I suppose, since Katie Someone is apparently a relatively well-known porn star).

Surprisingly the George Harrison Special didn’t include any gratuitous nudity or sex, at least not that I noticed. But the other programs suggest a certain theme, or one might even say obsession.

Weird.

The Aren’t Like Us, You Know

So (maybe all subsections should start with “So”) I finished listening to that Learning Company course on consciousness, and it was indeed pretty basic. It was also disappointingly simplistic on the whole “what kinds of things have consciousness, and how could we possibly know?” question.

The professor says things like “to be conscious is to be the subject of sensation” as if it actually told us anything very interesting. He also talks about how impossible it would be for fish to become aware of, or know anything about, water, as though that was anything more than the flimsiest of metaphors (flimsy because it falls apart as soon as one asks whether humans could ever know anything about air).

And in general he has very definite, but apparently completely unsupported, opinions about what is or might be conscious. He is always talking about what he is “inclined” or “strongly inclined” to “say”; but I find myself rather definitely uninterested in what he is inclined to say: I want to know what is true.

He is for instance inclined to say that there is something that it is like to be an amoeba, but that there isn’t anything that it is like to be a “machine” (where “machine” is not further defined). My suspicion is that that inclination comes from a sort of unthinking “carbon compounds good, silicon compounds bad” meme with nothing very interesting behind it, or at least he gives us no reason to think otherwise.

The question of what things might be conscious is rather a different question from the question of how we might come to know that a thing is conscious. We come to know that other humans are conscious because we observe a strong correlation between our own actions and our own consciousness, and probably-justifiably conclude that people that take similar actions have similar consciousnesses. (One thing the professor gets right is pointing out that the claim that we each have only one datapoint, ourselves, on the subject is wrong; actually we each have a huge number of datapoints: all of our conscious actions.)

But it’s important to distinguish between things that we can come to know are conscious (other humans, probably other relatively high-level animals, possibly unicellular microorganisms although I would take some convincing), things that we can come to know aren’t conscious (not sure what if anything is in that set, although the professor seems to think that “machines” are in it), and things that we can’t come to know are conscious (or at least can’t come to know it in the same way), but still might be conscious for all we know.

Even if I bought the argument that an amoeba’s actions are more like mine than the actions of any machine could ever be (which I think is in fact utterly false), that would still not be any reason to think that no machine could ever be conscious. It would just be reason to think that I could not come to know that any machine was conscious by way of the behaves-like-me argument.

Conflating the truth of a thing with one’s ability to find out that truth is the height of arrogance, not to mention silly.

“Are there any apples in the box?”

“Nope.”

“How do you know?”

“The box is closed, and I can’t see inside. Must be empty.”

I don’t know if there’s something that it’s like to be an amoeba, or a tree, or a jackhammer, or Deep Blue. I think the whole question is deep and mysterious and fascinating. Pretending to answer it by just examining one’s pretheoretic inclinations to say things is completely unsatisfactory, and I’m disappointed in this professor for doing not much more than that.

One possible reaction to all this is to say oh, well, phht, it may be philosophically fun to speculate that maybe there’s something it’s like to be a tree, but really there isn’t, and it has no practical interest. I think it was Nagel or someone who pointed out that some extremely alien Martians might examine us and their more practical citizens might say the same thing about us, and they would be factually wrong, since in fact there is something that it is like to be one of us.

And I’d like to not be factually wrong, when feasible.

Blue What?

So I am really liking this wireless Bluetooth headset thing! It’s ummm this one. I bought it to work with the iPad, which it does very nicely, and it turns out that the Windows 7 laptop here also has Bluetooth, and also works nicely with it.

My only complaint is that when anything of interest happens (the signal momentarily dropping or reconnecting, one accidentally trying to turn the headset volume higher or lower than it goes, etc) it makes a LOUD BEEPING NOISE in one’s ear, which seems uncalled-for. Also switching it from the iPad to the laptop and back requires a bit more messing-around than I’d like, but maybe I just haven’t found the right buttons to push yet.

So anyway I can now listen to sounds being produced by either the iPad or the laptop without having to untangle wires, keep my head carefully within N inches of the device, or worry about having the things rudely ripped from my ears by passing cats or the corners of things.

It is very modern and shiny!

There was some other witty section title I was going to use

But I have forgotten it. :) I have also been playing Glitch, which is fun and silly, and some WoW, and always Second Life. And watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes on Netflix on the iPad! Which is also fun and silly. :)

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