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Archive for September, 2009

Dylan Again

A kick-ass song. Often considered to be the greatest song of all time.

“I wrote it. I didn’t fail. It was straight,” Bob Dylan said of his greatest song shortly after he wrote and recorded it in June 1965. There is no better description of “Like a Rolling Stone” — of its revolutionary design and execution — or of the young man, just turned twenty-four, who created it.

Al Kooper, who played organ on the session, remembers today, “There was no sheet music, it was totally by ear. And it was totally disorganized, totally punk. It just happened.”

To this day, the most stunning thing about “Like a Rolling Stone” is the abundance of precedent: the impressionist voltage of Dylan’s language, the intensely personal accusation in his voice (“Ho-o-o-ow does it fe-e-e-el?”), the apocalyptic charge of Kooper’s garage-gospel organ and Mike Bloomfield’s stiletto-sharp spirals of Telecaster guitar, the defiant six-minute length of the June 16th master take. No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time.

Source

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Bob Dylan: A (Counter) Cultural Icon

09/25/2009 8 comments

Just some music from a fellow Minnesotan and a man Rolling Stones Magazine considers to be the second greatest music artist of all time:

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QotD: Back to the Future of Computers

What can computers do now that you never dreamed would be possible? What do you hope they’ll be able to do in the future?

The Internet.

Have sex.

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Graduate School and Girls

09/14/2009 11 comments

At some point in the future I will likely be applying to graduate schools. And I want to apply to at least one Ivy League institution. And I think recent developments have now made it an easy decision as to which one:

I think I'm in love

Boo-yah.

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QotD: Favorite Beatles Song

What’s your favorite Beatles song? Bonus points if you share it with us.

Probably have to go with:

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Nagel on The Problem of Consciousness

09/07/2009 1 comment

(Excerpt from a paper I wrote a few months ago explaining the problem of consciousness.)

In his article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Thomas Nagel argues that it is consciousness that makes the mind-body problem so problematic. It is his position that no psychophysical reductionist theory yet proposed has been successful in explaining consciousness. His claim is even stronger, however. We do not only have yet to construct a theory that successfully explains consciousness but we have yet to give an account of what a successful theory would even look like. According to Nagel, the very nature of consciousness itself may rule out the possibility of constructing a physicalist account of it.[1] If so, then it would seem to follow that any physicalist account of the world would forever remain incomplete.

According to Nagel, an organism is conscious “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.”[2] In other words, for an organism to be conscious it must have subjective experiences or a subjective character or nature. Lower life forms (like moths) and robots are often said to be without consciousness because while they may have many functional similarities with conscious organisms, they are internally or experientially empty.[3] There is nothing that it is like to be such entities (some philosophers refer to such entities as zombies). However, higher life forms such as humans, tigers, whales, and bats (essentially all mammals) are usually considered conscious because there is something that it is like to be them: they have certain sensory apparatuses and other cognitive functions that give rise to certain subjective experiences. And different organisms will, no doubt, have different types of experiences based on their difference in physical and neurological makeup; but all such organism are nonetheless conscious.

For Nagel, the problem of consciousness first arises for the physicalist when one considers that consciousness does not seem to be the sort of thing that can be cashed out in physical terms. If one were to observe the activities of another organism’s brain and describe the physical events that were taking place, one would not come to conceive of what it is like to be that organism. Even if one had access to a sophisticated machine that had the capability of mapping every physical property of the brain and every physical interaction going on inside of it, one would not thereby come to have a conception of what it was like to have the sort of experiences that the organism in question is having.

Here is an example to get this point across. Suppose that a Martian or some sort of intellectual alien life form incapable of perceiving the color red were to travel to earth and begin studying our brains. They go about studying the physical makeup of our brains, how neurons interact within our brains, and so on. The problem is this: merely observing all of the physical processes within our brains would not seem to give them a conception of what it is like to be appeared to redly. For where within the brain—in what neuron we might ask—is there the color red? Only being appeared to redly would seem to give one a conception of what it is like to be appeared to redly. If one is the sort of organism that is incapable of experiencing the color red, no amount of physical investigation of an organism’s brain will give one the conception of red. This is analogous to the case of the bat and its sonar apparatus: because we humans are not the sort of organisms that experience the world through sonar, no amount of physical investigation of a bats physical or neurological makeup will give us a conception of what it is like to be appeared to sonar-ly. We might be able to devise conceptual representations of what it is like to perceive the world through sonar, but such in only our representation. That would merely be what it is like for a human to perceive the world through sonar and not what it is like for the bat to do so. It would seem to be the case then that a completely objective, physical description of an organism’s brain—or of the entire universe for that matter—is always going to leave out the subjective element, namely, consciousness.

Note that the problem is not simply that of gaining access into another organism’s consciousness by analyzing their physical states. It is not merely the problem of being able to look at an organism’s brain while remaining ignorant as to what colors it is experiencing. This may be a problem. But for Nagel, the problem of consciousness is even more fundamental. The problem is not merely epistemological but conceptual. Thus, even if we were to suppose that our brains turned the color(s) that we were experiencing, this would not help the Martians experience red. Any red color on our brain would appear to them as something not red. They are fundamentally incapable of experiencing red and therefore fundamentally incapable of conceiving of it.[4] As far as bats are concerned, because I have such difficulty conceiving of what it would be like to be appeared to sonar-ly, I do not even know what it would look like for their brain to reveal what that was like. Even if studying their brains did give us some conception of what it was like to see the world through sonar, again, that would only be what it was like for us to see the world through sonar and not what it is like for the bat.

The fundamental problem of consciousness then is this: psychophysical reductionist theories, by their very nature, describe the world in objective, physical terms while consciousness, by its very nature, seems to be something subjective, non-physical, and irreduciblely so. In other words, reductionist theories are meant to eliminate dependence on any one particular point-of-view while consciousness relies on being a particular point-of-view. Nagel puts it this way,

If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity—that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint—does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farter away from it.[5]

To put it a different way, suppose there are two distinct species that both describe a physical event in the same objective terms: suppose they both describe sound as a wave. There is nothing that says that because they both conceive of sound in the same objective manner that they both have the same subjective experience of it. One may experience sound like we do while the other experiences sound as colors or as something altogether inconceivable to us. But if we hope for our psychophysical reductionist theory to be successful, we must necessarily eliminate both of the species-specific viewpoints in favor of the objective viewpoint. It seems to necessarily follow then that any objective account of consciousness leads to its elimination simply in virtue of what an objective account is (less attachment to specific viewpoints). In essence, Nagel does not even understand what it would mean to give an objective account of consciousness. This is ultimately why Nagel is so skeptical about such reductionist theories succeeding.


[1] I say “may” only because Nagel remains open to the possibility of such an account one day being realized. But even if that day comes, it “lies in the distance intellectual future.” Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Philosophical Review 83 (1974): 436.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Determining which entities are conscious and which ones are not is a problem unto its own. As Nagel asks: what sort of evidence would even count toward a thing being conscious? Strictly speaking, every organism including other humans outside of oneself could lack consciousness and one would not know it. For the current discussion, however, we can assume that there are many conscious beings.

[4] It is an interesting question whether or not one can conceive of a color one cannot perceive. It may be possible by making slight gradual variations to the colors one can perceive. But for the sake of the argument, I am assuming that this is not something the Martians are capable of.

[5] Ibid, 445.

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Searching…

09/05/2009 4 comments

I wonder if it's possible to find someone when you only know their first name and geographical location. It would seem to be possible in this age of technology but it appears not to be so. Out of my like four readers, anyone have any suggestions? Probably not. Yeah. Thought so. Bleh.

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