Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about (philosophical) idealism. I qualify it as philosophical to distinguish it from casual meaning of optimistic. In philosophy, idealism is a metaphysical view about the nature of reality — one that I’ve always seen as in contrast to realism.
What caught my eye in all the talk was that I couldn’t always tell if people were speaking of epistemological or ontological idealism. I agree, of course, with the former — one way or another, it’s the common understanding — but I’m not a fan of the various flavors of ontological idealism.
It seems downright Ptolemaic to me.
There are, firstly, the unique sort of jaw-droppers I usually have in mind for Wednesday Wow. Secondly, there are the little, almost hidden, daily wonders with so much behind them. But it occurred to me there is yet another category, one that is both daily and also jaw-dropping.
It has to do with the human mind and the kind of art it can create. It also has to do with how we respond to that art. What is it that an artist puts into their best work, and what is it that we take from it? Whatever it is, profound or mundane, it can touch us deeply.
As with the greatest guitar solo, ever:
In the last post I explored how algorithms are defined and what I think is — or is not — an algorithm. The dividing line for me has mainly to do with the requirement for an ordered list of instructions and an execution engine. Physical mechanisms, from what I can see, don’t have those.
For me, the behavior of machines is only metaphorically algorithmic. Living things are biological machines, so this applies to them, too. I would not be inclined to view my kidneys, liver, or heart, as embodied algorithms (their behavior can be described by algorithms, though).
Of course, this also applies to the brain and, therefore, the mind.
There’s a discussion that’s long lurked in a dusty corner of my thinking about computationalism. It involves the definition and role of algorithms. The definition isn’t particularly tricky, but the question of what fits that definition can be. Their role in our modern life is undeniably huge — algorithms control vast swaths of human experience.
Yet some might say even the ancient lowly thermostat implements an algorithm. In a real sense, any recipe is an algorithm, and any process has some algorithm that describes that process.
But the ultimate question involves algorithms and the human mind.
This TV Tuesday post was originally going to be another rant about WTF is going on with NCIS (I held off on because I didn’t want to kvetch on Christmas). But then I had a really interesting thought about my other favorite (broadcast) TV show, The Good Place.
There’s an old joke about the philosophy professor who says, “Every time I think I’ve had an original though, it turns out some damned ancient Greek thought of it first.” There’s a more serious version in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
It turns out I’m not the first, by a long stretch, to notice how The Good Place echos and references The Wizard of Oz.
As a result of lurking on various online discussions, I’ve been thinking about computationalism in the context of structure versus function. It’s another way to frame the Yin-Yang tension between a simulation of a system’s functionality and that system’s physical structure.
In the end, I think it does boil down the two opposing propositions I discussed in my Real vs Simulated post:  An arbitrarily precise numerical simulation of a system’s function;  Simulated X isn’t Y.
It all depends on exactly what consciousness is. What can structure provide that could not be functionally simulated?
So. 2020. The start of a new decade. That’s just a bit surreal for me. I can remember wondering if 1984 would turn out anything like the novel. The future did turn out a bit like Orwell’s vision — it just took until 2016 or so to get there. It isn’t so much that Big Brother is watching (although, that too), but how our government corrupts and perverts facts and truth.
Good fiction is insightful about the human condition; good science fiction is insightful about our future. Over time, as advertised, the prescient film Idiocracy goes from SF comedy to anthropological documentary. Many others went from fiction to fact. (Fortunately, at least so far, The Terminator has not.)
Suffice to say, this year will seem surreal in more ways than one.
So. 2019. Another crazy year. I’ve set this post to publish at 6:00 PM my time, which is 00:00 Universal time. By the time you read this, the new year has begun, at least at one spot on Earth. Within 24 hours of posting, it’ll be 2020 for everyone (on the Gregorian calendar, anyway).
It’s not just the end of the year — most see it as the end of a decade, the twenty-teens. The more pedantic say that decades actually run from 1 to 10, so 2001–2010 was the previous decade, and, sorry to rain, but we’re still in the 2011–2020 decade.
But what the hell, odometer parties are a lot more fun!
How real is Sherlock Holmes, and what is the nature of his reality? On the one hand, Holmes is a fictional character from writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but on the other there is a Canon of 56 short stories and four novels defining that character. It’s hard to deny at least some reality to something so well defined.
Others have extended the concept of Holmes far beyond the original in books, movies, TV shows, and more. The original texts are in the public domain, so there is considerable freedom to explore the idea of a crime-solving duo comprised of a brainy detective plus a faithful sidekick.
As a result Holmes has a well-defined center and very fuzzy boundaries!
Venus emerging from the sea.
I’ve been thinking about emergence. That things emerge seems clear, but a question involves the precise nature of exactly what emerges. The more I think about it, the more I think it may amount to word slicing. Things do emerge. Whether or not we call them truly “new” seems definitional.
There is a common distinction made between weak and strong emergence (alternately epistemological and ontological emergence, respectively). Some reject the distinction, and I find myself leaning that way. I think — at least under physicalism — there really is only weak (epistemological) emergence.
But I also think it amounts to strong (ontological) emergence.