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Archive for May, 2013

Instrumental reason / why I hate TechCrunch

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One of the first serious essays I remember studying in my philosophy classes in school was called “The Normativity of Instrumental Reason”. I thought it was a cool phrase. It means, basically, where does reason — logic — get the power to make things right or wrong?

Instrumental reason is the kind of reason like, “I want A. A requires that I do B. So I should do B.” I want a nice apartment. Getting a nice apartment requires money. Investment bankers make a lot of money. Therefore, I should be an investment banker.

Here’s the money quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

Phaedrus went a different path from the idea of individual, personal Quality decisions. I think it was a wrong one, but perhaps if I were in his circumstances I would go his way too. He felt that the solution started with a new philosophy, or he saw it as even broader than that—a new spiritual rationality—in which the ugliness and the loneliness and the spiritual blankness of dualistic technological reason would become illogical. Reason was no longer to be “value free.” Reason was to be subordinate, logically, to Quality, and he was sure he would find the cause of its not being so back among the ancient Greeks, whose mythos had endowed our culture with the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is “reasonable” even when it isn’t any good. That was the root of the whole thing. Right there. I said a long time ago that he was in pursuit of the ghost of reason. This is what I meant.

Instrumental reason is dualist, subject-object thinking. I, Josh, want nice apartment, therefore I Josh get money to get nice apartment. The argument Zen and… makes is that drawing this line between me, the observer with goals, and the world, the object of my desires, is sick. It’s a diseased way of seeing the world. It leads to spiritual emptiness.

It’s a spiritually empty perspective because, where do values come from in the first place? How do we know what we want and don’t want? From the objective point of view, the rational agent must somehow evolve these desires herself, and then, by careful studying of natural laws, learn to manipulate her surroundings to bring them into being. Set goal. Achieve goal. Munch.

Other people, from this perspective, are also objects — they’re out there mixed in with the buildings and cars and other external manifestations we have to deal with. They’re animate clods of meat, sometimes useful and sometimes a hindrance for achieving our goals. Of course, then we look in the mirror, and we see that we’re also a clod of meat. And like other people are, sometimes we’re useful and sometimes we’re a hindrance to ourselves getting what we want.

And what do we want? Meat wants to protect itself. Meat wants to be safe, to stay alive, to consume other meats for sustenance and not be consumed itself.

Meat builds fortresses. Meat buys iPhones. Meat paves the roads and fights the diseases and reads the evening news and makes the world a safe, sterile place for meat to grow in. Meat is very, very smart.

The point Zen and… is making is that as smart as instrumental reason is, it’s a limited kind of smart, because it can’t evolve its goals. Where do values come from in the first place? How do we know what we want and don’t want? If we let our guards down, if we let some objectivity leak away and blur the lines between the actor and the acted-on, sometimes wants appear by themselves. By merging ourselves with the things around us we become concerned with their integrity. We start appreciating beauty, we start caring for people and places and things.

It’s a much messier process because it involves collapsing the wall between ends and means. When the means are the ends, or shape the ends, we’re driving without knowing where we’re going. We might have an idea, but the idea becomes changed in the execution of it, because that’s the point of having an idea in the first place.

Here’s a quote from today’s front page of TechCrunch:

Facebook is not the only company to invest in development of products that take better advantage of the Android homescreen. South Korean messaging app KakaoTalk also recently announced its intentions to release a rival Android launcher. And now, Highland Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and others have invested $1.8 million into Aviate, an ex-Googler backed intelligent homescreen for Android…

To me, this is a very ugly quote. I went to TechCrunch thinking I would find an example of an ugly quote there, and I found one very quickly. There are probably much uglier ones I could find if I put more time into looking for ugly things (which can actually be a form of beauty in and of itself).

We are making an economic transition from a world where the dictate of instrumental logic is to go into finance to a world where the dictate of instrumental logic is to go into technology. To me this is an interesting transition because technology culture overlaps with maker culture, and maker culture actually understands that “good” is a product of the process, not just the destination. However, I read quotes like the TechCrunch one above and it makes me sad, because it means the poison is in the tech world too.

From a non-dualistic point of view, the concept of making money becomes something that requires thought. What is money? It’s a social contract to give each other gifts of goods and services. It’s a debt that other people owe us. So “making money” means, getting the system to agree it’s indebted to us, to get it to agree that we should be a beneficiary of the nice things that the system produces.

From that vantage point, it seems strange to care about making money without caring about the system that makes the money worthwhile. This can be dramatically illustrated by looking at systems that stopped working, such as Weimar Germany during hyperinflation, or Rwanda during genocide. When an insane homeless person owes you a million dollars, that debt is not worth very much.

So when I hear talk in the startup world of “killing it”, “making it rain”, “big exits”, “valuations”, and all the other terminology of plunder, I feel like people must be thinking instrumentally, as opposed to holistically. From a practical standpoint, you can buy an awful lot of nice cars and apartments and dinners before the system becomes so insane and so homeless that it all dries up. But from an aesthetic, moral standpoint, how can you feel good about pursuing those things without simultaneously thinking about how to make the system a little less crazy, a little happier, a little wealthier? If you love someone, it would be odd behavior indeed to do them a favor, and then go around talking about how much they owe you now… but that’s what people on sites like TechCrunch do every day.

Written by jphaas

May 12th, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The big unanswered philosophical question

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I feel like most questions in modern philosophy come down to the tension between these two hard-to-reconcile observations:


1. Consciousness seems to be a material phenomenon.

2. The material world seems to be a conscious phenomenon.


What I mean by the former is that consciousness comes from brains, and brains can be picked apart and dissected into the lower level physical concepts of chemistry and physics.  There is a lot of strong evidence that thinking is fundamentally a physical process; it doesn’t merely just “hang out” around the brain.  For instance, getting drunk… if thinking wasn’t physical, how could alcohol, a chemical, affect it?

We’ve learned a lot about how consciousness works via scientific inquiry.   We can cut open someone’s brain, tickle a nerve, and have them report sensations of warm or red or whatever.  We can watch a babies brain develop in utero, going from a couple unconnected neurons sending signals randomly to cohering into a full human mind.  We can talk about the evolution of consciousness in the context of natural selection and cultural change.

It’s very hard to argue against the statement that consciousness is a material phenomenon without willful denial of a lot of life experience.  Notions of the “soul” as somehow distinct from the body seem naive when every component of what we think of as soul — personality, logic, memory, emotion — are expressed through a time-bound series of mental reactions that can be disrupted or modified by physical stimuli.

However, it’s equally hard to argue against the second statement, that the material world seems to be a conscious phenomenon.  Absolutely everything we think we know about the world is because we have experienced it as sensory; we see things, we hear things, we touch things, we smell things.  As many people have pointed out, we could all be living in the Matrix, and we wouldn’t know the difference.

I would go as far as to say we don’t really know what the word “exists” means outside the concept of consciousness.  When I say the cup on the table exists, I mean that I can touch it and feel it, and if I close my eyes and look again, I’ve come to expect from past experience that it will still be there to touch and feel.  That’s why “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” persists as the exemplary meaningless philosophical question, because we have no access to whatever “underlying reality” there is that would permit us to definitively give a yes or no answer.  What possible scientific experiment would permit us to put that question to rest?

The current mainstream view these days in the academic and scientific communities seems to be an acceptance of 1 — that consciousness is physical — and a denial of 2 — that the physical world is conscious.  The story is that since the beginning of time, there have been these things (electrons, quarks, what have you) whizzing around in an empty universe, and that eventually they came together and evolved themselves into human beings.  In this story, consciousness isn’t structurally important to the nature of reality; it’s just one more phenomenon in a universe full of interesting phenomenon.

There’s an act of faith involved in this story, which is the belief in the reality of matter and energy outside of the presence of human observers.  The faith comes from the fact that when we do  experiments, nature behaves in a way that’s far more consistent and complex than limited human minds could conceive of on their own, which certainly suggests there is something out there outside of our own heads.

The act of faith doesn’t seem problematic to me.  There’s no reason to think that we’d be able to know for sure about reality, without taking something on faith, and faith in the existence of scientific law seems to justify itself by the almost magical accomplishments of science and engineering.

What does seem problematic is that it leaves a big unanswered question — where are we, the observer, in this story?  The scientific description of the universe as matter and energy interacting in a law-like manner explains everything that we perceive except for our perception of it.

One explanation I’ve heard is that the first-person perspective is “illusory”, in the sense that we trick ourselves into believing we’re conscious.  There’s a lot of scientific evidence that consciousness is a constructed phenomenon, a story that we tell ourselves after the fact.  You might say “I decided to pick up the cup”, but scans of your brain shows that your arm started moving before the thought entered your conscious awareness.

I have no doubt this is true, but it’s still not an explanation.  An “illusion” is a concept that presupposed a first-person observer who gets tricked by evidence that misleads her from the underlying reality.  But in this case, we’re saying that the existence of the first-person observer is itself the trick.  What does that even mean?  Who’s getting tricked?

It seems perverse to end up with a story that says that our primary evidence — I see, I feel, I hear — isn’t real, and instead reality is this totally unobservable thing that gives rise to our primary evidence.  I’m not sure how to express this objection rigorously, but there seems to be a fundamental incompleteness to any theory that discredits the evidence on which it is based.

So anyway, we have these two views of looking at the universe — first that there is this primary, unexplainable thing called consciousness, and the physical world can be described in terms of patterns as observed conscious phenomenon, and second that there is this primary, unexplainable thing called the material world, and consciousness can be described in terms of patterns that the world gives rise to.  Both seem true, and irreconcilable with each other.

I think the state of the problem right now is that we really just don’t know, and that a lot of writing on this subject is the attempt of papering over the not-knowing with stuff that sounds good.

There are interesting cultural divides related to this, as well — sympathy towards view 1 vs view 2 seems to be one of the big cleavage points in the American political landscape right now, with the secular on one side of the line and the religious on the other.

I’m not terribly sympathetic to a solution to this dilemma that tries to throw out view 1 or a solution that tries to throw out view 2.  My sense is that both views are grounded in something pretty fundamental about human experience, so arguing that one of them is just wrong and the other is right is going to lead to a broken philosophical system.

The third alternative is to argue that this way of framing the problem is incorrect.  This is another trend in thought which I think is more promising.  The basic thing is to say that the distinction between reality and experience — consciousness and the world — is what is illusory, the artificial creation of a subject-object dualist perspective.  Rather, it’s two different ways of describing the same unified thing, that being reality / consciousness / god / the universe.  This way of resolving the problem comes out of Eastern thought.  I’ve been re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which one well-known attempt to address Western-framed questions through the lens of Eastern metaphysics.  My college thesis was in the same vein.

Although something seems more “right” to me about this third approach, I feel like writing in that space hasn’t really done a a good job answering what the relationship between consciousness as a physical phenomenon to consciousness as an experiential one really is.

We understand the physical side of consciousness much better now than the Zen monks did back when they were sitting around thinking non-dualistic thoughts back in the day.  We don’t have a complete story for how consciousness works, but we can now say some meaningful things about it: it’s a computational feedback process that involves forming representations of things in the world, including representations of itself.  This quality of self-representation seems to be the thing that makes consciousness so weirdly unlike most other physical phenomenon in the way it picks up and magnifies complexity, leading to things such as language, art, ability to build rocket ships, etc.

So if a monist metaphysics is true, I wouldn’t really expect to be able to give a written explanation that describes in objective terms how the whole thing works.  Rather, I would expect that the only way I could achieve a sense of understanding is to erase the distinction between myself as the person asking the question, and the phenomenon I’m trying to understand, thus forming an explanatory circuit with me in the middle of it.  That’s largely the purpose of meditation and similar spiritual practices — to get one’s mind to a state where you can actually experience understanding as opposed to being stuck in the rational, intellectualizing place where understanding is impossible.

The interesting question is whether there is degrees of understanding even in a place of non-seperation from the universe.  The way that spiritual traditions describe it, it’s kind of, you have the perspective, or you don’t.  But a lot of people entering that mind frame didn’t understand computer science, cognitive science, etc.  Can you actually practice cognitive science from a state of enlightenment?  What does such a science look like?  It would have to be inherently value-oriented instead of objective.  (That’s largely the point of Zen and the Art of Motercycle Maintenance  insofar as I understand it — that traditional, objective thinking misses the importance of having values in one’s relationship to the universe.  Where “values” basically come down to saying, this is good, I want things this way, i.e., understanding and wanting things to be a certain way as being intrinsically one process instead of the instrumental reasoning that’s more traditional in Western thought — i.e., 1. I want this, and 2. this is how the universe is, so 3. this is what I should do).

Okay, I’m starting to ramble here, so I’m cutting this post off for now.  I think that last paragraph is probably three blog posts or maybe a book before it even starts to make sense.

Written by jphaas

May 12th, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized