Phenomenal Shifts, Antienlightenment, The Buddha of Asininity

September 5th, 2010  |  Published in idiocy, mouth-flappin, vanity

I had a "moment" the other day. It was a roughly instantaneous, completely internal moment I'll refer to as a phenomenal shift. I have had a number of such moments in my life. They're really weird. I shall attempt here to describe the events, in the hopes that perhaps (a) you, the reader, have had such moments, and will optionally relay to me the existence of such moments; or (b) we can verify, at long last, that I've lost my mind.

These phenomenal shifts are mysteriously Big Things for me -- though not immediately interestingly causally efficacious per se, they haunt my general worldview in weird ways afterwards, coloring the way I think about Being, the way I tacitly cleave the ontic joints of the universe, &c, &c.

I'm really curious about whether this is an integral part of the human experience or whether none of you have any idea what I'm talking about.

What are you talking about?

The first phenomenal shift I experienced took place when I was a little kid -- six years of age, give or take. I took a look at myself in the mirror and realized, at that point, that I existed. It is as though, prior to that single moment of realization, I had been an automaton, interacting with the environment but not thinking too much about it. Very much like a little adorable Roomba, perhaps. Subsequently, I realized that I was a thing in the world (whereas previously I merely was one). I remember vividly being really freaked out by this.

That sounds idiotic.

Yeah, Strawman Interlocutor, you're right. Jeez. Let's see.

As a little kid, I hadn't read Husserl or Fichte or much of anything, so I couldn't put realizations into any sort of conceptual framework. All I could do was stare in the mirror and marvel at the fact that I existed. And I did so. I would sneak up to the mirror and stare into it for extended periods of time. Day after day. Marveling at the fact that I existed, that anything at all existed.


So the crucial part of these "phenomenal shifts" is the single moment when you intuitively realize something big about Being, even if you can't immediately formally state exactly what that Something is. That's it. You're just minding your business and bam, you get hit over the head. With a Truth Pillowcase full of Reality Doorknobs.

I'm able, two decades later, to go back and couch this first, strange phenomenal shift in terms of my dubious oversimplification of some concepts put forth by Dead European philosophers. This is convenient, but not what I want to talk about here. The key, strange experience here is a sudden internalization of a fundamental part of existence -- namely, "I exist", or something along those lines.

So you're talking about Buddhic Enlightenment?


No, you are. Siddhartha Gautama sat underneath a pipal tree until he had a single moment of enlightenment, in which he

Shut up, Strawman Interlocutor, just shut up.

What I am describing is basically a dumbed-down version of what Buddha had after hanging out under his Boddhi tree, except instead of a wonderful, windless flash of Universal truth, I just get confused.

It's just as sudden, though -- an instantaneous, incorporeal tidal wave of nonpropositional and unreasonably inscrutable information.

So you've had more of these things?

Why yes, Strawman Interlocutor, I have. I've had a few of them in my life. The realizations have been similar -- suddenly occurring big, vague, remarkably affecting thoughts, not immediately expressible in language.

The one I had a few days ago occurred while I was brushing my teeth. I was thinking about a number of humans I've known very well and bam, it hits me. Something along the lines of "you are a human being who exists, and your actions and personality are known extremely well to these other existent human beings, with whom you have had real interactions".

I forgot that I was brushing my teeth and just kinda stood there for a while. Probably ten seconds passed before I was able to get it together and move again.

It sounds idiotic, stupid, and completely banal. That's kind of the point I think.

So what, I don't care, so what. I don't care.

There is, of course, nothing odd about a thought or mental state not being immediately expressible in language. I mean to say nothing here concerning the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, concerning Wittgenstein, concerning Jerry Fodor, really concerning anything profound.

Again, nothing I say here is meant to be "profound". What I am attempting to do is convey the properties of a class of powerfully moving mental events which I have experienced a number of times.

That was all far too lucid and comprehensible, Karl. Would you mind muddying the conceptual waters a bit

Look, this is a very real mental phenomenon which has taken place in my flesh-and-blood brain a number of times, and it's wigged me out, and I'm wondering if it happens to other people (i.e. it's a part of the human experience) or if it just happens to me (i.e. it's a part of the guy-who-has-to-paint-his-face-like-a-clown-every-night-before-he-goes-to-sleep experience).

Just what you need -- a new feed to add to your RSS reader!

August 2nd, 2010  |  Published in vanity

Hey, all ten people who read this!

I've been playing around with "fake infographics" of late; I'm fond enough of the concept to try making them a Thing.

So I have done just that, and they're now officially a Thing:

We'll see how long it takes until either (a) I completely abandon this project, or (b) the site devolves into nonsensical and ungrammatical rants about Barack Obama and Kabbalah. I predict approximately two months for (b), four for (a).

ANYWAYS there is a link to the site's RSS feed at the top, add it to your feed aggregator if you want, or not, like I care, whatever.

Why I do not accept the Chinese Room Argument

June 18th, 2010  |  Published in mouth-flappin, noise-makin, philosophy, vanity

John Searle's Chinese room argument is a wonderful little argument which concludes that no artificial intelligence can possibly have true "understanding" of a human language (and thus, by implication, we cannot have real "strong artificial intelligence", as a strong AI must be at least as mentally adept as, say, the average human, who does understand language). I do not accept the argument. I will briefly describe why.

There are two important things to note before we get going. First, there are many wonderful and remarkably subtle replies to the CRA (and responses to those, and responses to the responses, etc.); I give only one of them here (it is the one which really convinces me of the falsity of the CRA). Second, none of the arguments here are my own, though I'm not quite sure where to give attribution.

The Chinese Room Argument

I won't rehash the argument here. If you wish to read on, you should understand it, however. The Wikipedia article has a nice readable statement of the argument you might want to check out.

One Reply

This isn't a head-on attack of the CRA; it is instead an argument which I find very compelling whose conclusion contradicts that of the CRA. You will have to wait, with bated breath, I am certain, for a critique of exactly what I believe to be wrong about the CRA.

Suppose we have Jim, who is a native Chinese speaker. Suppose that, for each cell in Jim's brain (and brainstem, and whatever else in the body may affect cognition), we have a tiny cell-sized and cell-shaped microcomputer, which has the same input and output as the cell (takes and emits the same molecules, connects to other cells in the same way, has the same properties as the original cell with respect to electrical current, etc.). The cell-microcomputer was designed in a lab and runs on silicon.

Suppose we replace one cell from Jim's brain with its corresponding microcomputer. Jim, at this point, feels the same and acts the same. He understands Chinese as well as a native speaker can (just as before the cell transplantation). He feels like the same person, he has the same cognitive abilities, etc.

Suppose we continue this process of cell replacement, cell by cell. At each point, Jim retains his understanding of Chinese (recall that we assumed that the microcomputers behave exactly identically to the cells; it follows, then, that Jim behaves exactly identically with the microcomputers as he does with the cells).

Eventually, Jim will have no original brain cells left. However, he will still converse with others in Chinese as a native speaker, with memories, intelligence, emotions, and world knowledge. He understands Chinese no better and no worse than he did before the operation.

The situation, then, is one in which an individual with a wholly robotic brain, made from silicon components fabricated in a clean room, understands Chinese.

If I have one neuron replaced and I feel like the exact same person and you tell me that I don't "actually" understand English because I'm not a real human any more, I will not be happy. If I have two neurons replaced and you tell me I don't understand Chinese, I will not be happy. The same holds after an arbitrary number of neuronal replacements.

We then simulate this wholly robotic brain on a single computer (we can certainly do this). The simulation behaves identically with respect to any interaction in Chinese. If you admit Jim understands Chinese after the operation, you surely also admit the simulation understands Chinese (unless your definition of "understand" is contrived -- something like "has sufficient knowledge encoded in neurons").

We encode this program in a human-readable format, print it in a book, and give it to Searle in his room. Bam! the Chinese room understands Chinese.

We thus reject the CRA by reductio ad absurdum.

The Response

Searle's response to this argument would be, I believe, that we should imagine that instead of running on silicon with electrical currents running through it, our electronic brain is implemented entirely in some system of buckets of water and pulleys in a very large room such that its operation gives us the same result as the computer (we can surely come up with such a system). That is, you give the system a sentence encoded somehow in buckets of water, the system works for a bit, and you get an encoded output. It is absurd to assert these buckets of water understand Chinese, therefore the reply to the CRA must be false.

This is, of course, a strawman argument, but I'm pretty sure Searle did give a response very much like this to the reply (or a similar one).

Why The Response Fails to Convince Me

In the situation given in the response, we ask whether it is possible that the complex interactions of many buckets filled with water and attached to various types of pulleys can give rise to an understanding of Chinese. Frankly, this strikes me as no less absurd than asserting that meat can give rise to this understanding. As a materialist, I certainly think that meat (a bunch of atoms comprising molecules, comprising more complex structures, comprising more complex organelles, comprising cells) can give rise to an understanding of Chinese.

That is, the response is, I believe, little more than a statement of the prima facie absurdity of the understanding of Chinese implemented in a system of buckets of water and pulleys; I am asserting that this is no less absurd than something we observe every day -- true understanding of language implemented in meat.

(Basically, my rebuttal is "multiple realizability creates monsters? So what." This is, in truth, extremely ham-fisted, but it is late and I am tired.)

Update: I might be wrong.

A little interactive song I made

May 2nd, 2010  |  Published in music, noise-makin, vanity

Can be found Here.

Boy, it's been a while since I've played violin seriously, it turns out. I rejected about half of my "final takes" due to bad intonation, and the result isn't remotely in tune. Sigh.

I am using my technical skills to solve extremely important problems

February 7th, 2010  |  Published in vanity

Witness this proof of concept. (I like him best on a landscaped iPhone.)

My favorite albums of the naughts

December 29th, 2009  |  Published in music, vanity

So I have, at the behest of my friend Andy, compiled my top 25 albums of the decade (which decade being the one conterminous with 2009).

I do not pretend to be a music critic or anything remotely approximate, so it's tough to determine exactly what my ordering criterion is. I don't know enough music to be able to speak to the decade's most "influential" albums. Neither can I speak about the decade's most "musically innovative" or perhaps "musically impressive" albums (as if the phrase "musically X" means anything anyways). Neither am I remotely familiar with what you might call the last decade's zeitgeist (I spend most of my time in a cave staring into a mirror).

So I chose albums as follows: I have attempted to compile a set of those albums which I have latched onto and, at some point in time, listened to a whole lot. I have then ordered those albums by something like "how serious of an emotional reaction they have caused in me". The result is thus much more autobiographical than are most lists of this sort.

So, without further ado...

25: The Books: Thought for Food (2002)

As rad as it comes.

24: Madvillain: Madvillainy (2004)

So it turns out music can be fun!

23: Of Montreal: The Sunlandic Twins (2005)

When you're Kevin Barnes, things are strange.

22: Four Tet: Rounds (2003)

Did you know he went to the same High School as Pierce Brosnan? (and The xx?! (and Hot Chip?! (and Burial?!)))

21: Aphex Twin: 26 Mixes for Cash (2003)

Probably shouldn't count this since it's a compilation, but this has a few unbelievable tracks on it.

20: Diverse: One A.M. (2003)

Oh boy oh boy oh boy (Warning: "Hip Hop")

19: Angels of Light: We Are Him (2007)

Nothing is anything anymore.

18: Squarepusher: Ultravisitor (2004)

Tom Jenkinson, the guy who made it, showed himself to be one of those types I don't really like when he said "Ultravisitor is my spectacle of beauty and of terror. It is unknowable, and will never be understood by anybody, least of all its creator." In spite of that, it's a very good album.

17: The Dodos: Visiter (2008)

Just pretend it's spelled with an "o" and you'll love it.

16: Animal Collective: Sung Tongs (2004)

Really, Karl, Sung Tongs? Not Feels? Not Merriweather Post Pavilion? Yes. What.

15: MGMT: Oracular Spectacular (2007)

If thinking this album is incredible makes me a stupid hipster, well then I don't ever want to be anything but.

14: Devendra Banhart: Rejoicing in the Hands (2004)

Every track on this album is wonderful (ditto Cripple Crow, which didn't make the list).

13: LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver (2007)

This album is the voice of what everyone my age thinks they are. It is so good you guys. So so good.

12: Ghostface Killah: Fishscale (2006)

No other album will so successfully make you want to do coke and be famous.

11: The Postal Service: Give Up (2003)

Whatever, I don't care what you think. This album needs to be on the list. Each of us has a person inside that wants to spend all day wearing a scarf and scribbling into a composition notebook; this album is for them.

10: Iron and Wine: Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)

Why aren't you playing on your "x-box" and administering a good many "high fives" to your "bros", huh Karl, huh? Trying to look "sensitive enough so various females will let you see their underwears", huh, Karl? Whatever, I spent an entire summer listening to this album, it is the hymn of the warm earth you will turn into some day, and you would do very well indeed to remember your own mortality.

9: Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

I don't need to say anything about this album.

8: Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)

I guess it's OK to be a fucking weirdo from outer space again? I'm glad about that, at least.

7: Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes (2008)

Everything is nice.

6: The Knife: Silent Shout (2006)

I don't like steampunk, mysticism, or Europe, but I sure do like The Knife. I guess we've all got to live with our cognitive dissonances. (PLEASE TO NOTE: I do not actually dislike Europe. Also I actually think Swedenborg is pretty rad.)

5: Bjork: MedĂșlla (2004)

Mostly a cappella, entirely nonsensical, really pretty great.

4: Efterklang: Under Giant Trees EP (2007)

Listen to this ten times (it is not boring, but "subtle" and also "really fucking good").

3: Sunset Rubdown: Random Spirit Lover (2007)

The band has a stupid name, the album has a stupid name, but it fits together like wonderful, messy, byzantine clockwork. I really dig on this album.

2: Radiohead: Kid A (2000)

You try being a weirdo in High School when this album comes out and have it not affect you aesthetically, musically, and generally. I dare you.

1: Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (2005)

This is the album that I will listen to when I am gray and wish to weep for my youth. It is about the place I am from, it has a song about zombies, and it has a song about the apocalypse (the original one -- with the bearded goddude -- not the anthropogenic one that Kid A's all about). It is this incredible muddle of hopefulness, despair, religiosity, and longing set to really good music. Extremely coherent and extremely heartbreaking.

Honorable mentions

Andrew WK: I Get Wet
The Streets: A Grand don't come for free
Outkast: Stankonia
Prefuse 73: One Word Extinguisher
Boards of Canada: Geogaddi
The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy
Current 93: Black Ships ate the Sky