A bit on Panpsychism—part 2: Why the idea is basically problematic, and what could be a different (and hopefully better) alternative

I continue from my last post. While the last post was fairly straight-forward, the subject-matter of this post itself is such that the writing becomes  meandering.


The basic trouble with panpsychism:

The primary referent for the concept of consciousness refers to one’s own consciousness. The existence of the same faculty in other beings is only an inference drawn from observations. If so, and in view of the two facts discussed in the last post, why can’t a similar inference be extended to everything material, too?

Well, consciousness is observed to exist only in those beings that are in fact alive. Consciousness is fundamental, sure. In Ayn Rand’s system, it even is a philosophical axiom. But qua a metaphysical existent, consciousness also happens to be only an attribute, and that too, of only one class of existents: the living beings.

Here, we will not get into the debate concerning which species can be taken as to be truly conscious, i.e., which species can be said to have an individualized, conscious grasp of reality. Personally, I believe that all living beings are conscious to some extent, even if it be only marginal in the more primitive species such as amoebae or plants.

However, regardless of whether plants can be taken to be conscious or not, we can always say that material entities that are not alive never show any evidence of being conscious. Your credit cards, spectacles, or T-shirts never show any evidence of being engaged in a process of grasping reality, or of having a definite, internal and individualized representation of any aspect of reality—no matter in how diluted, primitive or elementary form it may be posited to exist, or how fleetingly momentary such a grasp may be asserted to be. Consciousness is an attribute of only those beings that actually have life. You can’t tell your credit card to go have a life—it simply cannot. For the same reason, it can’t have the faculty to know anything, speaking literally.

Now, coming to the phenomenon of life, it is delimited on two different counts: (i) Life is an attribute possessed by only some beings in the universe, not all. (ii) Even those beings which are alive at some point of time must eventually die after the elapse of some finite period of time. When they do, their physical constituents are no different from the beings that never were alive in the first place. (This “forward-pass” kind of a logical flow is enough for us here; we need not look into the “backward-pass”, viz., the issue of whether life can arise out of the purely inanimate matter or not. It is a complicated question, and so, we will visit it some time later on.)

The physical constituents of a living organism continue to remain more or less the same after the event of its death. Even if we suppose that there is a permanent loss of some kind of a *physical* constituent or attribute at the time death, for our overall argument (concerning panpsychism) to progress, it is enough to observe and accept that at least **some** of the physical aspects continue to remain the same even after death. The continued existence of at least a part of physical constituents is sufficient to establish the following important conclusion:

Not all physical parts of the universe are at all times associated with living beings.

Given the above conclusion, it is easy to see that to speak of all parts of the reality as possessing consciousness is an elementary error: Not all parts of reality are alive at any point of time, and consciousness is an attribute of only those beings that are alive.


An aside related to reincarnation:

Even if reincarnation exists (and I do believe that it does), what persists in between two life-times is not consciousness, but only the soul.

In my view (derived from the ancient Indian traditions, of course, but also departing from it at places), the term “soul” is to be taken in sense of an individual (Sanskrit) “aatmaa.” An “aatmaa,” in my view is, loosely speaking, the “thing” which is neither created at birth nor destroyed at death. However, it is individual in nature, and remains in common across all the life-times of a given individual. Thus, I do not take the term “soul” in the sense in which Aristotle and Ayn Rand do. (For both Aristotle and Ayn Rand, the soul comes into being at birth, and ceases to exist at death.) Further, in my view, the soul has no consciousness—i.e., no feelings, not even just the desires even. For more details on my view of soul, see my earlier posts, especially these: [^][^][^].

The important point for our present discussion is this: Even if the soul were to be an attribute of all parts of the entire universe (including every inanimate objects contained in it), we still couldn’t ascribe consciousness to the inanimate parts of the universe. That is my main point here.


Another idea worth entertaining—but it is basically different from panpsychism:

Following the above-mentioned analysis, panpsychism can make sense only if what it calls “elements of consciousness” is something that is not in itself conscious, in any sense of the term.

The only idea consistent with its intended outcome can be something like a pre-consciousness, i.e., some feature or attribute or condition which, when combined with life, can give rise to a consciousness.

But note that such a pre-condition cannot mean having an actual capacity for being aware; it cannot represent the ability to have that individualized and internal grasp of reality which goes when actual living beings are actually conscious of something. That is the point to understand. The elements that panpsychism would like to have validated cannot be taken to be conscious the way it asserts they are. The elementary attributes cannot be conscious in the same sense in which we directly grasp our own consciousness, and also use it in our usual perceptions and mental functioning.

Even if you accept the more consistent idea (viz., a pre-conscious condition or a soul which may be associated with the non-living beings too), panpsychism would still have on its hands another problem to solve: if consciousness (or even just the pre-consciousness) is distributed throughout the universe, then for what reason does it get “concentrated” to such glaringly high degrees only in the living beings? For what metaphysical function? To allow for which teleological ends? And, following what kind of a process in particular? And then, what is the teleological or metaphysical function of the elements of consciousness?… From what I gather, they don’t seem to have very good ideas regarding questions and issues like these. In fact, I very much doubt if they at all have _any_ ideas in these respects.


Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder [^] notably does touch upon the animate vs. the inanimate distinction. Congratulations to her!

However, she doesn’t pursue it as much as she could have. Her main position—viz., that electrons don’t think—is reasonable, but as I will show below, this position is inevitable only when you stay within the scope of that abstraction which is the physical reality. Her argument does not become invalid, but it does become superfluous, when it comes to the entirety of existence as such (i.e., the whole universe, including all the living as well, apart from the non-living beings). To better put her position in context (as also those of others), let us perform a simple thought experiment.


The thought experiment to show why the panpsychism is basically a false idea:

Consider a cat kept in a closed wooden box. (Don’t worry; the sides of the box all carry holes, and so, the cat has no problem breathing in a normal way.) Administer some general anathesia to the cat, thereby letting her enter into a state of a kind of a deep sleep, being physically unresponsive—in particular, being unresponsive to the external physical stimuli like a simple motion of the box. Then place the cat in the wooden box, and tie its body to a fixed position using some comfortable harnesses.

If you now apply a gentle external force to the box from the outside, the cat-plus-box system can be easily described (or simulated) using physics; some simple dynamical evolution equations apply in this case. The reason is, even though the cat is a living being, the anaesthesia leads it to temporarily lose consciousness, so that nothing other than its purely physical attributes now enter the system description.

Now repeat the same experiment but when the cat is awake. As the box begins to move, the cat is sure to move its limbs and tail in response, or arch its body, etc. The *physical* attributes of her body enter the system description as before. However these physical attributes themselves are now under the influence of (or are a function of) an additional force—one which is introduced into the system description because of the actions of the consciousness of the cat. For instance, the physical attribute of any changes to the shape of its body are now governed not just by the externally applied forces, but also out of the forces generated by the cat itself, following the actions of her consciousness. (The idea of such an additional physical force is not originally mine; I got it from Dr. Harry Binswanger.) Thus, there are certain continuing physical conditions which depend on consciousness—its actions.

Can we rely on the principles or equations of physical evolution in the second case, too? Are our physical laws valid for describing the second case, too?

The answer is, yes. We can rely on the physics principles so long as we are able to bring the physical actions produced by the consciousness of the cat into our system description. We do so via that extra set of the continuing conditions. Let’s give this extra force the name: “life-physical force.”

Next, suppose the entire motion of this box+cat system occurs on a wooden table. The table (just as the wooden box) is not alive. Therefore, no special life-physical force comes into the picture while calculating the table’s actions. The table acts exactly the same way whether there is only a box, or a box with a non-responsive cat, or a box with a much meowing cat. It simply supplies reaction forces; it does not generate any active action forces.

Clearly, we can explain the actions of the table in purely physical terms. In fact doing so is relatively simpler, because we don’t have to abstract away its physical attributes the way we have to, when the object is a living and conscious being. Clearly, without any loss of generality, we can do away with panpsychism (in any of its versions) when it comes to describing the actions of the table.

Since panpsychism is a redundancy in describing the action of the table, obviously, it cannot apply to the universe as a whole. So, its basic idea is false.

Overall, my position is that panpsychism cannot be taken too seriously “as is”, because it does not discuss the intermediate aspect of life (or the distinction of living vs. non-living beings). It takes what is an attribute of only a part of the existence (the consciousnesses of all living beings), and then directly proceeds to smear it on to the entirety of existence as such. In terms of our thought experiment, it takes the consciousness of the cat and smears it onto not just the wooden box, but also onto the wooden table. But as can be seen with the thought-experiment, this is a big leap of mis-attribution. Yet a panpsychist must perform it, because an entire category of considerations is lacking in it—viz., that related to life.

What possibly would a panpsychist have to do to save his thesis? Let’s see.

Since consciousness metaphysically is only an attribute of a bigger class of entities (viz., that of living beings), the only way to rescue panpsychism would be to assert that the entire universe is always alive. This is the only way to have every part of the universe conscious.

But there are big troubles with such a “solution” too.

This formulation does away with the fact of death. If all beings are always alive, such a universe ceases to contain the fact of death. Thus, the new formulation would smear out the distinction between life and death, because it would have clubbed together both (i) the actions of life or of consciousness, and (ii) the actions of the inanimate matter, into a single, incoherent package—one that has no definition, no identity. That is the basic theoretical flaw of attempting the only way in which panpsychism could logically be saved.

Now, of course, since we have given a lifeline (pun intended) to the panpsychist, he could grab it and run with it with some further verbal gymnastics. He could possibly re-define the very life (i.e. living-ness) as a term that is not to be taken in the usual sense, but only in some basic, “elementary,” or “flavour”-some way. Possible… What would be wrong with that?

… The wrong thing is this: There are too many flavors now blurring out too many fundamental distinctions, but too few cogent definitions for all these new “concepts” of what it means to be a mere “flavour.”… Realize that the panpsychist would not be able to directly point out to a single instance of, say the table (or your T-shirt) as having some element of same kind of live which actually is present with the actual living beings.

If an alleged consciousness (or its elementary flavor or residue) cannot perform even a single action of distinguishing something consciously, but only follows the laws of physics in its actions, then what it possesses is not consciousness. Further, if an allegedly elementary form of life can have unconditional existence and never faces death, and leads to no actions other than those which follow from the laws of physics alone, then what it possesses is not life—not even in the elementary sense of the term.

In short, panpsychism is an untenable thesis.

Finally, let me reiterate that when I said that a pre-condition (or pre-consciousness, or “soul”) can remain associated with the inanimate matter too, that idea belongs to an entirely different class. It is not what panpsychists put forth.


Comments on what other bloggers have said, and a couple of relevant asides:

For the reasons discussed above, Motl[^]’s “proof” regarding panpsychism cannot be accepted as being valid—unless he, Koch, Chalmers, or others clarify what exactly they mean by terms such as “elementary” consciousness. Also, the elementary bits of “life”: can there be a \Phi of life too, and if yes, how does \Phi = 0 differ from ordinary loss of life (i.e. death) and the attendent loss of the \Phi of consciousness too.

As to Hossenfelder‘s post, if a given electron does not belong to the body of a conscious (living) being, then there exist no further complications in its physical evolution; the initial and boundary conditions specified in the purely physical terms are enough to describe its actions, its dynamical evolution, to the extent that such an evolution can at all be described using physics.

However, if an electron belongs to a conscious (living) being, then the entire of consideration of whether the electron by itself is conscious or not, whether it by itself thinks or not, becomes completely superfluous. The evolution of its motion now occurs under necessarily different conditions; you now have to bring the physical forces arising due to the action of life, of consciousness, via those additional continuing conditions. Given these additional forces, the system evolution once again follows the laws of physics. The reason for that, in turn, is this: whether an elementary particle like the electron itself is conscious or not, a big entity (like a man) surely is conscious, and the extra physical effects generated by this consciousness do have to be taken into account.

An aside: Philosophy of mind is not a handmaiden to physics or its philosophy:

While on this topic, realize that you don’t have to ascribe consciousness to the electrons of a conscious (living) being. For all you know, there could perhaps be an entirely new kind of a field (or a particle) which completely explains the phenomenon of consciousness, and so, electrons (or other particles of the standard model) can continue to remain completely inanimate at all times. We don’t know if such a field exists or not.

However, my main point here is that we don’t have to exhaust this question without observation; we don’t have to pre-empt this possibility by arbitrarily choosing to hinge the entire debate only on the particles of the standard model of physics, and slapping consciousness onto them.

Realize that the abstraction of consciousness (and all matters pertaining to it or preceding it, like the soul), is fundamentally “orthogonal” to the abstractions of physics, of physical reality. (Here, see my last post.) You don’t commit the error of taking a model (even the most comprehensive model) of physics, and implicitly ask philosophy of mind to restrict its scope to this model (which itself may get revised later on!) Physics might not be a handmaiden to philosophy, but neither is philosophy a handmaiden to physics.

Finally coming to Schlafly‘s post, he too touches upon Hossenfelder’s post, but he covers it from the advance viewpoints of free-will, mind-body connection, Galen’s argument etc.[^]. I won’t discuss his post or positions in detail here because these considerations indeed are much more complicated and advanced.

Another aside: How Galen’s argument involves a superfluous consideration:

However, one point that can be noted here is that Galen fails to make the distinction of whether the atom he considers exists as a part of a conscious (living) being’s body, or whether it is a part of some inanimate object. In the former case, whether the electron itself is conscious or not (and whether there is an extra particle or field of consciousness or not, and whether there is yet another field or particle to explain the phenomenon of life or not), a description of the physical evolution of the system would still have to include the aforementioned life-physical force. Thus, the issue of whether the electron is conscious or not is a superfluous consideration. In other words, Galen’s argument involves a non-essential consideration, and therefore, it is not potent enough to settle the related issues.


Homework for you:

  • If panpsychism were to be true, your credit card, spectacles, or T-shirt would be conscious in some “elementary” sense, and so, they would have to be able to hold some “elementary” items of cognition. The question is, where and through what means do you suppose it might be keeping it? That is to say, what are the physical (or physico-electro-chemical-etc.) correlates for their content of consciousness? For instance, can a tape-recorder be taken to be conscious? Can the recording on the tape be taken as the storage of its “knowledge”? If you answer “yes,” then extend the question to the tape of the tape-recorder. Can it be said to be conscious?
  • Can there be a form of consciousness which does not carry a sense of self even in the implicit terms? As it so actually happens, i.e., in reality, a conscious being doesn’t have to be able to isolate and consciously hold that it has self; but it only has to act with a sense of its own life, its own consciousness. The question asks whether, hypothetically, we can do away with that implicit sense of its own life and consciousness itself, or not.
  • Can there be a form of consciousness which comes without any mind-body integrating mechanisms such as some kinesthetic senses of feedback, including some emotions (perhaps even just so simple emotions such as the pleasure-pain mechanism)? Should there be medical specializations for addressing the mental health issues of tables? of electric switches? of computers?
  • Could, by any stretch of imagination, the elementary consciousness (as proposed by panpsychists) be volitional in nature?
  • Should there be a law to protect the rights of your credit card? of your spectacles? of your T-shirt? of a tape-recorder? of your laptop? of an artificial neural network running on your laptop?
  • To those who are knowledgeable about ancient Indian wisdom regarding the spiritual matters, and wish to trace panpsychism to it: If a “yogi” could do “tapascharyaa” even while existing only as an “aatmaa” i.e. even when he is not actually alive, then why should he at all have to take a birth? Why do they say that even “deva”s also have to take a human birth in order to break the bonds of “karma” and thereby attain spiritual purity?

More than three thousand words (!!) but sometimes it is necessary. In any case, I just wanted to finish off this topic so that I could return full-time to Data Science. (I will, however, try to avoid this big a post the next time; cf. my NYRs—2019 edition [^].)


A song I like:
(Marathi) “santha vaahate krushNaa maai”
Lyrics: Ga. Di. Madgulkar
Music: Datta Davajekar
Singer: Sudhir Phadke

 

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Why are NYRs so hard to keep?

Why do people at all make all those New Year Resolutions (NYRs)? Any idea? And once having made them, why do they end breaking them all so soon? Why do the NYRs turn out to be so hard to keep?

You have tried making some resolutions at least a few times in the past, haven’t you? So just think a bit about it before continuing reading further—think why they were so hard to keep. … Was it all an issue of a lack of sufficient will power? Or was something else at work here? Think about it…

My answer appears immediately below, so if you want to think a little about it, then really, stop reading right here, and come back and continue once you are ready to go further.


My answer:

People make resolutions because they want to get better, and also decide on doing something about it, like, setting a concrete goal-posts about it.

Further, I think that people fail to keep the resolutions because they make them only at the 11th hour.


A frequently offered counter-argument:

Now, you might object to the first part of my answer. “Who takes all that self-improvement nonsense so seriously anyway?” you might argue. “People make resolutions simply because it’s a very common thing to do on the New Year’s Eve. Everyone else is happy making them, and so, you are led into believing that may be, you too should have a shot at it. But really speaking, the whole thing is just a joke.”

Good attempt at finding the reasons! But not exactly a very acute analysis. Let me show you how, by tackling just this one aspect: making resolutions just because the other people are doing the same…


Following other people—what does that exactly mean?:

If someone goes on to repeat a certain thing just as everyone else is doing it, then, does this fact by itself make him a part of the herd? a fool? Really? Think about it.

Suppose you have been watching an absolutely thrilling sports match, say a one-day international cricket match. Suppose you have specially arranged for a day’s leave from your work, and you have gone with your friends to the stadium. Suppose that the team you have been rooting for wins the finals. Everyone in your group suddenly begins dancing, yells, blows horns, beats drums, and all that. Your group generally begins to have a wild celebration together. Seeing them do that, almost like within a fraction of a second, you join them, too.

Does your action mean you have been a mindless sheep following the others in your group? Does it mean that you derived no personal pleasure from the win of your team? That you yourself had no desire to express your joy, your exhilaration? Is your excitement predominantly dependent, on such an occasion, on what other people are doing? Or is it the case that the excitement and the joy is all authentically your own, but it’s just that its outer expression differs. For instance, you wouldn’t be able to go *so* wild if your boss were to be sitting in the next row, rooting for the other team! May be it’s just your outer expression which is shaped by looking at how other people celebrate at the occasion. The most you actually gather by observing others is how to express your joy—not that you have joy. (Observe how the Mexican wave works.) It’s not an instance of the herd behaviour at all!

Something similar for the NYRs too. People make resolutions because there is some underlying cause, a personal reason, as to why they want to do that. And the reason is what I already said above. Namely, that they want to get better.

Of course, it’s not that you didn’t have any point in your argument above. The influence of the other people sure is always there. But it’s a minor, incidental, thing, occurring purely at the surface.


How people actually make their resolutions:

Coming back to the NYRs, it’s a fact that around the time of the year-end, there are a great number of other people who are so busy with certain things at this time of the year: compiling all those top 10 lists (for the bygone year), buying or gifting diaries or calendars (for the new year), and, of course, making resolutions for the new year. Often, they “seriously” let you in on what resolutions they have decided, too.

If so many people were not to get so enthusiastic about making these NYRs, it’s possible, nay, even probable, that you yourself wouldn’t have thought of doing the same thing on this occasion. Possible. So, in that sense, yes, you are getting influenced by what other people do.

Yet, when it is time to take the actual action, people invariably try to figure out what is personally important to them. Not to someone else. In making resolutions, people actually don’t think too much about society, come to think of it.

No one resolves something like, for instance, that he will take a 10,000 km one-way trip in the new year, and go help some completely random couple settle some issue between them like, you know, why he spends so much money on the gadgets, or why she spends so much time on getting ready—or how they should settle their divorce agreement. People typically aren’t very enthusiastic about keeping such aims by way of New Year’s Resolutions, especially if they involve complete strangers. Even if it is true that a lot of people do resolve to undertake some humanitarian service, it’s more out of feeling of having to combine something that is good, and something that is social—or altruistic. The first element (the desire something good, to bring about some “real change”) is the more dominant motivation there, most often. And even if it is true that there are just six degrees of separation between most of the humanity, the fact of the matter still remains that while settling down on their resolution, most people usually don’t traverse even just one degree, let alone all the rest 5 (i.e. the entire society).

On the other hand, quitting drinking—or at least resolving to limit themselves to “just a couple of pegs, that’s all” is different. This one particular resolution appears very regularly near the top of people’s lists. There often seems to be this underlying sense that there is an area where they need to improve themselves. An awareness of that vague sense is then followed by a resolution, a “commitment, come what may,” sort of. To give it a good try all over once again, so to speak.


The paradox, and a bit about my recent take about it:

And yet, despite this matter being of such a personal importance, people still often fail in keeping their resolutions. Think of the usual resolutions like “regular exercise,” or “not having any more than a 90 [ml of a hard-drink] on an evening,” or “maintaining all expenses on a daily basis, and balancing bank-books regularly…” These are some of the items that regularly appear on people’s list. That’s the good part. The bad part is, the same items happen to appear on the lists of the same people year after another year.

Now, coming to the reasons for such a mass-ive (I mean wide-spread) failure, I have already given you a hint above. People typically fail, I said, because they make those resolutions at the 11th hour. They make them on the spur of the moment, often thinking them up right on the night of the 31st itself.

OK, let me note an aside here. The issue, I think is not, really speaking, one of just time. Hey, what are those new year’s diaries and planners for, except for using them at the beginning of the year? And people do use such aids for some time period at the beginning. … So, yes, time-tables and all are  involved, and people still fail to keep up.

So, the issue must be deeper than that, I thought. In any case, I have come to form one hypothesis about it.

Come to think of it, some time ago, I had jotted down my thoughts on this matter in a somewhat lighter vein. I had said: if you want to keep your resolutions, make only those which you can actually keep!

Coming back to the hypothesis which I now have, well, it is somewhat on similar lines, but in a bit more detailed, more “advanced” sort of a way. I am going to test it on myself first at the turn of this year, and I am going to see how good or poor it turns out to be (for whatever worth this idea is as a hypothesis anyway).

As a part of my testing “strategy” I will also be announcing my NYRs on the 31st (or at the most the 1st) here. Stay tuned.


Oh yes, by way of a minor update, even if I was down for a few days with minor fever and nausea, I have by now well recovered, and already am back pursuing data science. … More, later.

… Oh yes, the crackers remind me. … Happy Christmas, once again…

Will be back on the 31st or 1st. Until then, take care, and bye for now…


A song I like:
(Hindi) “Yun hi chala chal rahi”
Singers: Kailash Kher, Hariharan, Udit Narayan
Music: A. R. Rahman
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar


[Guess no need to edit this post; it’s mostly come out as pretty OK right in the first pass; will leave it as is.]

Flames not so old…

The same picture, but two American interpretations, both partly misleading (to varying degrees):

NASA releases a photo [^] on the FaceBook, on 24 August at 14:24, with this note:

The visualization above highlights NASA Earth satellite data showing aerosols on August 23, 2018. On that day, huge plumes of smoke drifted over North America and Africa, three different tropical cyclones churned in the Pacific Ocean, and large clouds of dust blew over deserts in Africa and Asia. The storms are visible within giant swirls of sea salt aerosol (blue), which winds loft into the air as part of sea spray. Black carbon particles (red) are among the particles emitted by fires; vehicle and factory emissions are another common source. Particles the model classified as dust are shown in purple. The visualization includes a layer of night light data collected by the day-night band of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP that shows the locations of towns and cities.

[Emphasis in bold added by me.]

For your convenience, I reproduce the picture here:

Aerosol data by NASA

Aerosol data by NASA. Red means: Carbon emissions. Blue means: Sea Salt. Purple means: Dust particles.

Nicole Sharp blogs [^] about it at her blog FYFD, on Aug 29, 2018 10:00 am, with this description:

Aerosols, micron-sized particles suspended in the atmosphere, impact our weather and air quality. This visualization shows several varieties of aerosol as measured August 23rd, 2018 by satellite. The blue streaks are sea salt suspended in the air; the brightest highlights show three tropical cyclones in the Pacific. Purple marks dust. Strong winds across the Sahara Desert send large plumes of dust wafting eastward. Finally, the red areas show black carbon emissions. Raging wildfires across western North America are releasing large amounts of carbon, but vehicle and factory emissions are also significant sources. (Image credit: NASA; via Katherine G.)

[Again, emphasis in bold is mine.]

As of today, Sharp’s post has collected some 281 notes, and almost all of them have “liked” it.

I liked it too—except for the last half of the last sentence, viz., the idea that vehicle and factory emissions are significant sources (cf. NASA’s characterization):


My comment:

NASA commits an error of omission. Dr. Sharp compounds it with an error of commission. Let’s see how.

NASA does find it important to mention that the man-made sources of carbon are “common.” However, the statement is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. It curiously omits to mention that the quantity of such “common” sources is so small that there is no choice but to regard it as “not critical.” We may not be in a position to call the “common” part an error of commission. But not explaining that the man-made sources play negligible (even vanishingly small) role in Global Warming, is sure an error of omission on NASA’s part.

Dr. Sharp compounds it with an error of commission. She calls man-made sources “significant.”

If I were to have an SE/TE student, I would assign a simple Python script to do a histogram and/or compute the densities of red pixels and have them juxtaposed with areas of high urban population/factory density.


This post may change in future:

BTW, I am only too well aware of the ugly political wars being waged by a lot of people in this area (of Global Warming). Since I do appreciate Dr. Sharp’s blog, I would be willing to delete all references to her writing from this post.

However, I am going to keep NASA’s description and the photo intact. It serves as a good example of how a good visualization can help in properly apprehending big data.

In case I delete references to Sharp’s blog, I will simply add another passage on my own, bringing out how man-made emissions are not the real cause for concern.

But in any case, I would refuse to be drawn into those ugly political wars surrounding the issue of Global Warming. I have neither the interest nor the bandwidth to get into it, and further, I find (though can’t off-hand quote) that several good modelers/scientists have come to offer very good, detailed, and comprehensive perspectives that justify my position (mentioned in the preceding paragraph). [Off-hand, I very vaguely remember an academic, a lady, perhaps from the state of Georgia in the US?]


The value of pictures:

One final point.

But, regardless of it all (related to Global Warming and its politics), this picture does serve to highlight a very important point: the undeniable strength of a good visualization.

Yes I do find that, in a proper context, a picture is worth a thousand words. The obvious validity of this conclusion is not affected by Aristotle’s erroneous epistemology, in particular, his wrong assertion that man thinks in terms of “images.” No, he does not.

So, sure, a picture is not an argument, as Peikoff argued in the late 90s (without using pictures, I believe). If Peikoff’s statement is taken in its context, you would agree with it, too.

But for a great variety of useful contexts, as the one above, I do think that a picture is worth a thousand words. Without such being the case, a post like this wouldn’t have been possible.


A Song I Like:
(Hindi) “dil sajan jalataa hai…”
Singer: Asha Bhosale
Music: R. D. Burman [actually, Bertha Egnos [^]]
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi


Copying it right:

“itwofs” very helpfully informs us [^] that this song was:

Inspired in the true sense, by the track, ‘Korbosha (Down by the river) from the South African stage musical, Ipi Ntombi (1974).”

However, unfortunately, he does not give the name of the original composer. It is: Bertha Egnos (apparently, a white woman from South Africa [^]).

“itwofs” further opines that:

Its the mere few initial bars that seem to have sparked Pancham create the totally awesome track [snip]. The actual tunes are completely different and as original as Pancham can get.

I disagree.

Listen to Korbosha and to this song, once again. You will sure find that it is far more than “mere few initial bars.” On the contrary, except for a minor twist here or there (and that too only in some parts of the “antaraa”/stanza), Burman’s song is almost completely lifted from Egnos’s, as far as the tune goes. And the tune is one of the most basic—and crucial—elements of a song, perhaps the most crucial one.

However, what Burman does here is to “customize” this song to “suit the Indian road conditions tastes.” This task also can be demanding; doing it right takes a very skillful and sensitive composer, and R. D. certainly shows his talents in this regard, too, here. Further, Asha not only makes it “totally, like, totally” Indian, she also adds a personal chutzpah. The combination of Egnos, RD and Asha is awesome.

If the Indian reader’s “pride” got hurt: For a reverse situation of “phoreenn” people customizing our songs, go see how well Paul Mauriat does it.

One final word: The video here is not recommended. It looks (and is!) too gaudy. So, even if you download a YouTube video, I recommend that you search for good Open Source tools and use it to extract just the audio track from this video. … If you are not well conversant with the music software, then Audacity would confuse you. However, as far as just converting MP4 to MP3 is concerned, VLC works just as great; use the menu: Media \ Convert/Save. This menu command works independently of the song playing in the “main” VLC window.


Bye for now… Some editing could be done later on.

What mental imagery for “QM” do I carry?—part 1

I haven’t written on QM for some time, and today I found myself wondering a bit about the title question.

When it comes to concepts, especially those of the physical sciences, we always carry some visual images concerning them.

No, the meaning of a concept isn’t the image—that would be an erroneous view of concept. Concepts are necessarily abstract. However, since sense-percepts indeed are both the beginning material as well as the ultimate foundation of concepts, it seems obvious to me that we should also have some kind of a sensory-perceptual data associated with concepts in an “informal” sort of a way. The data serve a certain psycho-epistemological function, viz., that of helping you recall the meaning of a concept, say, with great “vividness.”

Definitions are there. They do give identity to concepts. But most of the concepts that we use—in our daily life, but even more so in the physical sciences—are at a rather high (or even very high) level. They are far removed away from the direct sensory-perceptual data lying underneath them. Due to this distance from the perceptual data, definitions for most concepts themselves are abstract, too.

Definitions tell you that which is denoted by a concept. However, there also are other means that the mind uses in recalling and correctly using concepts. An important means here is the mental imagery: say a prominent picture, a sound, a schematic diagram, or even an instance of a kinesthetic sense—or a cluster of all these. They get associated with a concept, and their use gives you not only of a sense of the various underlying layers of meaning of that concept, but also the connections that a given concept has with the other concepts. I don’t know whether I am using a rigorously correct word or not, but at least for my personal usage, I call such things the connotations of a concept.

With many thinkers, esp. Objectivists, there is this tendency to look down upon connotations. I think this is wrong. If you are going to substitute connotations for denotations, then, of course, it’s a significant error; it is bad. But what if you don’t?

Realize, connotations (in the sense I use the term) themselves do not equate to mere “feelings.” It’s not as if denotations equal to Reason and connotations to Feelings. No. [In fact such a position would be Rationalistic.]

What I call connotations are not some generalized, difficult-to-verbalize, and background sort of vague feelings that occupy your feelings-sphere when you consider a concept. They instead are very specific items of imagery, of some perceptual data. The subconscious seems to work more efficiently when you involve these items. Especially if the concepts are abstract, if they are at a high level.

Let me give you some examples.

Since maths always is fully abstract, it’s inevitable that our minds would use the connotative imagery to even greater extent than in the other sciences.

Consider the concept: “derivative.” The first thing that comes to my mind when I begin to think of this concept is that std. XI graph of a curve, a point on that curve, and a series of chords approaching the tangent to the curve at that point. Everything that I have ever thought of “derivative” or “differential” is tied to this diagram, an image. [Indeed, since the chord approaches the tangent only from one side, every time I sit down to consider the concept of derivative, I still get an uncomfortable feeling about that asymmetry—the tangent isn’t approached from both the sides. I feel a bit comfortable even today, after all these 35+ years.]

Now, take a moment to consider what that imagery for “derivative” is like. The first thing to realize here is that this image is not a instance of a direct sense-perception. In nature, you never see a tangent or a series of chords. For that matter, you don’t even see a 1D curve. All you ever see are the 3D objects and their perceived limits (or extensions), which themselves are idealized as surfaces are curves. Thus, the connotative imagery itself consists of an abstract diagram. Yet, it helps you concretize the concept.

Recently, I was talking to a couple of mathematicians. [Yes, I am talkative. I can talk with any one—even mathematicians!] The issue was pretty abstract, even though we were talking mostly at the “physical intuitive” level. We were arguing at the blackboard [in actuality it was a whiteboard] from many different points of view, and we were doing the argumentative exchange fairly rapidly. So, inevitably, we were picking up only the highlights of an idea of a concept—just those bare tidbits that would be enough for the other person get the gist of how the argument from your side was progressing. For instance, here is what I once said during the discussion: “…Now, as far as the variational calculus goes, that’s not a problem with me [i.e. for the problem I was considering]… You see…” I rapidly drew XY axes, a step function, a flat line at the mid-height, rapidly hatched the area only under the step function. Then without pointing out to anything specific, I just said, “Both these areas are equal, and so, I am home free!” They understood. Even if I had never in fact pointed out the second area!

Clearly, not just me, but they, too, were using these connotative images. Else, communications would have been impossible.

That reminds of something… A girl had once [more than two decades ago] articulately told me, complete with her suave Mumbai accent, that she was not good in communications—with an emphasis on “communications.” That way, many, many people, have told me the same thing—in fact far too many people for my liking. But for some odd reason, this particular instance with this girl has stayed in my mind. My instinctive reaction back then was—the one which I didn’t share with her—that probably her problem was in understanding [anything straight], not in communicating whatever it was that she did understand. If she were only to “get it right,” it was very obvious to me, that she would have absolutely no problem in articulating it. An articulate dumb is an easy possibility; it’s not a contradiction in terms—even though I was (relatively more) new to the phenomenon back then.

But getting back to this recent discussion, if I myself were to make use of these “physical intuitive” imageries, then it would have been perfectly OK—I am an engineer. But the point is, at one point in discussion, in thinking aloud, one of these mathematicians themselves said something like: “So, when you integrate, you are going get this quantity [i.e. an expression he had written on the board] under the integral sign.” Then, in the same flow, he added without any distinct pause, still continuing to think aloud, still not addressing the line to anyone in particular: “You know integration—sum of areas under the curve. And so, …”

Clearly, even in his professional mathematical work, when it came to exploring a new path, [even if that path was only in a known territory], he wasn’t using either the formal epsilon-delta definition or the idea of the anti-derivative or the fundamental theorem of calculus. He was using a finite sum of finite number of finite areas under a curve. He would sure formalize his argument later on, and that’s when these beasts of formalization would come in. But in actually working out that new path, he was using only the simple connotative imagery.

We all always do.

So, as the thought of QM came up to me during my “purpose-less” kind of an idle arm-chair wondering on this fine monsoon evening, while comfortably sipping a cup of coffee at home, I happened to ask myself: what imagery do I really use when I say “QM”?

By “QM,” I meant, first and foremost, the concept itself. Not the implications of the findings of this field of science, but “quantum mechanics” as the idea.

I answered the question to myself immediately, of course. [How else could such imagery be of any use, in the first place?] I wanted to write about that question today. Instead, in explaining the meaning of imagery and connotations, I have ended up writing so much [about 1500 words] that I must now split this intended post into two parts. Accordingly, this writeup now becomes the part 1 of a (hopefully only) 2-part series of posts.

I will come to QM in the second part, hopefully soon enough. In the meanwhile, think about what your answer to that same question is like. [Yes, critical takes are perfectly welcome, too. Especially if they are sarcastic.]

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A Song I Like:
(Western popular) “The day before you came”
Band: ABBA

[E&OE]