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Showing posts from June, 2011

Progress

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Many of my articles in this blog have a common theme: they attempt to throw doubt on aspects of our worldview that we normally take for granted. There is thus a way in which these articles can be taken as negative: Instead of offering new explanations, they seem to solely undermine existing explanations. If they are correct, a reader may throw his arms up and say “right, you’ve got a point there; but then, how do we makeprogress?” Somehow, we expect progress to be made only when new explanations are offered.

But new explanations can only emerge if we are able to put our old explanations in perspective and look upon them from ‘outside the system,’ as Douglas Hofstadter likes to put it. In this context, a big part of making progress is the dismantling of notions and beliefs that prevent us from seeing alternative, and more promising, paths forward. When our paradigms become rusty, they work as barriers to progress; they lock us into repetitive and exhausted patterns of thought. Like ho…

A thought experiment about evolution

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I want to invite you today for a thought experiment. Let us suppose that the key tenets of our scientific, material-reductionist paradigm are all correct. According to this worldview, reality is objective and independent of mind; mind and its conscious perceptions are a by-product of the matter of the brain; and the brain, along with our ability to understand nature, has evolved through natural selection favoring survival of the fittest. Still according to this worldview, life has evolved within a space-time fabric where the interplay of matter and energy gives rise to the set of objective phenomena we call reality. Let us imagine this reality as a collection of objects in the canvas of space-time.

As the first living organisms evolved, they were immersed in the same space-time canvas populated by all the other objects that make up reality: rocks, water, sand, air, other living beings, etc. They also had perceptual mechanisms that gave them indirect access to these other objects: fo…

The subtleties of perception

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The other day I was thinking about those old autostereograms: pictures of apparent random dots that, when looked at in just the right way, make a 3-dimensional image jump out at you. I have never been good at that, but the key seems to be to not focus on the dots. It requires a certain ‘way of seeing’ that transcends analytical effort. Indeed, any effort at analyzing the picture ensures that you will not be able to see the 3D image, even though it’s there right under your nose all the time.

Sometimes I wonder if autostereograms aren't excellent metaphors of reality. How much of reality are we capable to see with our regular, highly analytical way of seeing? How much do we miss? How much can there be right under our noses, but which we never see or even intuit in our daily lives? After all, if the metaphor is valid, the more we try – in the sense of making a goal-driven effort – the more difficult it becomes to see. Is there a trick to see more of reality, just like there seem t…

So the only explanation possible is...

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In logic, a strong distinction is made between deductive and inductive inferences. Here is an example of a deductive inference:

Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. Therefore, if I go to Amsterdam, I must go to the Netherlands.
Clearly, a deductive inference is necessarily implied by its premise, beyond any doubt. Now consider the following inductive inference:

My house has been broken into and there are unidentified footprints in the backyard. Therefore, the footprints were left by the burglar.
Now the inference cannot be derived with certainty from the premises. There is only a reasonable probability, given the circumstances, that the footprints were made by the burglar. Indeed, they could conceivably have nothing whatsoever to do with the burglary; they could have been made, for instance, by the gardener who came in to collect some forgotten tools while you were not home.

Inductive inferences are entirely dependent on our ability to correctly evaluate probabilities. However,…