Soul or Spirit

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A material theory of soul or spirit is found in some ancient Eastern teachings. The concept is presented in more modern, Westernized language by G.I. Gurdjieff in his theory of the “Food Factory”. Gurdjieff says that “everything is material” including the soul. A soul is not present ab initio in humans but must be grown from the proper material which is produced by self observation and intentional suffering. Not knowing how to do this most humans, much less the unborn, have no soul.

Curiously this theory is mentioned in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” in the Very Big Corporation of America board meeting scene.

I’m agnostic about Gurdjieff’s theory of a material soul. IMO the soul is best considered as a constellation of cognitive capacities like instinct, intuition, empathy, love, etc. However, those capacities do have a material substrate in the form of the brain, CNS, and other tissues and organs of the human biocomputer, and they are capable of progressive development which is no doubt reflected in corresponding changes in the material substrates. In addition to self observation and intentional suffering, the soulful aspects of the human biocomputer can be further developed through nutrition, cultivating good gut microbes, and many kinds of practice like meditation and selfless good works, mindfully performed. Growing a soul is thus like feeding and exercising a muscle. Or a baby.

But it doesn’t happen by accident and it’s not automatic.

Poor Richard

Consciousness and Intelligent Machines

ai-robots

Artificial Intelligence (AI) arguably began with rule based expert systems. All the feedback loops (updates to the rules) were externally mediated via the programmer. Now, embodied deep learning systems update themselves. They are autonomously adaptive goal seekers. Thus embodied deep learning machines are cybernetic machines.

Embodied means:

1) sensorimotor capability, which most physical machines already have, but virtual machines may not;

2) an evolving virtual body representation within the machine, and

3) self-adaptive evolutionary learning algorithms.

This is especially important for machines that move around autonomously in their environment.

Embodied AI will no doubt be social as well, but the new Turing Test 2.0 will not be concerned with their ability to pass as human, but with whether or not they possess any human-like subjective consciousness. I warrant that embodied, cybernetic, social deep learning machines will evolve such consciousness. In the process I think we’ll find that consciousness is a *behavior*, not a mysterious fundamental property of reality like space, time, mass, or force as panpsychists suppose.

The laws of consciousness will be the laws of physics that govern what kinds of bodies can produce what kinds of the behaviors we call consciousness.

This will no doubt be vociferously rejected by the die hard romantics, magical thinkers, and human exceptionalists among us.

For more on consciousness and intelligent machines:

Intelligent Machines: https://m.facebook.com/po.richard/photos/a.708579679228817/2130019307084840/?type=3

Panpsychism: https://m.facebook.com/po.richard/photos/a.708579679228817/2130171167069654/?type=3

Mind at the End of its Tether

Image: amazon.com

“in sœcula saeculorum” [Latin: the end of the ages]

In Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945),  H. G. Wells last book, I think the ever-prescient Wells anticipates the demise of optimistic science-futurism. For most of his life Wells was such a futurist, but his later work became increasingly dark and pessimistic. Ultimately his powers of prediction seemed to fail him and he imagined some underlying existential change in the universe as the cause. Some critics explain this as Wells projecting his own approaching death on the world itself. I have an entirely different take on it. Wells (referring to himself as “the writer”) tries to express his growing frustration with a curtain that seems to be drawn between him and the future that he has constantly striven to scientifically and rationally foresee:

“It requires an immense and concentrated effort of realization, demanding constant reminders and refreshment, on the part of a normal intelligence, to perceive that the cosmic movement of events is increasingly adverse to the mental make-up of our everyday life. It is a realization the writer finds extremely difficult to sustain. But while he holds it, the significance of Mind fades. The secular process loses its accustomed appearance of a mental order. The word “secular” he uses here in the sense of the phrase “in sœcula saeculorum”, that is to say, Eternity. He has come to believe that that congruence with mind, which man has attributed to the secular process, is not really there at all. The secular process, as he now sees it, is entirely at one with such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or with the flight of a shower of meteors. The two processes have run parallel for what we call Eternity, and now abruptly they swing off at a tangent from one another—just as a comet at its perihelion hangs portentous in the heavens for a season and then rushes away for ages or for ever. Man’s mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because he was evolved as part and parcel of it. ” ( Wells, HG; Rucker, Rudy; Wilson, Colin (2013-04-02). The Last Books of H.G. Wells: The Happy Turning: A Dream of Life & Mind at the End of its Tether (Provenance Editions). Monkfish Book Publishing. Kindle Edition Kindle Location 810)

What Wells imagined as a cosmic tangent of some kind that was rendering the future world obscure and unpredictable is better framed as a radical divergence between the accelerating pace of anthropogenic changes to the environment and the maximum effective speed at which a) the biosphere and b) the human bio-computer can adapt to those changes. Humanity seems to have passed the point of peak fitness right along with peak oil and peak water.  Our increasing “adaptive lag” relative to environmental change is likely to prove catastrophic. Humanity is producing its own virtual asteroid or iceberg impact. Even though many see it coming (and have seen it coming at least since Wells’ day) the time to fatal impact is too brief for us to turn the Titanic ship of human nature (i.e. the operating system of the unconscious mind) and human culture out of harm’s way. We are increasing the scope and severity of our intellectual, emotional and social challenges (e.g. environmental destruction, overpopulation, resource bottlenecks, etc.) far more rapidly than we are increasing our effective problem-solving capacity. The irony is that our inability to increase our effective problem-solving capacity is in stark and glaring contrast to what our potential problem-solving capacity might be.  The optimism of Well’s earlier work and the optimism of futurists like Buckminster Fuller and Ray Kurzweil comes from a well-justified estimation of the enormous creative and rational potential of the human brain–but optimists turn a rather blind eye to how refractory the unconscious brain (that creature of slow evolution that determines most of our behavior) tends to be. We mostly repeat unconsciously generated behavior patterns regardless of their decreasing utility under changing conditions. If only we could learn to apply to politics and economics the kind of empirical evidence-based practice we apply to things like smartphone engineering or even to modern sports training… But, alas, behavioral economics has shed startling new light on the predictable irrationality of human behavior and the degree of “artistic license” we take with the explanatory  narratives with which we rationalize our irrational, corrupt, and anti-social behavior.

In short, the problem is not so much some metaphysical change in the universe as an inability of the unconscious mind to keep up with (much less get ahead of) its own growing impacts on the physical world.

Wells circa 1945

Wells circa 1945

“Of everything he [Wells referring to himself] asks: “To what will this lead?” And it was natural for him to assume that there was a limit set to change, that new things and events would appear, but that they would appear consistently, preserving the natural sequence of life. So that in the present vast confusion of our world, there was always the assumption of an ultimate restoration of rationality, and adaptation and a resumption. It was merely a question, the fascinating question, of what forms the new rational phase would assume, what Over-man, Erewhon or what not, would break through the transitory clouds and turmoil. To this, the writer set his mind. He did his utmost to pursue the trends, that upward spiral, towards their convergence in a new phase in the story of life, and the more he weighed the realities before him the less was he able to detect any convergence whatever. Changes had ceased to be systematic, and the further he estimated the course they were taking, the greater their divergence. Hitherto events had been held together by a certain logical consistency, as the heavenly bodies as we know them have been held together by the pull, the golden cord, of Gravitation. Now it is as if that cord had vanished and everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity. The limit to the orderly secular development of life had seemed to be a definitely fixed one, so that it was possible to sketch out the pattern of things to come. But that limit was reached and passed into a hitherto incredible chaos. The more he scrutinized the realities around us, the more difficult it became to sketch out any Pattern of Things to Come. Distance had been abolished, events had become practically simultaneous throughout the planet, life had to adapt itself to that or perish, and with the presentation of that ultimatum, the Pattern of Things to Come faded away. Events now follow one another in an entirely untrustworthy sequence. No one knows what to-morrow will bring forth, but no one but a modern scientific philosopher can accept this untrustworthiness fully. Even in his case it plays no part in his everyday behaviour. There he is entirely at one with the normal multitude. The only difference is that he carries about with him this hard harsh conviction of the near conclusive end of all life. That conviction provides no material at all for daily living. It does not prevent his having his everyday affections and interests, indignations and so forth. He is framed of a clay that likes life, that is quite prepared to risk it rather than give way to the antagonistic forces that would break it down to suicide. He was begotten by the will to live, and he will die fighting for life. He echoes Henley:

“Out of the night that covers me Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul…

Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.”

There, for all his philosophical lucidity, in his invincible sticking to life and his will to live, he parallels the normal multitude, which will carry on in this ever contracting NOW of our daily lives—quite unawake to what it is that is making so much of our existence distressful and evasive and intensifying our need for mutual comfort and redeeming acts of kindliness. He knows, but the multitude is not disposed to know and so it will never know. The philosophical mind is not what people would call a healthy buoyant mind. That “healthy mind” takes life as it finds it and troubles no more about that. None of us start life as philosophers. We become philosophers sooner or later, or we die before we become philosophical. The realization of limitation and frustration is the beginning of the bitter wisdom of philosophy, and of this, that “healthy mind”, by its innate gift for incoherence and piecemeal evasion and credulity, never knows. It takes a priest’s assurance, the confident assertion of a leader, a misapplied text—the Bible, bless it! will say any old thing one wants it to say if only one picks out what one needs, or, better, if one lets one’s religious comforters pick out the suitable passages—so that one never sees it as a whole. In that invincible ignorance of the dull mass lies its immunity to all the obstinate questioning of the disgruntled mind. It need never know. The behaviour of the shoal in which it lives and moves and has its being will still for a brief season supply the wonted material for that appreciative, exulting, tragic, pitiful or derisive comment which constitutes art and literature. Mind may be near the end of its tether, and yet that everyday drama will go on because it is the normal make-up of life and there is nothing else to replace it. To a watcher in some remote entirely alien cosmos, if we may assume that impossibility, it might well seem that extinction is coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt! It never comes like a thunderclap. That Halt! comes to this one to-day and that one next week. To the remnant, there is always, “What next?” We may be spinning more and more swiftly into the vortex of extinction, but we do not apprehend as much. To those of us who do not die there is always a to-morrow in this world of ours, which, however it changes, we are accustomed to accept as Normal Being. A harsh queerness is coming over things and rushes past what we have hitherto been wont to consider the definite limits of hard fact. Hard fact runs away from analysis and does not return. Unheard-of strangeness in the quantitative proportions of bulk and substance is already apparent to modern philosophical scrutiny. The limit of size and space shrinks and continues to shrink inexorably. The swift diurnal return of that unrelenting pendulum, the new standard of reference, brings it home to our minds that hard fact is outpacing any standard hitherto accepted. We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty. It beats the searching imagination. The more it strives the less it grasps. The more strenuous the analysis, the more inescapable the sense of mental defeat. The cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of Being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than a phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, themselves as unsubstantial as a dream. We rage in our dreaming. We may wake up storming with indignation, furious with this or that ineffectual irremovable general, diplomatist, war minister or ruthless exploiter of our fellow men, and we may denounce and indict as righteous anger dictates. ’42 TO ’44 was made up of that kind of outbreak. But there are thousands of mean, perverted, malicious, heedless and cruel individuals coming into the daylight every day, resolute to frustrate the kindlier purposes of man. In CRUX ANSATA again, this present writer has let himself boil over, freely and violently. Nevertheless it is dream stuff. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this pretty pace from day to day…and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death… Life… struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…” It passes and presently it is vague, indistinct, distorted and at last forgotten for ever. We discover life in the beginnings of our idiot’s recital as an urge to exist so powerful that every form it takes tends to increase in size and numbers and outgrow its supply of food energy. Groups or aggregates or individuals increase not only in numbers but in size. There is an internecine struggle for existence. The bigger aggregations or individual eliminate the smaller and consume more and more. The distinctive pabulum of the type runs short, and new forms, capable of utilizing material which the more primitive were not equipped to assimilate, arises. This inaugurates a fresh phase in the evolving story of Being. This idiot’s tale is not a tale of yesterday, as we, brief incidents in the story of life, are accustomed to think of yesterday. It comprehends the whole three thousand million years of Organic Evolution. All through we have the same spectacle of beings over-running their means of subsistence and thrusting their fellows out of the normal way of life into strange habitats they would never have tolerated but for that urge to live, anyhow and at any price, rather than die. For long periods, in our time-space system, a sort of balance of life between various species has existed, and their needless mutations have been eliminated. In the case, however, of a conspicuous number of dominating species and genera, their hypertrophy has led not only to an excess of growth over nutriment, but also in the case of those less archaic forms with which we are more familiar to a loss of adaptability through the relative importance of bigness over variation. The more they dominated the more they kept on being the same thing. The continual fluctuations of normal Being in time, and its incessant mutations, confronted each of these precarious hypertrophied unstable dominating groups with the alternative of either adaptive extension of their range or else replacement by groups and species better fitted to the changing face of existence. Astronomical and internal planetary shrinkages in this universe of ours (which are all a part of the Time process) have, for example, produced recurrent phases of world-wide wet mud and given away again to the withdrawal of great volumes of water from a desiccated world of tundras and steppes, through the extension of glaciation. The sun is a variable star, but we can fix no exact term to its variations. The precession of the equinoxes is a wabble in the sequence of our seasons. The same increasing discordance with the universe which we regard as real being, grows more and more manifest. Adapt or perish has been the inexorable law of life through all these ever intensifying fluctuations, and it becomes more and more derisive as the divergence widens between what our fathers were wont to call the Order of Nature and this new harsh implacable hostility to our universe, our all. Our universe is the utmost compass of our minds. It is a closed system that returns into itself. It is a closed space-time continuum which ends with the same urge to exist with which it began, now that the unknown power that evoked it has at last turned against it. “Power”, the writer has written, because it is difficult to express this unknowable that has, so to speak, set its face against us. But we cannot deny this menace of the darkness.” (Wells, ibid., Kindle Locations 826-905).

The dark, unknowable power that has set its face against us is is not some cosmic “Antagonist” as Wells imagines it. As I suggested before, it is really the dark power of the unconscious, which makes up by some estimates well over 90% of our brain and rules most of our behavior. We might make that dark universe much more visible and tractable to enlightened cultivation (e.g. cognitive re-engineering) if we explored it with the same urgency and fantastic levels of resources that we pour into our struggles for wealth and power and into all the other efforts that we devote to “daily life”.

But that, in fact, is what we all dread and resist the most–seeing ourselves as we really are and taking responsibility for our irrationality. We conflate the dark unconscious with our individuality, creativity, spontaneity, and “freedom”. It is just the opposite–it is the tyranny of biological evolution and the haphazard, ad hoc development of an unconscious brain reacting in  “wild” instinctive ways to random experience despite the thin veneer of “civilization” and “learning”. While we hope for social justice we reflexively pursue individual advantage and immediate gratification.

The unconscious brain resists domestication like a wolf resists captivity. Of course there is much that we love about our dark, wild, unconstrained wolfishness. Among other things it is the source of what some call the Ego. We shall continue to indulge it in exorbitant excess, regardless of the  disaster we know that overindulging the Ego invites. The apex predator (or the apex artist, engineer, economist, or politician) will not domesticate itself. A higher power is required. Some hope for the intervention of gods, some for enlightenment, others for better science or artificial intelligence, and still others place hope in the invisible hand of markets.

Unfortunately the science that might help enlighten and save us (make us better fit for modern life as in the optimistic science-futurist’s imagination) is more likely to be used to further brainwash and enslave the majority of us. That’s how we roll.

“The writer is convinced that there is no way out or round or through the impasse. It is the end.” (Wells, ibid., Kindle Location 823)

However, as Wells also observes, “in sœcula saeculorum,”  the end of the ages, i.e. the end of the future, is not the end of daily life or daily cares. No amount of future-anchored existential absurdity eclipses the eternal present. Our cares persist. Except for the most pathologically depressed among us, those with extreme existential and philosophical neuroses, the effort to “make the best” of even the worst possible circumstances is the only rational approach. This can be described as maintaining psychological hardiness under stress. What often matters most is how we go about adjusting our emotional balance controls to fit the circumstances. There is a fine line between down-regulating negative emotions or cognitive dissonance, or moving unpleasant signals to the “background,” and constructing a full blown delusion or personality disorder. Cognitive filters and biases can be useful adaptive mechanisms when artfully applied; but unpracticed, careless, or excessive application quickly becomes pathological.  Unfortunately, given our unfamiliarity with our own brains, the latter is most often the case. Again, that’s just how we roll.

Poor Richard

H. G. Wells later non-fiction works from Project Gutenberg Australia

  • World Brain (1938)– HTML
  • The Fate of Man [a.k.a. The Fate of Homo Sapiens] (1939)–HTML
  • Utopias (1939)–HTML
  • The New World Order (1940)–TextZIPHTML
  • The Common Sense of War and Peace (1940)–HTML
  • Crux Ansata (1943)–HTML

Related PRA 2.0 posts:

The beginning of wisdom 3.0

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece (Image via Wikipedia)

According to the Bible’s Psalms and Proverbs, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Solomon expresses a similar sentiment in the book of Ecclesiastes.

But long before the Bible was written, the greatest men and women in ancient times (times in which travel could be difficult and dangerous) journeyed from all over the world to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi seeking answers to their most burning questions.

Over the door of the temple they found the inscription “Know thyself”.

“Know Thyself”

The phrase “Know thyself” has been attributed to Pythagoras, Socrates, and a number of other Greek sages, but it is thought to have originated in pre-history, perhaps from the time of the Mother Goddess and the Gaia religion. It has been found in many other places, including ancient Icelandic runes.

In fact, it has been suggested that this phrase sums up the whole of ancient philosophy.

What does it mean?

The implication of the inscription’s exact placement above the entrance to the Temple at Delphi is perhaps that self-knowledge is a pre-condition to all further knowledge. In other words, “Know thyself before thou entereth in here and bother the Oracle.”  Without meeting that prerequisite, further inquiry may be pointless. You just might be wasting the Oracle’s precious time and your own.

The seat of consciousness? (Click image for full size)

But what is self-knowledge and how is it obtained? What is the self? Is it the body, the mind, the soul, or is it all of these? At least in the case of the ancient philosophers it was probably a combination of all three. The distinctions were not as clearly drawn then as they can be today. However, in the context of our modern perspective, it may be safe to say that the ancients were not really talking about knowing human anatomy. It is more likely that they were thinking about consciousness.  People still differ about the “seat of consciousness”, whether it be the soul, the brain, the universe, or any number of other things.

According to modern opinion, human beings (homo sapiens, from the latin “wise man” or “knowing man”) are thought to be self-aware by nature. Is this natural self-awareness the same as self-knowledge? Surely the whole of ancient philosophy would not be dedicated to exhorting the need for something that all human beings already possessed!

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but how many of us really knows how to examine our lives? I think we assume we’d know how to do that if we chose to, but do we? The brain evolved in some very idiosyncratic ways, and self-examination was apparently not high on the to do list for natural selection.

Nevertheless, we modern humans, especially the best and brightest of us, tend to assume that our own personal self-knowledge is something we come by automatically in the course of all our experience and all our spontaneous and natural thoughts and feelings about ourselves. 

The small percentage of us who have studied psychology or participated in some kind of psychological counseling or therapy(such as Freudian analysis, aroma therapy, or the currently popular cognitive behavioral therapy) tend to assume that we are especially knowledgeable about ourselves. We may even have become self-conscious.

“Self Observation”

On the other hand, the really sophisticated philosophers among us (we know who we are) may believe that self-examination, self-observation, introspection, mindfulness, meditation, and other forms of psychological mindedness prescribe specific kinds of education, work, or practice that one must pursue in order to acquire greater insight into and mastery of the workings of ones own mind.

Those willing to explore the outer limits of knowledge may also believe that a guru, an extraterrestrial intelligence, or an altered state of consciousness has conferred special self-knowledge upon them mystically.

Some may have come by their heightened self-insight chemically.

Though having belonged at some time or another to all of the above groups,  I have recently settled down to the more pedantic pursuit of following the research on cognitive neuroscience.

“fMRI Brain”

Be all that as it may, however, what all of the above paths to self-knowledge tend to have in common is the problem of motivation and discipline, or the lack of it. So I was delighted with myself when I hit upon the following idea: what if the video game industry could be induced to produce exciting, psychologically addictive video games based on some or all of the above methods for increasing self-knowledge?

Lo and behold a few days later I accidentally found this:

The “Know Thyself” game

A Lost Soul. An Unruly Subconscious. A Second Chance. A Role-Playing Game.

What if you were suddenly without any memories, held in a dream prison by your own subconscious, and the only hint you have of who you might be is a single statement repeated over and over in your head?

Know Thyself is a game for three to five players for an evening’s entertainment. One person plays an amnesiac in a fever dream hell and the others play that person’s subconscious & people from their past. The game features bizarre, unreal play due to a special deck of playing cards.

This is not actually a video game, and there are no photo-realistic, kick-ass action avatars, but it seems like a small step in that direction. For more information (but not much) see Tomorrow the World Games.

Could this at last be the true philosopher’s stone, the long sought-after secret to transforming unemployed couch potatoes into enlightened beings, the key to awakening the dormant wisdom we need to save the world?

First there was the beginning of innate, natural wisdom in human pre-history, the first dawning of wisdom in the world (beginning of wisdom 1.0). Then there was the beginning of conscious, formal wisdom in individual cognitive development and human culture (beginning of wisdom 2.0). Now begins the promulgation of that most radical and fundamental form of wisdom, self-knowledge, by the new and improved process of electronic video game addiction (beginning of wisdom 3.0).

Video games that promote self-examination and good mental hygiene? Gee whizz, Batman! That could be the beginning of a whole new age of wisdom and enlightenment for humanity.

The current “Known Universe” of video games is relatively flat…

Go now and carry this eureka-quality epiphany to the four corners of the video game world!

Poor Richard

ADDENDUM 9/15/2010

In reply to a post called

______________________________

Mind change – a moral choice?

______________________________

at the Open Parachute blog , I posted the following comment:

In “The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0” I argue that brain changes or cognitive influences caused by video gaming could, if the games were appropriately designed, be very constructive. In fact, I suggest video games as a delivery system for a whole spectrum of positive cognitive re-engineering efforts addressing such issues as “predictable irrationality”, “cognitive self-defense”, cognitive self-assessment, cognitive therapy, etc.

“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

As we all know, video games can be extremely compelling (if not addictive), and users can obsess over them for hours and days at a time. If a game meets enough of the criteria needed to make it compelling to a target audience, users can be expected to gladly consume any educational content embedded int the game. This is well-established and has already been extensively exploited in a broad range of educational software and interactive video products.

I advocate robust research and development efforts aimed at producing state-of-the-art video games designed to teach actual cognitive skills and abilities, with or without explicit, factual educational content.

At the simplest level, games might be designed to train users in critical reasoning skills such as the use of sound logic and argument or the recognition of logical fallacies.

On a deeper level, games might be designed to reveal a user’s implicit associations and unconscious cognitive biases and even to assist the user in altering such biases.

On a deeper level yet, information gleaned from cognitive neuroscience might be applied to correct pathologies, compensate for deficits, or improve a wide variety of targeted cognitive or neural processes.

The psychological and neural consequences of using video games may very well be undesirable or even harmful if some or all of the impacts are arbitrary, unintended, and unexamined. On the other hand, if the impacts are intentional and constructive, video games might help us fix a whole panoply of thorny problems. They could become a virtual panacea for any and all correctable neuro-cognitive disorders of thinking, reasoning, and behavior.

Video Game themes that could be adapted for cognitive skills/hygiene

These projects have a potential to be made into video games or other spin-offs that could be designed not simply as entertainment products but also as educational tools–both pedagogical and dialectical–perhaps the first of their kind.

An Economical Bestiary (PRA 2010)

PRA 2010′s “Economical Bestiary” is a work of  hypertext literature — a blog-based book– about economic myths and facts. The work analyzes economic myths and political misconceptions and  in many cases relates the misconceptions to irrational cognitive biases. A video game based on the Economical Bestiary could be designed to teach critical reasoning skills, propaganda self-defense, logical fallacy detection, discovering and altering implicit associations, etc.

One object of the game would be to take-over the status quo government/economy, based mainly on accumulating economic and political points–but some violence is inevitable… and good for suspense.

I suppose it would have to go all “Global”, with economical and political beasties from multiple nations slugging it out.

The ultimate ULTIMATE objective might be an egalitarian, steady-state civilization that would solve global warming, etc. At the very least, the players would have to prevent and/or survive any number of possible catastrophes, regardless of who was in power.

If it were done right it might be a fun game for business- and politically-minded people of just about any age, and it might get some people to think harder and smarter about how to save the world at the same time.

The game could continue to evolve, becoming more realistic, until it actually started spilling out into reality with people creating real alliances and institutions.

The Inner Hunchback (PRA 2010)

Synopsis: In Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notradame, each character has its own individual point of view, drawn from trusted sources such as religion, academic or political authority, kinship, popular culture, traditions, etc.  Hugo  leads the reader through each character’s reality, giving us privileged vantage points from which to glimpse the insights, errors, and cognitive biases of each and providing us an opportunity to assemble a “bigger picture” of our own.

Animal Farm 2.0 (A nail-biting modern sequel to George Orwell’s original novel) (PRA 2010)

Synopsis: Over a course of  years, an average family farm is gradually transformed into a corporate animal death camp, complete with an ersatz animist-fundamentalist theocracy that secretly serves the human corporate overlords. There will also be sinister, mad scientists doing gene-splicing experiments on plants, animals and humans alike….Too scary for young readers? Don’t worry–it all comes out right in the end!

The Illustrated Treasury of Cognitive-Bias Fairy Tales and Folk Stories (This project will be posted shortly on PRA 2010)

Poor Richard

Related Information:

Virtual Reality Won’t Just Amuse—It Will Heal Millions (wired.com)

The Quantified Self: Self Knowledge Through Numbers–a catalog-in-progress of all the self-tracking tools out there

Dozens of tools are listed in  14 categories. Some tools gather and analyze data collected by mobile devices and sensors. A sampling:

Mood

ButterBeeHappy
CureTogether Anxiety, Depression, Mood Tracking
Facing Us
Gotta Feeling
Gratitude & Happiness
GratitudeLog
Happiness for iPhone
Happy Factor

Productivity

1DayLater
BaseCamp
Blueprint HQ
BubbleTimer
EtherPad

Stanford  Encyclopedia of Philosophy Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Introspection , as the term is used in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a means of learning about one’s own currently ongoing, or perhaps very recently past, mental states or processes.

Self-Knowledge In philosophy, ‘self-knowledge’ commonly refers to knowledge of one’s particular mental states, including one’s beliefs, desires, and sensations.

Introspective People Have Larger Prefrontal Cortex

Lumosity “Brain Games –Scientifically designed brain fitness program. Lumosity is designed by some of the leading experts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology from Stanford and UCSF.”

NASA-funded game aims to make science more appealing

Last week a curious, free release popped up on Steam: Moonbase Alpha, a NASA-funded game where up to six players can team up in order to save a near-future Lunar base crippled by a meteor strike. The game is just the first release from NASA’s Learning Technologies program, which aims to help raise interest in the space program through gaming.

“The US is facing a crisis in technical fields,” explained Laughlin. “There are not enough students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics to fill our national needs in those areas. NASA literally cannot function without STEM graduates. The big goals for NASA Education are to get more students into STEM fields of study and graduating into STEM careers. It’s also the president’s goal with the Educate to Innovate initiative. Moonbase Alpha was developed in support of those goals.”

Gamers beat algorithms at finding protein structures (ArsTechnica.com)

Today’s issue of Nature contains a paper with a rather unusual author list. Read past the standard collection of academics, and the final author credited is… an online gaming community.

Scientists have turned to games for a variety of reasons, having studied virtual epidemics and tracked online communities and behavior, or simply used games to drum up excitement for the science. But this may be the first time that the gamers played an active role in producing the results, having solved problems in protein structure through the Foldit game.

Starting with algorithms, ending with brains

Foldit uses some of the same conventions typical of other computer games, like a few simple structural problems to give new users a smooth learning curve. It also borrows from other online gaming communities; there are leaderboards, team and individual challenges, user forums, and so on.

Though very few of those who played Foldit had any significant background in biochemistry, the gamers tended to beat Rosetta when it came to solving structures. In a series of ten challenges, they outperformed the algorithms on five and drew even on another three.

By tracing the actions of the best players, the authors were able to figure out how the humans’ excellent pattern recognition abilities gave them an edge over the computer. For example, people were very good about detecting a hydrophobic amino acid when it stuck out from the protein’s surface, instead of being buried internally, and they were willing to rearrange the structure’s internals in order to tuck the offending amino acid back inside. Those sorts of extensive rearrangements were beyond Rosetta’s abilities, since the energy changes involved in the transitions are so large.

The authors also note that different players tended to have different strengths. Some were better at making the big adjustments needed to get near an energy minimum, while others enjoyed the fine-scale tweaking needed to fully optimize the structure. That’s where Foldit’s ability to enable team competitions, where different team members could handle the parts of the task most suited to their interests and abilities, really paid off.

The Nature article makes it clear that researchers in other fields, including astronomy, are starting to try similar approaches to getting the public to contribute something other than spare processor time to scientific research. As long as the human brain continues to outperform computers on some tasks, researchers who can harness these differences should get a big jump in performance.

Science gleans 60TB of behavior data from Everquest 2 logs (ArsTechnica.com)

Researchers ranging from psychologists to epidemiologists have wondered for some time whether online, multiplayer games might provide some ways to test concepts that are otherwise difficult to track in the real world.

Jaideep Srivastava is a computer scientist doing work on machine learning and data mining—in the past, he has studied shopping cart abandonment at Amazon.com, a virtual event without a real-world parallel. He spent a little time talking about the challenges of working with the Everquest II dataset, which on its own doesn’t lend itself to processing by common algorithms. For some studies, he has imported the data into a specialized database, one with a large and complex structure. Regardless of format, many one-pass, exhaustive algorithms simply choke on a dataset this large, which is forcing his group to use some incremental analysis methods or to work with subsets of the data.

Srivastava then gave a short tour of the sorts of items the team is trying to extract from the raw logs. He apparently has graduate students working on non-traditional figures like the “monster composite difficulty index” and an “experience rate measure.”

Noshir Contractor described how the data was allowing him to explore social network dynamics within the game. He described a variety of factors that are thought to influence the growth and extent of social networks, such as collective action, social exchange, the search for similar people, physical proximity, friend-of-a-friend (FoaF) interactions, and so on. Because these are well-developed concepts, statistical tools exist that can extract their signature from the raw data by looking at interactions like instant messaging, partnerships, and trade.

Williams pointed out one case where having access to the server logs allowed the researchers to identify some serious skewing in the responses to the demographic surveys. Older women turned out to be some of the most committed players but significantly under-reported the amount of time they spent in the game by three hours per week (men under-reported as well, but only by one hour). The example highlights the risk of using self-reporting for behavioral studies and the potential of the virtual world data.

Blizzard [World of Warcraft] negotiating with researchers for virtual epidemic study (ArsTechnica.com)

A strange phenomenon struck the virtual inhabitants of World of Warcraft. A disease designed to be limited to areas accessed by high-level characters managed to make it back to the cities of that virtual world, where it devastated their populations. At the time, Ars’ Jeremy Reimer noted, “It would be even more interesting if epidemiologists in the real world found that this event was worthy of studying as a kind of controlled experiment in disease propagation.” The epidemiologists have noticed, and there may be more of these events on the way for WoW players. There were a number of features in the virtual outbreak that actually mimicked the spread of and response to real-world epidemics.

Modeling Infectious Diseases Dissemination Through Online Role-Playing Games, Balicer, Ran D. (Epidemiology: March 2007)

As mathematical modeling of infectious diseases becomes increasingly important for developing public health policies, a novel platform for such studies might be considered. Millions of people worldwide play interactive online role-playing games, forming complex and rich networks among their virtual characters. An unexpected outbreak of an infective communicable disease (unplanned by the game creators) recently occurred in this virtual world. This outbreak holds surprising similarities to real-world epidemics. It is possible that these virtual environments could serve as a platform for studying the dissemination of infectious diseases, and as a testing ground for novel interventions to control emerging communicable diseases.

Neurobiology of Meditation

How Meditation Reshapes Your Brain Max Miller on October 6, 2010 (BigThink.com)

—”Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence,” (2009) by Antoine Lutz in The Journal of Neuroscience [PDF]

—”Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation,” (2007)  by Michael Posner in the journal PNAS

Know Then Thyself

by Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

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