Mind & Cosmos

“The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history. The physical sciences and evolutionary biology cannot be kept insulated from it, and I believe a true appreciation of the difficulty of the problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order.

One of the legitimate tasks of philosophy is to investigate the limits of even the best developed and most successful forms of contemporary scientific knowledge. It may be frustrating to acknowledge, but we are simply at the point in the history of human thought at which we find ourselves, and our successors will make discoveries and develop forms of understanding of which we have not dreamt. Human are addicted to hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole. Pointing out their limits is a philosophical task, whoever engages in it, rather than part of the internal pursuit of science (…). Scientists are well aware of how much they don’t know, but this is a different kind of problem – not just of acknowledging the limits of what is actually understood but of trying to recognise what can and cannot in principle be understood by certain existing methods.

(…) For all I know, most practicing scientists may have no opinion about the overaching cosmological questions to which this materialist reductionism provides an answer. Their detailed research and substantive finding do not in general depend on or imply either that or any other answer to such questions. But among the scientists and philosophers who do express views about the natural order as a whole, reductive materialism is widely assumed to be the only serious possibility.

The starting point for the argument is the failure of psychophysical reductionism, a position in the philosophy of mind that is largely motivated by the hope of showing how the physical sciences could in principle provide a theory of everything. If that hope is unrealisable, the question arises whether…”

Thomas Nagel

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Antifragile

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas,revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet. And antifragility determines the boundary between what is living and organic (or complex), say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a physical object like the stapler on your desk.

The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means — crucially — a love of errors, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them — and do them well. Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Wholeness and the Implicate Order

“The prevailing trend in modern physics is thus much against any sort of view giving primacy to formative activity in undivided wholeness of flowing movement. Indeed, those aspects of relativity theory and quantum theory which do suggest the need for such a view tend to be deemphasized and in fact hardly noticed by most physicists, because they are regarded largely as features of the mathematical calculus and not as indications of the real nature of things. When it comes to the informal language and mode of thought in physics, which infuses the imagination and provokes the sense of what is real and substantial, most physicists still speak and think, with an utter conviction of truth, in terms of the traditional atomistic notion that the universe is constituted of elementary particles which are ‘basic building blocks’ out of which everything is made. In other sciences, such as biology, the strength of this conviction is even greater, because among workers in these fields there is little awareness of the revolutionary character of development in modern physics. For example, modern molecular biologists generally believe that the whole of life and mind can ultimately be understood in more or less mechanical terms, through some kind of extension of the work that has been done on the structure and function of DNA molecules. A similar trend has already begun to dominate in psychology. Thus we arrive at the very odd result that in the study of life and mind, which are just the fields in which formative cause acting in undivided and unbroken flowing movement is most evident to experience and observation, there is now the strongest belief in the fragmentary atomistic approach to reality.

Of course, the prevailing tendency in science to think and perceive in terms of a fragmentary self-world view is part of a larger movement that has been developing over the ages and that pervades almost the whole of our society today: but, in turn, such a way of thinking and looking in scientific research tends very strongly to reenforce the general fragmentary approach because it gives men a picture of the whole world as constituted of nothing but an aggregate of separately existent ‘atomic building blocks’, and provides experimental evidence from which is drawn the conclusion that this view is necessary and inevitable. In this way, people are led to feel that fragmentation is nothing but an expression of ‘the way everything really is’ and that anything else is impossible. So there is very little disposition to look for evidence to the contrary. Indeed, as has already been pointed out, even when such evidence does arise, as in modern physics, the general tendency is to minimize its significance or even to ignore it altogether. One might in fact go so far as to say that in the present state of society, and in the present general mode of teaching science, which is a manifestation of this state of society, a kind of prejudice in favour of a fragmentary self- world view is fostered and transmitted (to some extent explicitly and consciously but mainly in an implicit and unconscious manner).

(…)

As pointed out, we try to divide what is one and indivisible, and this implies that in the next step we will try to identify what is different.

So fragmentation is in essence a confusion around the question of difference and sameness (or one-ness), but the clear perception of these categories is necessary in every phase of life. To be confused about what is different and what is not, is to be confused about everything. Thus, it is not an accident that our fragmentary form of thought is leading to such a widespread range of crises, social, political, economic, ecological, psychological, etc., in the individual and in society as a whole. Such a mode of thought implies unending development of chaotic and meaningless conflict, in which the energies of all tend to be lost by movements that are antagonistic or else at cross-purposes.

Evidently, it is important and indeed extremely urgent to clear up this deep and pervasive kind of confusion that penetrates the whole of our lives. What is the use of attempts at social, political, economic or other action if the mind is caught up in a confused movement in which it is generally differentiating what is not different and identifying what is not identical? Such action will be at best ineffective and at worst really destructive. Nor will it be useful to try to impose some fixed kind of integrating or unifying ‘holistic’ principle on our self-world view, for, as indicated earlier, any form of fixed self-world view implies that we are no longer treating our theories as insights or ways of looking but, rather, as ‘absolutely true knowledge of things as they really are’. So, whether we like it or not, the distinctions that are inevitably present in every theory, even an ‘holistic’ one, will be falsely treated as divisions, implying separate existence of the terms that are distinguished (so that, correspondingly, what is not distinguished in this way will be falsely treated as absolutely identical). We have thus to be alert to give careful attention and serious consideration to the fact that our theories are not ‘descriptions of reality as it is’ but, rather, ever-changing forms of insight.”

David Bohm

Towards a Field Theory of Behavior

“Classical ethology, with its emphasis on separability of parts, has largely failed to do justice to the wholeness of the individual animal, to the integrity of group behaviour and to the continuity between observable behaviour and consciousness. Field theory has potentialities to do better (…).

In summary: Frequency domain, Relationality and Exchangeability are criteria for field phenomena. The Social process, Play-like behaviour and Locomotion rhythm transforms define a domain for the application of behavioural field theory. A few words may be allowed on the nature of the behavioural field. In order to avoid misunderstandings, it is important in the first place to say what the field is not. The field does not energise behaviour in the sense that the performance of the behaviour would consume the field energy. As such, behavioural field theory differs fundamentally from Lorenz’ rejected psychohydraulic model. Lorenz’ model was on fuel in limited quantities, from which various types of behaviour were assumed to be fed, each from its own little ‘jar’. Behavioural field theory is about patterns of energy and concurrent patterns of behaviour. The field governs the form in which behaviour is expressed (Kortmulder, 1986a, 1994). The field is also not a ‘mysterious fluid’ or a phlogiston. It does not bring behaviour to the animal or influence its form from any extraneous source (in the sense that a magnet does with iron filings). This does not mean that it is strictly local. Probably, it is non-local to a certain extent (Kortmulder & Sprey, 1990). It connects individuals, which are separate in space, on a cognitive level. Thus, its space is implicate rather than Euclidean (Bohm, 1980).

The field is also not the activity of the brain cells, which together would cause the behaviour. That view is too simply mechanistic. Rather, it is the whole of the dynamics of the organism, the form of that dynamics being field-like. Both brain activity and behaviour are partial expressions of the whole field, and there is no reason to grant primacy to one or the other.

K. Kortmulder

 

Impossible abstract

Little do we know about the most inner workings of the human connectome functional-based distributed computations. Over the last three millennia, harvesting existence of data-based comprehensive correlations have populated the set of efficiently revealing paradigms for evolutionary relevant protein mechanisms all the way to the inherent multidimensionality of the macroscopic level description. Still, these mechanisms (they are processes, but let it pass) are poorly understood. Poorly in the sense that more expensive tools are needed to address them. Here, we measure, for the first and unique time in the history of mankind, the motion of an immobile animal at unprecedented precision while recording its whole-brain neural activity (nothing else matters, by the way) with the n-th version of an open source indicator (yet unreleased to the rest of the scientific community) in an eternal prep that allows for optogenetic stimulation of every single sensory neuron (from correlation to causation, and from there to heaven!), while simultaneously controlling the status of the motor output (cause input always comes first, right?) of the animal and that of the entire laboratory members (data not shown). Our incredibly sophisticated technique was applied to deliver a complex stimulus to the animal: either black or white. The null hypothesis was void; a kind of missing presupposition without the will to test anything. We are discoverers of cool stuff, not metaphysical surfers (for Occam’s sake!). In fact, in this article we  present pure evidence only, meaning it is devoid of anything that is not strictly empirical. Data must speak for itself! Numbers and plots have a meaning in themselves without the need of an observer interpretation, no? Rather than understanding something conceptually relevant (who cares, and it is painful), we found that the adaptive corresponding anatomical sites of the integrative regions performing synchronous truncated computations can be reduced to two classes: black and white (like our original naturalistic stimuli). A third class was discarded on the basis that 3D plots are hard to grasp intuitively in a high-impact journal paper (see supplementary material, which is 1000 fold larger than the article itself, for the corresponding control experiments). Last, and unlike any other previous study, we ended our paper by testing our description by means of loss-of-function experiments: if we excise 50 of the black-state neurons, the animal locomotion is severely impaired (we cannot quantify what severely means: our performance index is a natural number between 0 and 1, namely 0 or 1). That should suffice to demonstrate direct correlational horizontal causality, and our broad understanding of the universe (and beyond). Tu sum up (or proudly recap), this work opens a new field few can afford to explore (but that most likely won’t since they are trying to open their own). We thank two anonymous referees (basically John and David) for their useful indulgence and insightful list of extra experiments to do, which took our lab members more than seven months to complete (leading to one divorce, two visits to a psychiatrist, and missing all sunsets since then), bringing no basic new understanding but a supplementary file that now can only be downloaded via dropbox. More (but probable not better) will be published in future closed-access papers, hopefully high-impact (for our families, at least). Thank you for at least reading all the way to the end of the abstract (you can certainly cite our work now), and we are really looking forward to re-tweeting you during a boring talk in an international conference.

The sharing paradox

The prisoner’s dilemma is the current scientist’s hara-kiri. Competing, marketing and even lobbying for resources appears indispensable to survive as a scientist in the XXIst century. We need funding to have the means to produce data to publish papers to attract more funding. However, this virtuous loop is turning into a vicious cycle. In the best scenario, one needs at least to promise to generate new data, while the analyses of existing data are indeed far from being exhausted. As science costs go up, budget cuts follow. While job opportunities are scarce, specialization entwined with multi-disciplinarity requires more and more scientists, technicians, engineers, managers, and communicators. The fear to publish or perish kills the passion to know. In a word, the means defeat the purpose.

Open science in its manifold expressions (publication access, free software, open data) is a pressing alternative and, perhaps, the only way out. Its lemma is as simple as compelling: in order to survive and prosper, we must share. But, why is it so hard to share?

Material sharing implies division, virtual sharing allows for multiplication. We call this the sharing paradox. Within the realm of material stuff, a simple principle applies: if I give you a piece of my apple, I end up with less. However, when we deal with virtual things, the governing rules seem unintuitive: if I give you a piece of my data, I do not lose anything. The law of conservation of mass and energy can be violated even further: if I share it all, each of us will have more in the end. In analogy with the second law of thermodynamics, we could say that the sharing entropy of an open system never decreases. While we know how to deal with physical objects, we are relatively naive when handling information. In other words, apple bites are not data bytes.

In my opinion, our greatest shortcoming is the inability to grasp the sharing paradox. During millions of years our predecessors evolved under the constraints of a strictly material world. As a result, our instinct for survival considers everything in the outside world as a potential threat. This habit, contracted long ago by the human mind, is constantly at work in science too (i.e. my lab fellow becomes my enemy). It is only for the last few years that we, human beings, have had a radically different experience. As we interact collectively and instantaneously in a virtual universe, we are starting to realize that material constraints do not enfold reality anymore. If something I own is something everyone can use, property becomes service and the space of the possible explodes. Data falls in this extraordinary category. Its transformative potential is yet unforeseen.

Data is wealth. Multivariate by nature, it is amenable to several uses and users. When revisited, every projection might reveal something new. However, like paper napkins, we often condemn data to a single-use: one grant, one dataset, one paper. Why do we waste the very same (finite and shrinking) resources we thrive to obtain? Part of the time and energy we spend writing grants to attract funding to generate more data could be devoted, instead, to thinking carefully about it. Open data fits perfectly the principles of replacement, reduction and refinement. Furthermore, being able to compare across datasets is a necessary condition to test the replicability of scientific investigations. This is only possible having access to the data in its raw state, before preprocessing, filtering, analysis and plotting. Finally, taxpayers should not pay twice for the same thing. Duplication efforts drain public resources and are unethical.

To sum up, scientific data is as indispensable as abundant. Cynicism, sensationalism and naive optimism must be substituted by pragmatism: sharing is mainly constrained by our willingness to share.