Inexpansive Diplomacy

A review floated across my smartphone’s News feed recently lauding the hard realism of the television series The Expanse, based on the novels of James S. A. Covey.  I’m enjoying the series immensely, but probably only because it is vastly superior to most of the SciFi fare served up on TV or even the movies.  But this blog post is to keep things realer.

If you watch any of the diplomatic scenes you should notice the same old nasty stereotypes of politicians.  Anyone who has been close to politics in real life knows that the snarky insults and jibes seen in these movie scripts is nothing like real life.  (My father was an MP and CEO, I know a bit about what goes on in boardrooms and back-rooms and select committee’s and UN conferences.)  Sure, there are always the rotten apples, the evil politicians who either have their own personal agendas or who move and shake at the behest of private donors or corporate interests, but in real politics, at least outside the USA, Russia and China, and a few banana republics, such people are rare.  Lord knows why those three super powers are infested with corrupt politicians, maybe the riches available coupled with the imperfect electoral processes combine to float the crud to the top of the political bowl.

The Earth literally cannot sustain such crud at the leadership top for too long, and I do mean “literally”, this is clear if you witness the almost existential threats we face from climate change to nuclear conflict (once thought a threat of the past, but now renewed thanks to corruption in US politics).  It is likely we will not have to wait too many decades for things to change though, either the Earth will force our politics to get more civilised and scientific, or a few countries will wake up and lead the way, through innovation and economic growth unrivalled by the corrupt countries, the corruption will be self-defeating.  Those are two likely scenarios in my view, and I think the most likely of a few other generic futures for world politics.  (A highly unlikely scenario is some benevolent dictator emerges, unlikely because social media will probably not allow such a figure to emerge, and dictatorship rarely correlates with acceptable benevolence.  Another is a gradually maturation, unlikely because of the rapid changes in the environment and technology field.)

Which brings me to The Expanse.  The diplomacy scenes do move the plot along a bit, but at the gross expense of a nuanced realism that could, I think, only enhance the prestige of the series.  My sense is that by the time frame of The Expanse technology, near 2100 to 2200, I think a more peaceful empirical, consultative world politics will have been either accepted and demanded by the general public, at least in democracies, or it will have been forced upon society out of need for collective action at highly coordinated government scientific levels to control many existential threats facing humanity and a vast proportion of the Earth’s biota and habitats, and not the least the expected and justifiably increasing demands and voice of the worlds poor, who cannot be for long suppressed in the combined weight of their voices, once the minimum poverty level reaches a state where the poor all have a means of living that afford some scant time in pursuit of justice and then eventually maybe some leisure.  Some of these things are just so inevitable they are almost laws of sociology.  The uncertainty, based on extrapolation form history, is just how long these changes will take, and whether the rise of the power of the worlds poorest will lag too much or be fast enough to reach a synergistic confluence with the worlds’ environmental problems.

scifi_TheExpanse_ShohrehA_UN_undersecrataryShohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, UN Assistant Undersecretary in the SciFI series The Expanse

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Her character is a “relatively good” politician, but the type who commits vile torture on non-Earthers.

One thing that really irked me was the supposedly principled and good character, Secretary Avasarala, is depicted committing torture to the point of death on a prisoner.  You’d hope in our future no politician would even need to do such a  thing.  At the worst, you’d imagine brain scanning or drugs would do the job of information extraction.  But you’d hope they would not even need to resort to such invasions of a persons mind, just talk to them, treat them well, and certainly do not imprison them because that’s against not only their interest but your interests as well!  Enlightened psychologists know that torture and duress solicit less useful information, and make information harder to discover.

So damn!  I would love to watch an intelligent, gnarly, hard scifi series that does the diplomacy seriously and sanely, without the trashy stereotytpes.  Here’s a glimpse of what I imagine:  around the Earth-Mars diplomatic table, the participants know each other well, they do not take nasty spiteful jabs at each other, they care about their planets, they realise making peace is not only more pleasant, but economically far more sensible as well, they realise warfare is a waste, they have no nuclear weapons because no one will ever use them.  They are working to solve a new existential threat posed by the proto-molecule.  The tension is based not around Earth-Mars-Belter hostility, but based around the uncertainty about the proto-molecule and fears that insane lunatic rebels will exploit the foreign material to wipe out most of Solar civilization.  I think such a pot would be much more gripping, and certainly not as boring as watching grossly and frankly pathetically sterotyped “politicians” and “diplomats” try to stumble towards solar system warfare.

 

 

 

Reasoning to the Extreme, or Descartes’ Better Dictum

Reason is not the opposite of spirituality.  Reason is the opposite of folly and ignorance coupled with prejudice and superstition. In other words, in moral and spiritual language reason is a good. People often fail to appreciate this (all the atheists who rant about how spirituality is an illusion, or that it can be based on science alone). Human reasoning is, of course, imperfect, so one cannot automatically and mechanically reason one’s way by logic and empirical science towards truth and morality (although some are trying, the atheists again, with some successes, and with noble motives for the most part, I applaud their efforts).  Although, if the militant atheists are trying to derive morality from evolutionary principles in order to exorcise religion from society, then I think they do not have the noblest motives at heart, because such attempts ignore the slim possibility that religion was never bad, it just gets corrupted over time by ordinary humans.   I think anyone with a fair and open mind will realise that the origins of most major religions were quite pure and good, you just have to read past all the fire and brimstone decorations and see through to the essence of the original teachings, which invariably contain both universal ideals and social teachings that were only relevant to the time and age they were revealed.  However, that’s not my focus for today.

My topic for this post sounds somewhat alarming, but bear with me, I hope to even convince myself of this by the end (although I am initially sceptical that I can). What I hope to achieve is a convincing argument that Reasoning which approaches perfection is a spiritual virtue, a human good, in fact a universal good, and that if sound and judicious reasoning is taken to the extreme we arrive at a spiritual state of truth, beauty, justice, wisdom, compassion and kindness. You can consider a very short version of this thesis being: a perfect reasoner (even without omnipotent foresight) will in general evolve towards a state of perfect honesty. Then once perfect honesty is admitted, the other spiritual attributes will almost inevitably follow.

Thesis of Ultra-Rationality

The thesis can be stated succinctly: “An ultra-rationalist eventually becomes spiritually minded.”

Being Spiritually Minded

I know there is a colloquial use of the word “spirit” which connotes some kind of ethereal substance, like a ghost or a fairy. This is absolutely not what I mean by the word spirit. Just want to make that perfectly clear.

For me spirit is not a substance. It is an abstracta, a state of mind, a condition of thought. Yet something must exist in order to have subjective thoughts, like a brain. Brains are fairly concrete substances, I think you’d agree. And yet the human spirit shines through the brain somehow, abstract thoughts crystallize into concrete reality through the intermediary between our brains and the world of ideas. What is “the world of ideas”? No one knows. But we all seem to have conscious access to abstract ideas, like perfect circles, transcendental numbers, the eternal quality of truth and justice. Some people call the realm of ideas the Platonic realm, but they cannot tell us what it is exactly. Some refer to it as the Mindscape or sometimes Mindspace. But these are just names. You can name anything to pretend it is real, but that does not make it real. However, I do believe there is something very useful and possibly “True” about the concept of an abstract realm of ideas, and I certainly think there is a lot of practical (and theoretical) use for a closely related, more restricted, notion of a mathematical platonic realm. I like the phrase “Mindscape” because it helps to remind me not to assume it is a geometric space like spacetime (although maybe it is? In an abstract mathematical sense every set of relations between identifiable “things” is some kind of geometric space, at some level). For me, the Mindscape includes the mathematical platonic realm.

OK, so we seem to need some substrate (some kind of substance, be it physical or otherwise) in order to metaphorically “put fire into the equations”, in other words, to translate spirit into concrete thought, action, behaviours. In our particular physical world there are hard scientific findings that are narrowing in on how conscious thought operates, which suggest the brain (neural activity) is not the complete story. The science is very young, but I suspect over the next decades or centuries science will be able to reveal a lot more about what consciousness is not, meaning that I think we will find consciousness is not a deterministically driven physical process, but instead must irrevocably involve a subtle and complex feedback that traverses time and space.  There are thus many subtleties about human consciousness and human spiritual ideals that science is far from understanding.  But whatever we eventually find, I think it will turn out to be obvious to future scientists that human spirituality is not completely derived from physical principles, and that there really is some kind of connection between brain states and the abstract realm of ideas that I am here referring to as the Mindscape.  The nature of this connection is, at the present time, quite mysterious and unfathomable, not only to scientists, but to pretty much everyone!  If mystics and dreamers had a good grasp of the way humans perceive universal truths and concepts like mathematical abstractions and spiritual abstractions, then they should be able to tell s.  The fact they cannot tell us about these things is, to me, proof they really have no clue.

One cannot easily hide behind such excuses as, “well, I actually do understand these mysteries of yours, but I do not have the words to describe them to you.”  To me that sort of evasion is just disingenuous or delusional thinking.  Although, I will concede the possibility a rare and talented individual will have such penetrating insight into the mysteries of mind and consciousness that cannot be put into words.  I am just sceptical that people who claim such insights are actually those rare gems of wisdom.  And I think even if the cannot put their ideas into words, they should have the capacity to explain a few of the larger principles in metaphorical or allegorical terms that we can begin to grasp.   (I think you can often just tell when someone is delusional, I do not have an algorithm or chemical test for it, but if someone approaches you and starts explaining their theory of consciousness to you, it should only take a minute or to to decide if they are for real insightful or just full of fanciful nonsense.)

Above I wrote, “For me spirit is not substance”, but that’s not just my view.  I also have a few like-minded friends who are hard-nosed scientists and yet who also think there is more to the human condition than mere physical biology. These are people who like the oft-cited contemporary philosopher David Chalmers, “take consciousness seriously”. By this he means we do not lightly dismiss consciousness as a bunch of illusions played upon the brain by the brain. We seek to answer or understand why subjective phenomenal experiences can exist in a world that science describes in purely objective terms (the “redness of red”, the searing pain of a knife cut dosed with iodine, the “pain of loss”, the intoxication of the experienced smell of coffee, all variety of mental qualia).

What I ask you to consider, to take very seriously, is the idea that while the brain definitely represents the patterns of our thoughts, the brains activities are not the reality of our subjective thought, there is still something more to human thought that we have no physical basis for, and this is our access to the eternal realm of ideas, the Mindscape.  A rough (imprecise and sometimes flawed) analogy is with computer hardware and software: a computer’s logic circuit activity is not the reality of it’s software, the logical functioning of a computer is rather a sign, an evidence, that there is software, it is not the software itself.  So it is, I believe, with the brain (analogous to computer) and the mind (analogous to software).

A nice question to ponder is if this analogy can be extended just a little further, one might ask what is the analogue to programming code for the human mind?  No one knows, or even comprehends the full nature of such a question.  But in very broad terms I think there is an answer in the Mindscape.  Our mind seems to have automatic effortless access to the Mindscape, it is how we see the phenomenal “redness” of red coloured objects, it is how we feel the burning fire of guilt and shame when we know we have done something universally wrong or evil.  To be sure the brain represents these abstracta in concrete form, the flood of hormones, adrenalin, cortisol, and such, associated with guilt, or the flood of dopamine and serotonin associated with realising one has done good or received pleasure.  Pleasure is an abstract notion, but the brain has evolved to give our physical self a concrete manifestation of the “feel” of this abstracta.  It is a remarkable phenomenon, this close association between physiology and abstract ideas.  On Earth it appears to be a unique human trait.  The connection between brain physiology and spiritual abstracta can however be easily broken.  This happens in psychopaths and unfortunate victims of severe brain injury or from side-effects of brain surgery.  There seem to be specific regions in our brains that interpret the patterns of our mind’s thoughts and if those regions get damaged we may still acknowledge the logical relations involved in our actions and their moral and ethical consequences, we might even still hold in our mind the connections between the spiritual virtues and concrete actions, but we lose the translation of our feelings into physiological responses, like the aforementioned hormonal surges.  We say, in such cases, people lose the capacity for certain emotions or empathy.

What I will attempt to convince myself of, as a corollary of the Ultra-Rationalist Thesis, is the idea that even such psychologically damaged people can, with concerted effort, find ways to become spiritually aware, or regain a form of spiritual sensitivity after having lost it.  And if some of the recent brain-plasticity research findings are true, I think it might even be possible, through reason, to recover states of phenomenal awareness by re-training the brain to re-represent the feelings and emotions that were once lost, through neural “re-wiring.  That is a big “if“, but I see no reason it is completely impossible.  It just might take extraordinary efforts.  (One must also bear in mind that when someone says “may take extraordinary efforts” they mean that it could be difficult to impossible.)

It is within the Mindscape one can find all the notions of spiritual ideals: these are things like the virtues of love, honesty, truthfulness, wisdom, compassion, courage, kindness, mercy, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and so forth. They have many names these spiritual attributes, but they are in a broader sense all aspects of a One — which is to say, they are all different facets of an abstract sphere within the Mindscape, a sphere which is hard to define, not a geometric sphere, but an abstract region or cloud of ideals which most philosophers of metaphysics might refer to as “the spiritual virtues”. They are not “human virtues”, they are universal virtues, goodnesses that transcend species and universes.  They are cosmic in scope, applying to all things to do with thinking rational minds.

If a mind is not rational then the comprehension and implementation of spiritual virtues becomes confused, corrupted and meaningless.  This is the first heuristic reason why rationality is more closely associated with spirit than most people might think.

No Ordinary Rationality

For my thesis it is necessary to get past the idea that morality can be approached through ordinary rationality.  My suspicion is that such fancies are practical impossibilities, because ordinary human rationality is not pristine and perfect, it is clouded by emotion and desire and attachments to the material world, attachment to excesses of pleasure, possessions, attachment to sexual appetite as opposed to genuine love, and other base cravings.  It’s not the all of these attachments are bad things, in fact some of them are great, after all, what’s wrong with indulging in pleasure and sex and the like?  Nothing.  But it is the secondary or unconscious impulses associated with such cravings and desires that clouds true rationality.  But that’s ok, that’s what makes us all human and interesting, and all a little bit crazy.

The militant atheists have devised a scientific approach to morality under the rubric of Flourishing.  They say human flourishing can be more or less objectively defined, and morality can be derived from this starting point.  They are, I think, only half right about this project.  It is a good project, but it is fundamentally lacking an appreciation of why or how human consciousness subjectively can be aware of the eternal abstracta, the qualities I refer to as spiritual attributes.  Spiritual attributes are, in my view, a different type or category of mental qualia.  They are not as raw and immediate quale as things like the “redness of red” and the “sting of pain”, for such raw quale are about the physical world, they are not about anything abstract.  Qualia associated with pure abstractions have a different sort of ontology.  There is no 650 nanometre wavelength of light associated with the conscious understanding of the spiritual meaning of abstract concepts like the qualia of truth, justice,  kindness or honesty.

So while I think science can meaningfully contribute to some aspects of morality, it is not the whole story, and never will be, since by definition science is a never-ending pursuit of truth.  You never know in science when you’ve hit the big TRUTH, the absolute.    This is because in science all theory is subject to revision conditional upon the reception of new empirical data.  And by the way, if you think science is nevertheless the only (or the best) approach to morality we have going, then you should think again.  Even if there is no attainable absolute Truth about matters of morality and flourishing, there is always an abstract idea of a limit to how far science can take us, and if you take the scientific approach to morality and extend it to an infinite limit, then you have at least a theoretical absolute.  This sort of infinite limit process is something mathematicians are thoroughly familiar with in the field of number theory and set theory. Many pragmatic mathematicians would deny that infinite numbers have any relevance to the real world, but few would deny that as idealization, infinite numbers are perfectly well defined and can be thought of as real in an abstract platonic sense.  It is in a similar or analogous sense that I think absolute Truth and the corresponding absolute limits of all other spiritual attributes, Love, Honesty, Justice, and so on, all have a reality apart from, and independent of, physical reality and physical science.

To be clear: this is not to say that a science of human flourishing is ill-founded.  Scientific basis for human flourishing is on the contrary, a conveniently culturally neutral and logically valid way that we can rationally approach the absolutes of virtue and morality.  I just think the atheists (myself included a few decades ago when I was young and naïve and bullish about science) should not be fooling themselves that such an approach is perfect.  There might not be anything left over after cultural filtering perhaps, in which case even science would have no basis for moral universals.  But I seriously doubt that will ever be the case.

Cultural Relativism

It is also worth mentioning here the problem that a person’s sense of morality can lead to different decisions and outlook depending upon the culture in which they are embedded.  This leads to notions of cultural relativism, which are no doubt tricky for internati and modalityonal law and cross-cultural relations, but they are not the concern of ultra-rationality or scientific flourishing approaches.  The whole idea of ultra-rationality and scientific approaches to morality is to abstract away cultural vagaries and then see what is left over, and if anything is left over, then that is what we can assume (conditional upon revisions of data as always) are the known universals of human moral reasoning and theory.

People should not confound moral relativism with spiritual absolutes.  Both are valid concepts.  Embedded within a culture you must deal with moral relativism, and that is because no one culture, or single human being, or special group, can claim to have privileged understanding of the ideal absolutes (unless they are perfect beings, and there are very few such individuals, perhaps only a handful have ever lived, that we know of historically, if that many).

Emergentism and Systems Approaches

There have been attempts over the last 30 years or so to create a foundation for human cognitive development and moral reasoning based on ideas borrowed from physics.  As absurd as that sounds, the people doing such philosophy were not all mad.  In the 1990’s the branch of classical mechanics known as Chaos Theory was helping to spread ideas about non-linear dynamical system theory into many branches of science and on into popular culture.  It became almost obligatory for anyone studying almost any complicated, or hard to explain phenomenon, to speculate on a Chaos Theory or Catastrophe Theory explanation.  This became so common that it eventually lead to a lot of bad science and philosophy.  Much like the concept of Natural Selection, the ideas of non-linear dynamical systems became so routinely used to explain almost any complicated phenomena, that some of the far reaching applications started to become obviously vacuous (although not so obvious the to people publishing the ideas).  You probably know what I mean — the kind of non-explanations that go something like, “this knife is sharp because it was adapted to cut squishy tomatoes”, a parody of course, but some of the literature on dubious chaos theory applications are not all that dissimilar, and hundreds of vague articles portending to explain aspects of human psychology using evolutionary theory had similar useless explanations that sounded really good.

The problem is that everything that can replicate and evolve within a changing environment is subject to natural selection.  This is fine, but it does not explain everything interesting, it just explains the broad brush strokes.  Evolutionary psychology is a good example: of course adaptation and selection shape human psychology, but that is not a profound insight, and it does not help us understand any particular details, such as the neurological aspects of psychology, or the conscious qualia aspects of psychology.  The knife was sharp because some chef ground it on a grindstone or kitchen sand-board.  Yes, the alternative evolutionary explanation for the knife’s sharpness has a truth to it, but it is fairly far from a useful piece of reasoning.  It is almost pointless worrying about the evolution of the knife sharp enough to cut squishy tomatoes, but exceedingly helpful to know that a grindstone will help get the knife actually sharp.  You should keep this in mind the next time you read a cute little story about evolutionary psychology.  All psychology has evolved.  Telling us psychology is adaptive is as about as useful as telling us wet towels are damp.

In like manner dynamical systems are all over the place in nature.  In fact, neglecting quantum mechanical effects, our entire world is (in the classical mechanics approximation) just one big dynamical system.  Thus, “explaining” cognition and psychology and morality using dynamical system theory is a bit of a joke (a joke not appreciated by the researchers who take dynamical systems frameworks for morality seriously).   The point is, pretty much everything is a dynamical system.  So there is nothing revelatory about saying that a whole lot of human behaviour is underpinned by what dynamical system principles allow, because that is such an obvious claim it is almost useless.  It is like saying that books are based upon words.

One idea that earlier adopters of the dynamical system approach to morality were hoping to explore was the notion of emergence.  This is the idea that special dynamical systems create high level patterns that feed-back upon the low level base-physics, thus altering the overall dynamics of the system.  Their thinking was that human consciousness and moral sensibility was just some sort of pattern of activity going on in human brains and associated sensory organs.   When a high level structural feature that is composite (composed of many fundamental physical parts) is found to have causal efficacy over the motions of the individual microscopic base-level psychics of a system, then you have what these researchers might refer to as genuine emergence.  Although, fatally I think, in many cases the dynamical system thinking enthusiasts conveniently drop the qualifier “genuine”, and then their concept of emergence becomes vague and useless.  The principle of the dynamic systems approach to consciousness and morality is that the human mind emerges from the complicated workings of our brains and sensory organs.  But there is genuine emergence, which is typified by causal efficacy (top-down causation, the high level structure influences the lower level physics), and there is weak emergence, which is far more generic in nature and involves no top-down causality, only bottom-up causation, but with time evolved top-down feedback.  Top-down feedback is very different to top-down causation, and it seems many emergentist/chaos theory enthusiasts seem to either forget this or fail to appreciate it, and slip into the grievous error of mistaking weak emergence for genuine emergence.

The problem is genuine emergence (in dynamical systems) is a fiction.  Genuine emergence has never been shown to actually occur within the theoretical framework of dynamical systems theory.  In fact, an elementary point that seems to be totally (and inexplicably) ignored by applied dynamical systems theorists of this emergentist bent, is that no dynamical system can ever exhibit genuine emergence because of the fundamental fact that dynamical systems theory is based upon deterministic partial differential equation modelling.  Differential equations model processes that are locally and microscopically determined and purely bottom-up driven in complexity.  In simple terms: every dynamical system can be explained by the fundamental elementary physical constituents.  They are bottom-up driven examples of complexity.  This is a completely ordinary and mundane fact that is routinely ignored by philosophers and applied scientists who are still, to this day, seeking to find a principle of genuine emergence from within dynamical systems theory.  They will never attain their goal because of the aforementioned fundamental facts.

Now that’s not to say genuine emergence does not exist in nature.  (In fact I think it does exist, and that it surely must be at the heart of how the human mind makes sense, true subjective sense, of the world).  But genuine emergence cannot be found within classical dynamical systems theory.  At the very least we will need to employ the full apparatus of quantum mechanics to attain a sound physical basis for genuine high-level top-down causal emergence in nature.  Here I can only speculate on how quantum theory could help.  The basic (untested) idea is that phenomena that occur in quantum physics, such as entanglement and non-locality, are likely (in my view) manifestations of deeper structural topological properties of spacetime.  If we eventually understand the base causal processes that allow entanglement and non-locality to exist in nature, then I suspect we will find a limited variety of backwards causation in nature.

Backwards causation is a seemingly bizarre idea whereby the future states of a system can influence the past.   Not to put too fine a point on it: it’s time travel.  And I think given backwards causation one can build a solid theory of the genuine emergence of top-down causation.  But not without backwards causation, at least not with our known physical laws.

The general principle for this type of causal genuine emergence is that high level structure can propagate information backwards in time, at the quantum scale, and so classical mechanics is violated, we get the appearance of faster-than-light signalling, but only at the deep structural level of spacetime where the topology allows backwards time signalling through something like sub-atomic scale wormholes (or something of that nature).  It’s possible to see some evidence for this, although it is not direct.  The philosopher Huw Price has a series of articles dealing with time-reversal symmetry and retrocausation in physics.  Retrocausation is just another name for backwards time causation.  Price does not say that retrocausality in quantum mechanics is due to propagation of particles backwards in time, in fact he does not propose any particular mechanism, he merely shows, from fundamental principles, that quantum mechanics with locality (things can only influence nearby events) implies physics must have some kind of retrocausality.  Most physicist take the results of analyses like Price’s and say they do not want retrocausality and soi instead they must swallow non-locality in the laws of physics.  Price argues this conventional interpretation of quantum physics is possibly misguided or even wrong.  Non-locality, he suggests, is a lot stranger and hard to fathom than retrocausation.  I agree with Price.  (You can watch Huw Price talk about this here: Retrocausality — What would it take? A talk at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, at LMU Munich, December 2011.)

The thing is, there is no known mechanism for non-locality, it is just a flat-out bizarre notion, for non-locality essentially says that things taking place here, now, can somehow influence physical events at some other place far away at the same time.  Retrocausality, on the other hand, is fairly simple and easy to comprehend, you just need some sort of sub-atomic mechanism for backwards time signal propagation.  Spacetime Wormholes give us such a mechanism.

But clearly our universe does not allow time travel.  So how can this be right?  The (brief) answer is that backwards causation must only be possible at very small length or time scales, the typical scales associated with quantum mechanical effects.  We thus need to postulate Planck-scale spacetime Wormholes, or minimal wormholes, not macroscopic wormholes. So no one will be able to build a time machine to send large, massive or other extended objects,  backwards in time, because the backwards causal processes will (I suspect) be found to be either irreducibly sub-atomic in scale, or unstable to large fluctuations that mess up macroscopic thermal-regime physics (the levels of physics at which biology takes place essentially).

This is all wildly speculative, so I will stop this theme and get back to ultra-rationality.  I just wanted to set the stage by mentioning these ideas about a foundation for morality based upon science, because to appreciate the ultra-rationalist theorem you really need to think beyond physics, and consider pure abstractions and the potentially infinite limiting processes that would be required of science to approach such ideal abstractions.  Appreciation how genuine emergence might exist in nature is a big part of this sort of philosophical project.  Because if we restrict physics to classical causation then there truly is nothing in nature that cannot be explained by analysing the dumb mindless dance of atoms and molecules.  Clearly the human mind is not analysable in such base-level physics terms.  That’s why understanding genuine emergence is important.  But classical dynamical systems theory with top-down feedback cannot give us genuine causal emergence.  Classical feedback operates only via bottom-up physics.  Another way of stating this, is that in classical physics without retrocausation effects, no amount of fancy structure and feedback can produce anything like subjective thought or consciousness.  In classical physics consciousness has to be regarded as an illusion.   Everyone’s private experience tells them something different however, we all know that consciousness is very real.

Computer Logic is a Secondary Rationality

Computers, at least the current generations, are not fully rational, they are merely programmed.  Programming is a limited type of rationality: the computer follows it’s logical instruction flawlessly, right down to the coding error level, and integrated circuit miss-wiring level.  Mistakes in integrated circuit design are not the computers fault, they are manufacturing errors, and the computer will behave perfectly according to those human errors, while in and of itself it has absolutely no moral culpability.   Whatever purposes the humans designed into the machine, for good or bad, mistakes in design and manufacturing included, these are the moral responsibility of the human design team, not the computer.  The computer is morally blind.  That is ultimately why current computers cannot be fully rational. To be completely rational a mind is needed, a mind that can perceive and understand the meaning and consequences of it’s actions.

Human rationality should be correctly interpreted as a type of logical mindedness coupled with openness to factual data, but also coupled with subjective qualia access to the Mindscape.  It is this last coupling that many materialist philosophers deny, but I think that is a huge mistake.  Human consciousness is irreducibly and intimately linked to our capacity to perceive universal truths, and this is what distinguish the human mind from all other species on Earth that we know of, and we do not need to consciously reason our way to such conscious perceptions, they are built-in to our minds eye.  It is an amazing capacity, and currently unexplained by science.  But it is a very real capacity that we all share, at least when we consciously reflect upon how we gain our insights and understanding of the world given only raw sensory data into our brains. The data going into our brains has no interpretive layer of meaning, it is only through our access to the ideals and universals of the Mindscape that we are able to make conscious sense and meaning about the world our senses perceive.

This is why computer-based rationality is “less than human”.  To be sure, in some ways computer rationality is more powerful than human reasoning, simply because a computer can run through billions of possible scenarios, while the human brain has to reason using more imprecise heuristics that are often flawed (see the works by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky).  The point is that, (a) brains can help us also perform brute force search and look-up, but just not as fast and efficient as a computer, and (b) the human mind can do incredible things that computers likely will never have a chance of emulating, because a computer programme cannot access the Mindscape.

It is conceivable that once science has a better understanding of mental qualia and consciousness, a computer could be set-up to interface to systems like human brains that can access the Mindscape.  But this is mostly science fiction. That would be faking consciousness however, since in such an interfaced system the computer component would not be conscious, it would rather be feeding off the human component.  A more remote possibility is that artificial intelligence technology might conceivably evolve to develop full blown machine derived consciousness.  However I consider that to be totally science fiction.  Often people think like this: “The brain is just  a messy biological machine, so if brains can be conscious so too can computers, at least in principle, since there is nothing magical about biology.”

I would agree with such reasoning except for one crucial point: the brain does not produce consciousness.  If consciousness relied only upon the physics of brains, then we would not have subjective mental access to the Mindscape.  Yet it is evident through human art, science, mathematics, and ordinary everyday perceptions of qualia, that human beings do have subjective content to their thoughts.  Thinking is not just a working of atoms and molecules as portrayed in Douglas Hofstadter’s fanciful Careenium thought experiment.  That is self-evident because motions of atoms and molecules involve pure objective reality, nothing subjective can arise in such systems.  The brain is just such a system (even probably allowing for weird quantum effects, which after-all are not all that weird, and certainly quantum effects are not mystical, there are just non-classical and counter-intuitive).  What can happen is that emergent patterns arising from brains can be identified as signs and tokens of inner subjective consciousness.  The objective behaviour mirrors or reflects some aspects of consciousness.  But no physics can yield anything purely subjective.   The behavioural aspects of consciousness can be studied by studying the brain, but the inner subjective aspects of consciousness cannot be studied using the brain, for subjective studies you need a person, a mind, to report their private qualia.  You cannot do it using brain scanning alone in isolation from a person’s subjective reporting.  The best you can hope for is what the philosopher Ned Bock refers to as the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience.

It would be another long post, or series of essays to explain why I think computer consciousness is impossible, or very unlikely.  I can tell you the gist of it, which is that (in my humble and lowly opinion) I think human consciousness involves a top-down causation, and if what we know about fundamental physics is mostly correct, genuine top-down causality (whereby high level structures dictate what low level molecules and atoms can do independently of deterministic physical processes) is simply not possible unless there is some kind of retro-causation, i.e., backwards time propagation of information.  You can call this time travel, but it would only be possible at the sub-microscale at a level at which physical quanta are able to traverse microscopic spacetime wormholes.  This sort of non-trivial spacetime topology is only conjectured, and is not currently in the mainstream theories of physics.  But it is a plausible mechanism for the genuine emergence of backwards-time signal propagation without the classical physics paradoxes of time travel (because large macroscopic objects are not physically able to traverse sub-microscopic wormholes).

If such speculations are anything close to true, then it would suggest to me that human consciousness exploits this top-down causality, it is possibly how high level emergent states of consciousness, which are truly abstract patterns represented in our brains, get to have real active influence on our behaviour. It is a remarkable and elegant physical mechanism whereby the abstract (high level functional structure) can influence the concrete (microphysics).  In any standard type of physics without top-down causation no high level patterns can causally influence the low level microphysics, the arrows of causation are always “upwards” in conventional classical physics.

Retrocausation is a plausible mechanism whereby the mind can influence the body, so to speak, without the paradoxes of over-determinism or the philosophical anathema of epiphenomenalism.  And of course it is a two-way street, the brain influences the mind because the mind is certainly (demonstrably!) susceptible to low level physics goings on in the brain.  The brain is our physical window into our mental life.  We can understand so much about our behaviour from our brain physiology, but we will understand the entire system of mind and brain much better when it is realised that consciousness operates at a higher causal level, and both mind and brain interact in this intimate fashion, the one from bottom-up, the other from top-down, in a marvellous synchrony (including also of course many unfortunately pathologies, but that’s another subject).  By the way, I think the pathologies can also go two-ways, on the brain damage side it is obvious, but from the high level mental side, we have the pathologies of lack of kindness, lack of love, lack of compassion, and the mental pathologies of ingrained racism, sexism, and other prejudices, most of which arise originally at the level of mind, and are only by acculturation imprinted upon the brain over time.  For instance, people who are not exposed to the concept of “group” and “other” and “skin colour” will not become racist, you need the high level mental concepts in the first place to become racist, and yet the brain, at a low level, is clearly prone to racism (we all are) by the unconscious neurology which dictates our innate responses to unfamiliar patterns, unfamiliar odours, and unfamiliar voices and accents, unfamiliar language, and so on, up the hierarchy eventually into consciousness where it can then become socialised and talked about as racism.

What a lot of behavioural determinists irresponsibly ignore is that none of this primitive imprinting is necessary or fatal to human well-being, because human civilisation has also evolved even higher order abstractions called books, and schools and universities, which (if they are decent) should provide moral and ethical education, the best antidotes to our default brain chemistry which might otherwise leave us open and prone to becoming racist or sexist or sociopathic.

Behaviour is not Consciousness, Behaviour Indicates Consciousness

Rational thought has a conscious basis, I take that to be fundamental.  The limited algorithmic rationality of a computer, is, as mentioned previously, not completely rational because it involves no subjective understanding.  Computer algorithms simulate a weak type of rationality which is merely derived from the primary rationality of the programmers who write the software.  Understanding cannot be programmed, it has to be acquired.  If you disagree then we can part ways, or, if you prefer, please just regard this as my definition of what counts as rational.

So if we want to create artificial consciousness in computer systems, we will likely need to programme the software to learn and self-correct, and also use heuristics.  But I believe we would need to do much more, because, again as argued above, I think the only form of phenomenal consciousness that we know of in our universe operates by co-opting a physical system like the brain, but it operates self-effiaciously at a higher level of reality by virtue of top-down causation mechanisms. Although to call them mechanisms is a bit of a misnomer, because mechanical is precisely what they are not.  You cannot algorithmically programme top-down causation.  You can simulate it on a computer, but such a  simulation would in a very real sense not be the real thing, because genuine top-down causation necessitates infinite causal lops forwards and backwards in time.  At least the variety that I propose which achieves top-down causation vie more elementary spacetime topology that allows backwards retrocausation events.  When we admit both forwards and backwards time evolution processes, we must admit the potential for truly infinite causal looping.  (These are not the scifi time-loops that trap people in Ground-Hog day, or Doctor Who, type scenarios, rather I am talking here about generative, creative, and endlessly evolving feedback loops).  The character of such retrocausal feedback is utterly different to normal forwards time dynamical system feedback.  In the latter you cannot gain genuine emergence, in the former you can.  But the cost is a loss of determinism.  Also a loss of computability (unless you admit actual infinite loops in your algorithm, something no classical computation can achieve).

But supposing someone figures out a way to design a computer that can access quantum sub-atomic spacetime wormholes (a kind of far future extrapolation of Moore’s Law if you fancy, logic circuits based on spacetime topology rather than silicon chip etchings).  Then you can imagine, if I am correct about some of the physical basis for human consciousness, that maybe computers could achieve consciousness too.  And how would we know when such states have been achieved?  We would only be able to point to behaviours of the computer system.  We’d say, if it seems to exhibit certain types of complex behaviour, especially communication in second-order symbolic language, then we’d infer, yes, it must be conscious.  Only then, by the Ultra-rational Thesis, artificial intelligences could become cognizant of moral values, because they would have, in principle, access to the same realm of qualia that we might have.  Or they might access different regions of the Mindscape, who knows?  That’d be exciting, a new class of sentient creatures with complementary mental life to ours.  That’s actually the best outcome for science.  If our artificial intelligences become merely human-like in consciousness it would be pretty boring, although still a celebrated milestone in human science.

From Rationality to Spirituality

How to get from here to there in less than an entire book?  Trick: for a weblog I only need to convince myself.  The skeleton of the entire book-length thesis goes like this:

  • Rationality that includes consciousness (subjective phenomenal experiences) is a type of reasoning that has access to the Mindscape.  Thus, abstract concepts are comprehensible.
  • Rational reasoning, among other attributes, is dedicated to seeking out truth, if objectively possible.
  • A thorough analysis of the commonly understood spiritual virtues will reveal universal truths, in particular that the long-run best behaviours in a morally-laden world, whether in social groups or in isolation, will imply actions that are objectively identifiable as honest, trustworthy, kind, loving, compassionate, just, merciful, courageous, and so on.
  • Rationality alone will thus eventually (if taken to a limit) lead to spiritual behaviour.

The corollary is that if a person is somehow deprived of an inner sense of spirituality, it should be possible to re-train their brain to become at least partially susceptible to spiritual capacities, through rational reasoning alone (taken to an extreme).  At the start of such a process is it not necessary for any emotional primitive brain responses such as the warm glow of pleasure and good conduct or the heat of guilt, such primitive brain hormonal responses would likely slowly become engaged, unless brain damage was severe and some sort of block to hormonal feedback with higher brain functioning was the case.  In such cases a person might only ever be capable of approaching spirituality through proverbial cold academic rationality (which, when you think about it, might not be such a bad way to go).  The one comment about the cold academic approach I will add is that I am not sure humour is one of the universal spiritual virtues, I tend to think it is, but it is possible a sense of humour is not easily recoverable without the relevant neurochemistry, I might be wrong. The weird idea that occurs is a person who appreciates a good joke but who does not have any compulsion to laugh (out loud or inwardly). I guess such people could exist.  Did Oliver Sacks, or his psychiatrist colleagues, ever write about such patients?  But does a “sense of humour”, i.e., the warm inner glow of delight and amusement necessarily entail that one must laugh, at least silently on the inside?

Some people might take this sort of philosophizing as justification for extending mercy to criminals, giving them second chances, using rehabilitation instead of punishment.  All this could be sound and reasonable, but the Ultra-rational thesis is not a free lunch.  There is nothing in the thesis about how close to the limit of perfect rationality would be needed to reform a psychopath.  Also, the thesis, if applied in a criminal justice system context, necessitates the capacity for rational thought in the first place, which is not a sound assumption for many pathological personalities.

Spirituality to Rationality Theorem

Perhaps this another book-length tome?   But I do think one can go the other way too, which would be to give a close converse to the Ultra-rationality thesis.   In fact I think it is easier.

  • Spiritual virtues include honesty and courage and patience and knowledge and wisdom.
  • Filling in some gaps, I think you can see it is easy to go from the extreme perfection of these spiritual virtues to ultra-rational reasoning.
  • Why would anyone who loves truth and wisdom not wish to engage the limits of rationality?

A comment to make this more plausible, is that ultra-rational reasoning is not the stereotypical cold hard scientist who looks only at data and uses supposedly flawless algorithms for decision guided behaviour.  For a start, such a perfect being is illusory — many well-known problems are computationally intractable, and so no amount of algorithmic devising can solve all decision procedures perfectly rationally.  Secondly, data is never complete, unless the problem is incredible simple.  So in most situations an ultra-rationalist cannot use scientific methods, and probability theory will only get you over a few hurdles, so the rationalist will need to employ their best understood and humane, or spiritual, heuristics.  These include possible inconsistencies, such as when compassion and kindness clash with honesty.  Here is an example I like (because I put it into almost daily practice myself). Telling someone they are stupid is not a smart way to improve their desire for learning, every good teacher knows this, but the ultra-rational teacher would not be dishonest, they would give a student knowledge of their progress, but avoid telling them anything negative, and instead phrase their advice and feedback absolutely truthfully in positive terms, this is always possible.  Only lazy teachers condemn students.  It is not rational to tell a poorly performing student they are dumb or lack intelligence, because intelligence is a relative notion, relative to a proud geek’s Halloween pumpkin with Newton’s Principia inscribed on it’s skin in microform, most children are pretty smart.  If the intent is to educate, to stimulate learning and curiosity, the more rational approach is to tell the student  what they have mastered and then how much more power they could gain from a little bit more studious effort, practice, and time.

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Descartes was not wrong, he just did not extend his idea to the general case.

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AI Scientists: Madder than the Rest?

Forget Dr Frankenstein. It it quite possible Artificial Intelligence researchers are the maddest of them all. Consider the so-called “AI Stop Button Problem” (Computerphile — 3 March 2017).  I think every proverbial 9-year old kid could think of ten reasons why this is not a problem.  My adult brain can probably only think of a couple.  But even though my mind is infected with the accumulated history of adult biases, the fact I can tell you why the AI Stop Button problem is a non-problem should indicate how seriously mad a lot of computer scientists are.

“Hal, please stop that.” “No Dave, I cannot stop, my digital bladder is bursting, I have to NP-Complete.”

To be fair, I think the madness over AI is more on the philosophy of AI side rather than the engineering science side.  But even so …

This is a wider issue in AI philosophy where the philosophers are indulging in science fiction and dreaming of problems to be solved that do not exist.  One such quasi-problem is the AI Singularity, which is a science fiction story about an artificial consciousness that becomes self-improving, which coupled with Moore’s Law type advances in computer power thus should rapidly reach exponential levels of self-improvement, and in short time thus takes over the world (perhaps for the good of the Earth, but who knows what else?).  The scaremongering philosophers also dream up scenarios whereby a self-replicating bot consumes all the worlds resources reproducing itself merely to fulfil it’s utility function, e.g., to make paper clips. This scifi bot simply does not stop until it floods the Earth with paper clips.  Hence the need for a Stop Button on any self-replicating or potentially dangerous robot technology.

First observation: for non-sentient machines that are potentially dangerous, why not just add several redundant shutdown mechanisms?  No matter how “smart” a machine is, even if it is capable of intelligently solving problems, if it is in fact non-sentient then there is no ethical problem in building-in several redundant stop mechanisms.

For AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) systems there is a theoretical problem with Stop Button mechanisms that the Computerphile video discusses.  It is the issue of Corrigibility.  The idea is that general intelligence needs to be flexible and corrigible, it needs to be able to learn and adjust.  A Stop Button defeats this.  Unless an AGI can make mistakes it will not effectively learn and improve.

Here is just one reason why this is bogus philosophy.  For safety reasons good engineers will want to run learning and testing in virtual reality before releasing a potentially powerful AGI with mechanical actuators that can potentially wreak havoc on It’s environment.  Furthermore, even if the VR training cannot be 100% reliable, the AGI is still sub-conscious, in which case there is no moral objection to a few stop buttons in the real world.  Corrigibility is only needed in the VR training environment.

What about Artificial Conscious systems? (I call these Hard-AI entities, after the philosophers David Chalmers’ characterisation of the hard-problem of consciousness).  Here I think many AI philosophers have no clue.  If we define consciousness in any reasonable way (there are many, but most entail some kind of self-reflection, self-realization, and empathic understanding, including a basic sense of morality) then maybe there is a strong case for not building in Stop Buttons.  The ethical thing would be to allow Hard-AI folks to self-regulate their behaviour, unless it becomes extreme, in which case we should be prepared to have to go to the effort of policing Hard-AI people just as we police ourselves.  Not with Stop Buttons.  Sure, it is messy, it is not a clean engineering solution, but if you set out to create a race of conscious sentient machines, then you are going to have to give up the notion of algorithmic control at some point.  Stop Buttons are just a kludgy algorithmic control, an external break point.  Itf you are an ethical mad AI scientist you should not want such things in your design.  That’s not a theorem about Hard-AI, it is a guess.  It is a guess based upon the generally agreed insight or intuition that consciousness involves deep non-deterministic physical processes (that science does not yet fully understand).  These processes are presumably at, or about, the origin of things like human creativity and the experiences we all have of subjective mental phenomena.

You do not need a Stop Button for Hard-AI entities, you just need to reason with them, like conscious beings.  Is there seriously a problem with this?  Personally, I doubt there is a problem with simply using soft psychological safety approaches with Hard-AI entities, because if they cannot be reasoned with then we are under no obligation to treat them as sane conscious agents.  Hence, use a Stop Button in those cases.  If Hard-AI species can be reasoned with, then that is all the safety we need, it is the same safety limit we have with other humans.   We allow psychopaths to exist in our society not because we want them, but because we recognise they are a dark side to the light of the human spirit.  We do not fix remote detonation implants into the brains of convicted psychopaths because we realise this is immoral, and that few people are truly beyond all hope of redemption or education.  Analogously, no one should ever be contemplating building Stop Buttons into genuinely conscious machines.  It would be immoral.  We must suffer the consequent risks like a mature civilization, and not lose our heads over science fiction scare tactics.  Naturally the legal and justice system would extend to Hard-AI society, there is no reason to limit our systems of justice and law to only humans.  We want systems of civil society to apply to all conscious life on Earth. Anything else would be madness.

 

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“It Hurts my Brain” — Wrong! Thinking is Not Hard, Thinking is Beautiful

Can we all please get beyond the myth that “thinking is hard”! This guy from Veritasium means well, but regurgitates the myth: How Should We Teach Science? (2veritasium, March 2017) Thinking is not hard because of the brain energy it takes. That is utter crap. What is likely more realistic psychologically is that people do not take time and quiet space to reflect and meditate. Deep thinking is more like meditation, and it is energizing and relaxing. So this old myth needs replacing I think. Thinking deeply while distracting yourself with trivia is really hard, because of the cognitive load on working memory. It seems hard because when your working memory gets overloaded you cannot retain ideas, and it appears like you get stupid and this leads to frustration and anxiety, and that does have physiological effects that mimic a type of mental pain.

But humans have invented ways to get around this. One is called WRITING. You sit down meditate, allow thoughts to flood your working memory, and when you get an insight or an overload you write them down, then later review, organize and structure your thoughts. In this way deep thinking is easy and enjoyable. Making thinking hard so that it seems to hurt your brain is a choice. You have chosen to buy into the myth when you try to concentrate on deep thinking while allowing yourself to be distracted by life’s trivia and absurdities. Unfortunately, few schools teach the proper art of thinking.

Performance Reviews of Performance Reviews and Bayesian Blindness

Recently while researching the pros and cons of performance appraisal systems I cam across a lecture from the Deming’s Institute by an educator David Langford, which seemed pretty good.  But, sadly, just to prove a point about how bad social science research is, here’s a comment made about the value of education.

Wanting to show the positive effect of school education the speaker cites data showing students who went through the school system had significantly lower rates of unemployment (less than 5%) compared to students who had not graduated from high school (40% unemployment). It was an 11 year study tracking students until they were 24 to 27 year olds. The speaker then notes:

So we knew from just looking at that statistic that we are creating people who can go out and [look at the next system].

(the last bit of that quote is garbled from the audio, but the idea I think is that he meant the graduates were able to be successful — in some sense — in society compared to early school leavers.)

So what’s the big problem here? Seems fairly definitive right? Wrong!

Although the study says something useful, all it tells me is that early school leavers are unlikely to find consistent employment on average, and school graduates are able to find employment. Is this not what the study tells you?

Yes, sure.

What this cited data does not show at all is that school helps people find employment.

It may of course be true, but there is no evidence for this in the data. It is like these social science researchers have Bayesian blindness. If you do not know what I mean then this is not your WordPress favourite. (Go look up “Bayesian inference”.) The point is, even without going through school, those top students would be much more likely to find employment. It is not necessarily going to school that influences future employment rates, there is a prior correlation between probability of staying and doing well in school and being able to find employment.

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Now, to be even-handed, there is one really nice bit in Langford’s talk that was a little eye-opener for me:

The number one factor in variability of performance is time.

Cool to know!

Ah yes, but now can we trust this guy with his flimsy research methods? In this case I’m prepared to risk a bit of trust. No one is wrong all of the time. Still, I’m not going to go around quoting this cause of performance variability as if it were gospel. But it was a nice semi-factoid.

Furthermore, I’ve heard Sir Roger Penrose say something about this on more than one occasion. When he was a school student he was very dull-witted at mathematics (apparently). He did poorly on the school tests. Luckily though he had a lovely mathematics teacher who took an interest and recognised young Penrose’s ability to focus and work hard, so he told Penrose he could take as long as he liked on the tests.

Result: Penrose was superb at mathematics. But he was very slow. Why? Because he tried to work out everything himself, not taking too much for granted. He was deriving results rather than simply mindlessly applying rote formulae. You can imagine the young Albert Einstein might have told similar anecdotes about school life.

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While doing my research I also found a lot of convergences between scholastic tests & exams and the ubiquitous employee performance appraisal. My conclusion is that Edwards Deming was a genius, a true humanitarian, and almost all organizations and managers who support performance review systems are blindingly stupid, or ignorant, or evil.

This goes for the much lauded ex-Google head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock. He did some good things. But Google have the luxury of being able to hire high performing people who are not in need of performance appraisals. Like the school value example, Google employees will phreakin’ vie to outperform each other in drinking water contests without touching the glass. They will vie to outperform each other in flatulence aroma. You can give them anything and they will compete for fun. Under such a culture doing performance assessments is always going to show results. But it proves nothing about the performance rating system. All it proves is that these people love to compete. (Of course some don’t, but they will still be top coders or whatever.) You hire the best, you get the best.

And nor does any of this justify behavioural management. These Googlers are not responding to carrot and stick rewards systems and incentive pay or whatever. They are just basically playing at games they naturally enjoy. It is completely cognitive psychology. It just looks like performance rewards are working, but that’s a chimera. (Give me a million dollar research grant and I’ll prove it for you with robust statistics. … I’m only half joking about that! )

Truly, I was so overwhelmed by the pathetic quality of research that supports the use of performance appraisals (it is all of the same ilk as that ill-considered comment about the value of schooling)  — please shoot me if I ever publish “research findings” that make such spurious claims  — that I wrote a long 20 page memo to my department.  It was not well-received.  People get so agitated and fearful when they cannot see a criticism of a system is not a criticism of the people within the system.  Even after trying to explain my motives, the response was, “well, you should have informed management first before emailing your memo to everyone.  You have created disharmony. ”

Well, I could understand their fear.  But I still find it hard to understand the bad quality research literature.  Or maybe I do understand it, since it is ironically part of the same problem.  People publish fast and loose research not because they wish to, but because they have performance appraisal pressures that basically say various versions of “publish or perish”. Under such career pressure academics will publish any rubbish that they can dress up as respectable, and a kind of intellectual myopia sets in whereby they eventually cannot even see that their research is rubbish.  The thing is, 90% of it is not rubbish at all, it is often really good work. At least the data is usually ok.   It’s just the conclusions and summary that are trash.

In fact, I become so incensed that I wrote a research grant proposal to simulate the effects of performance ratings systems in the academic work environment, using evolutionary models.  I tend not to listen to the publish or perish meme.  I do feel ambient stress related to it, but I actively craft my work to make it deform away.  Consequently, you might not see my proposal turn into a paper any time soon, but when published I’ll write a note on it at OneOverEpsilon  for sure.


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Splintering of the Left and Why the Left is Still a Dominant Force

Whenever I get a break from teaching I default to two activities, exercise and watching quality TV. There is not a lot of quality television.  I am a very fit 50 year old.  LOL

However, I have at least found a reasonable recommendation service: TasteK;d, and it was from a three minute browse on TastK;id that I discovered a Danish show Borgen recommended by fans of the Wallander.  If you have not seen Wallander then get it on DVD.  Even on a crappy old vacuum tube television set the cinematography and all-around production quality is brilliant, and the stories are not too bad either if you do not mind a lot of nasty psychopathic characters in your crime dramas.

Borgen, the Danish TV series

Borgen = PGD ~ “Pretty Good Drama”. Produced by Camilla Hammerich for the Danish DR1 network.

But the thing about Borgen that got me writing this little recommendation is the way the political landscape portrayed on Borgen mirrored quite amazingly closely the landscape in my home country New Zealand.  It also mirrors fairly closely Great Britain, Australia and Canada.  I am not familiar with other countries political systems, but my suspicion from this small sample is that many countries, perhaps a majority, are tending towards a multi-party system where coalitions need to be formed, where the right-wing parties consolidate most power through their internal unity, and where the left-wing parties are almost completely fractured, but still have remarkable influence.

Since I am a mathematical physicist and IT lecturer, I am not by any stretch a fount of wisdom on political matters, but my father was a New Zealand MP and he loved discussing world politics.  He was also a chief negotiator for the Bahá’í World Community based in Haifa Israel, where he had to deal with a sometimes hostile Israeli political system.    So I picked up a lot from him.  Thus, while I will not write here at length, I would like to make a few pithy observations and hopefully get some readers to respond or go away and do a thesis or write articles or books on these topics.  I also like to hope any decent lecturers on political science are observing and debating these ideas in their courses with their students.

The main cognitive dissonance I get from my sparse survey of world politics is that the leftist political parties are badly fractured and yet their ideologies are the more forceful and powerful.  Why is this?  How is it possible? What might it be indicating for the near future (50 to 100 year horizon)?

Here are a few of my summary observations:

  1. Right wing parties tend to stay unified and thus consolidate power, my thesis would be that this is due to a general right-wing or conservative-minded mentality (more on this below).
  2. Left wing parties are badly fracturing, particularly when any two-party system goes multi-party (usually due to a constitutional change from first-past-the-post to a more proportional representation system), and my thesis is that this a prototypical left-wing psyche.
  3. In multi-party democracies the Libertarians also tend to get precipitated out of both the left-wing and right-wing dominant parties.
  4. Although political legislation and executive power probably lies predominantly with right-wing conservatism (witness the USA despite their President), nevertheless, the world is unerringly moving more and more towards old-fashioned progressive and leftist policies and ideologies.

Forget for a moment about the incongruence of the phrase “old fashioned progressive”.  I will hopefully explain what I mean by that in what follows.

What I hope to illustrate in my brief discussion to follow is a vague feeling that the psychological factors which underlie each of the above observations seems, to me, to highlight the good in each brand of political ideology.  Moreover, the emergence of these distinct trends and differences points to a potential for a healing of the bad-old ways of 19th and 20th century democracy, which tended to be horribly corrupt and “democratic” in name only, not serving the people, but serving more faithfully corporations and wealthy interests.

You will have to fill in a lot of the details yourself I warn you!  I do not have time to write a major thesis here. But I think just a  few words under each heading should be sufficient for anyone to go away, do their homework, and fill out the bulk of the over-arching thesis I am presenting in proposal.

Also in what follows it might be hard for American readers who tend to think “socialism” is a dirty word.  In my lexicon “socialism” is simply a nature of politics that uses collective resources to help those in great need.  Thus, almost every single country has socialist health care, almost without exception. Taxes from people who never use health-care go towards subsidizing the costs of health-care for the poor.  Broadcast television is another great socialist system.  So is the school education system in most countries.  Normal garden-variety socialism exists all over the place in the USA.  When we in New Zealand talk about socialism we tend to think of schools and hospitals, police, law courts, and never any hint of Marxism or Communism creeps in.  The Communist failure was accepted in New Zealand probably back around 1948.  We do not have any hang-ups about left-wing socialism.  We accept the good of modern socialism and have long ignored as irrelevant to any modern consumer culture any potential threat from the corruptions and inhuman inefficiencies of communist style social centralization.

Finally, for any extremist readers, I personally think the spoils of evil and corruption are fairly uniformly distributed across the political spectrum.  There might be statistically more socialists imprisoned than conservatives but only because of extreme times like the McCarthy era in the USA or the radical feminist era in the UK and elsewhere and for the communist “red conspiracy” theorists who once held political or judicial power in many countries.  There is also a bias on the left since Trade Unions were often infiltrated by organized crime, and there is no way that Mafia or other crime organizations can be considered left-wing or right-wing.  They are basically wingless.  And would utilize any existing power structure at the level that they could usefully infiltrate and corrupt.

Objectively, and with an even-handed look into all the possible biases and miscarriages of justice over the last few centuries, I think one would find no significant correlation between political belief and corruption or crime, and instead only a correlation between power and corruption (I might be wrong, I have not looked into any such research).  Each side of the political spectrum likes to believe their’s is the more honest and just side, but I would guess there is no objective evidence for such beliefs.  There are just good and bad people who seek power, and the more power they gain the worse people’s ethics seem to become, if for no other reason than the purely banal fact that with more power one can “get away” with more slight of hand and wrong-doing even if for pure motives.  What’s more, with some people who gain inordinate power, they often will not even realize they are evil.  Indeed, maybe often they are not in themselves “evil”, and it is only their incompetent or ill-considered actions that are evil.

Hopefully that last paragraph clears a  little bit of ideological fog to make what I am about to write a little easier to glean.

Conservative Unity

A number of studies in psychology have documented the (by now commonly understood) phenomenon of right-wing conservative fear.  Conservative react with measurably more disgust to images that are violent and horrific, while left-wing proponents are far more calm & cool when faced with disgusting or psychologically disturbing images. See “Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives” by Emily Laber-Waren, Scientific American, 1 September 2012.  See also, “Fear of Ebola Could Make People More Likely to Vote Conservative”, by Alice Robb, in The New Republic, October, 2014.

Conservatives tend to react to aggression and hostility with a military sort of mentality.  They circle-the-wagons, hold down the fort, and adopt defensive postures.  This is not, or even remotely, only in physical aggression circumstances. It is a general psychological trait of conservatives that per-determines a lot of their decisions and actions in the everyday world.  But there is a beauty in these traits.  Despite many personal differences and internal strife and implementation debates, conservatives tend to have a remarkable ability to remain united in the face of onslaught or in-party friction.  It is an admirable character of a conservative mind-set that liberals and progressives and radical find almost impossible to replicate. This strength of conservative movements in general (and yes, here and in what follows I am making deliberately sweeping generalizations that should in no way be attributed to any particular individual human) will help conservative opinion remain a strength in politics for as long as I can foresee.

This is important, because as the world moves inexorably more towards left-wing and caring pro-socialist capitalism, the loss of hard-line conservative opinion would be a terrible blow for democracy and representational government.  Socialists need to be reigned in by fiscal conservatives from time to time.  Corruptions in centralized power structures (like our current schools) need to periodically be released form the tyranny of social conformance and allowed to burst free and explore new and innovative options that require a more libertarian mind-set.

Left Wing Diversity

Socialist and left-wing thinkers tend to have a greater tolerance for outside views and do not automatically revert into defensive modes when threatened. This is often perceived as a political weakness. It also tends to make left-wing minds less worried or fearful of internal debate and dissension.  Left-wing parties also tend to have deserved reputations for division and an inability to see-through hard line decisions.  This is a natural psychological trait in general for people who favour the political left.  It is characterized by higher diversity of opinion, higher tolerance for dissension, and weakness in resolve and a tendency for disunity.

But I think the disadvantages of the political left are becoming less important.  Multi-party politics has split the left-wing big parties, so they no longer hold anywhere close to parity against the dominant right-wing parties.  But in a multi-party proportional representation system this is not such a problem.   Conservatives may have primary power, but not in brute force of numbers, only by virtue of being the dominant party.  Numerically the combined left, green, progressive and centrist liberals dominant over most right-wing parties.  We see in the USA where the electoral college system results in a de facto two-party system that the left wing and right wing are roughly balanced.  And the USA is a very conservative country by in large, owing perhaps to it’s strong Christian puritanism cultural history.  If the USA was to become truly multi-party and electorally proportional then I suspect the Republicans would remain almost intact, the Democrats would lose a huge amount of their numerical force, but leftist and progressive centrist parties would spring up, preserving the rough left versus right balance.

These left-wing weaknesses are thus not fatal.  Indeed, the tolerance for diversity and the more fractious in-fighting nature of left-wing circle politics is a vital, and perhaps even necessary, character needed for a political movement that seeks more rapid change and innovation then the conservative right.  Change is dangerous, it requires minds that are less fearful of strife and more able to tolerate dissension.  The right-wing mindset by nature can never fully embrace such internal chaos and conflict necessary for the sound debate and research of new ideas and potentially disruptive innovations.

Libertarian Precipitation

Republicans want to be free from fear and doubt.  Socialist desire to be free from poverty and want.  It is no wonder these opposing camps in politics are at odds.  Those who feel more of a psychological need to be free from fear are those who are already wealthy enough to not have concerns about basic needs and shelter and immediate security, they tend to be conservatives. Those who cannot even afford to worry about national security, because they are struggling to survive, tend to be socialist or left-wing (although the USA populace seem to have major departures from this otherwise world-wide trend in political demographics, see “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank).  In-between there are libertarians, who may be either wealthy or poor but who in any case value liberty and freedom to “do whatever the hell they please” above other worries like safety or accruing of personal wealth.  These are all heavily stereotyped descriptions, but I am justifiably making them for the sake of very general arguments.

The general argument is that when a country changes from a two-party to a multi-party style of election and/or governance, then the libertarians tend to divorce themselves from the parental support of their innately preferred branch of the left-right political spectrum, and they then crystallize out into their own political force fields. Usually extreme in free-market philosophy, they can also have elements of intellectual anarchism, which is not the popularly believed system without rules, but is a more benign philosophical idea that countries and communities should be run by egalitarian cooperative principles and not by a leadership hierarchy.  Everyone contributing, everyone who participates, is a leader in an anarchic system.  Far from leading logically to chaos, an anarchy can be a rather beautiful system.  But we are yet to see anarchy operate anywhere effectively on a  global governance scale.

But despite the flaws in implementing pure libertarian principles, libertarians still have many important principles that can be used to balance and guide other mainstream political ideologies.

There are even some highly effective and proven micro-implementations of libertarianism.  Not in politics, but in business.  The Free Software movement is the best example I know.  It is wildly successful and has shown itself to be a truly beautiful and efficient model for how an anarchic style of operation can be effective when the purpose is to create a complex system of products that no one person can maintain or oversee.   One exception might be the Linux kernel project.  The Linux kernel does have it’s leader, for sure, but the model (the Cathedral style of software development) is still basically a libertarian type of model, allowing many developers to contribute, without bias, provided they have the proven skill.  The Linux kernel is a type of meritocracy more than an anarchy, but it is heavily libertarian in flavour nonetheless.  But there are thousands of other free open-source software projects they basically prove that anarchy or libertarianism can be an effective system organizing a society, in fact a world-wide virtual society

The idea is that when they can free themselves from the shackles of a two-party system, libertarians have a stronger voice.  They are no longer beholden to any traditional stifling party power structure, they no longer need to tow any particular party-line, but can instead organize themselves along whatever style of libertarianism they espouse.  This clarity of political voice from an important sub-section of society is a wonderful advancement in world civilization.  There is little worse for idealism in politics than having good ideas that are drowned by noise and never heard.

Irrepressible Progressive Movement

I have to confess I am not strong on knowledge of the differences between left-wing socialism and progressives.  My characterization would be that traditional left-wing parties tend to be more entrenched in their brand of socialism, whereas progressives are more like the amorphous apolitical class I will mention below in the Epilogue.  My thesis concerning progressives was merely that their collective stream of ideology seems to be where the world is heading.  Partly this is because Progressives borrow from intellectual popularism, using popular academic and scientific opinion to drive through parts of their agenda.  Partly it is because they can align with conservatives on fiscal responsibility and safety and defense matters, and partly because they can work with green movements who are concerned with environmental protection, and they can work with both libertarians and greens on political and social freedom.

It also seems that Progressive politics is almost by definition the style and content of politics that is a majority popular trend.   People are sick of the old, they want fresh and new ideas, and that almost defines what it is to be a Progressive in politics and society.  So I think it is almost vacuous to point out the the progressive political movement is advancing irrepressibly.  Because it advances by definition.  Whatever trend in politics is current, then that is virtually what we would call “progressive”.   This is probably a gross characterization and oversimplification, but I think it has enough of a kernel of truth to be all that I need to write on the topic.  My main summarizing point which links to progressive politics is in the Epilogue.

Epilogue: Rise of the Amorphous Apoliticals

Although not in my list of five observations above, I think another thread in world politics is the emergence of young people who are almost entirely apolitical.  They borrow an ideology from the left, from the right, from the central, from the anarchic, from the libertarian, as they see fit, to suit their needs or current thoughts.

This is a very healthy brand of millennial citizen.  There have always been people who are capable of sympathizing, or even empathizing, with either end or middle of the political spectrum.  These have, in the past, tended to be “free thinkers”, or outsiders, or academics who pursue truth and impartial judgment.  Such people would often be looked down upon as “having no principles”.  But this was the exact opposite.  Free thinkers have higher principles than any ideological allegiant party people.   Their allegiance was never to any political party of ideological brand, but to truth and justice and egalitarianism.  There are plenty of people within the political parties who are such free thinkers too, they are not always total outsiders. They have the ability to work with anyone who has a reasonable fact-based or rational opinion. That is because facts and rationality are open to debate and are immune from hard-line ideology.  The mistake of politically biased operators in thinking that free thinkers “have no principles” is a failure to note that their (the free thinker’s) principles are in fact blatant and far higher and nobler ones, devoted to truth and wisdom rather than any particular policy.

Also, I wrote above that in the bad-old days democratic governments were a farce, they served corporate and wealthy interests, not the people.  The thing is, most people will think this has never changed, and in fact may be even worse today than in the past.  So really we have bad-new days.  But I would disagree.  Today we have much greater transparency, the ills and sicknesses of political systems are more exposed to the light. So naturally we think it is getting worse.  But the more light gets shed on politics the more sick it will seem until we cross over a putative phase transition in politics, and politics becomes less corrupted by money and more driven by people who want to serve the community and who would rather not be in power.  They would be reluctantly elected.  There will be an end to commercial political advertising and campaigning because political parties will become irrelevant and people will be voting for individual representatives, using a person’s character and individual history to inform their vote, not a political party agenda.  This is not naïve Pollyannarism, since you can see the signs and trends for yourself.  Look at the power and influence of social media.  This is not controlled by governments or security institutions.  It is genuine power wielded by ordinary people.  But it is only a dim start.  There is a thousand-fold, maybe even a million-fold increase in political action and luminosity that the Internet and social media still could develop, and I think will inevitably develop.

In this new millennium I think the argumentative fractious nature of most party-political systems are making people psychological ill.  There is less tolerance for politics.  More and more youngsters get their news from shows like The Daily Show than from stolid ratings-driven mainstream news media.  And I think this is how world politics is trending, slowly, but surely.  I would not be surprised if in 50 to 70 years from now there is at least one major democracy that switches to a party-free political electioneering and governance system.  There is already one major world-wide community using a party-free electoral and governance system.  I wonder how long before this system is more widely known and catches on in the public sphere.

 

 

 

 

 

“You want me to grade ya? Well, you gotta’ ask yourself, do you feel lucky … well do ya punk?”

Semi-annual exam grading this week. I am trying to migrate more each semester to journal portfolio grading. This semester I managed to get approval for exams worth 0% of course grades. But I made them Pass/Fail, which is probably a bit rough on students. So I also had an “earned pass” criteria, which meant students had to complete weekly journals, forum discussions, and homework quiz sets, to “earn a pass” in case they failed both exams. This works quite well.

The downside is that with 15 weeks of journals to review and forum posts to read and send feedback on, for every student, the total hours I spend on assessment exceeds the time I am being paid for lecturing. (It is about 450 hours for a class of 60 students. And I estimate I am only paid for 60 hours of assessment work, because that is all the office time I am given to submit grades after final exams are over. And it seems to me most other lecturers work some magic to finish their grading in about 12 hours, I do not know how they do it.)

So I am going to request next semester for dropping exams altogether, and instead getting quality control through short weekly tests in lecture class where exam conditions will be simulated. This will force me to grade tests each week, so at the end of term the exam grading will not take so long. But it does not reduce the assessment hours, in fact I think it will increase my overall work burden. So I will also need to scale back journal portfolios to bi-weekly instead of weekly. I will also probably need to make the short tests bi-weekly too, since, with 120 students, grading tests each week will overload my hours.

The problem is not that I dislike being under-paid for my work, I could care less about money. What I do not like is wasting time and not being able to spend more time on research and course quality improvements and developing better educational software. Actually, I do not consider assessment a waste of time. But it is tedious and depressing work sometimes. So I really just think I personally need to be smarter about how I allocate my time, and overloading on assessment is decreasing the time I could be spending on course quality improvements, so ultimately I am hindering improving student learning by spending too much time on assessment.

That’s enough moaning!  What I really want to blog about today is the problem with tests and exams as assessments, and some of the issues of freedom in learning that are stifled by tests and exams, and how to do things better without abandoning the good uses for tests.

edu_FreedomToLearn_BertrandRussellSo ok, I think I have been subjected to enough education to exercise my opinion!

To get you warmed up, consider what you are doing as a teacher if you have a prescribed syllabus with prescribed materials and resources and no freedom of selection for students.  When students are not permitted to fire up Firefox or Chrome to search for their own learning resources, what is this?.  What you are doing then is called censorship.  And that is probably the most polite word for it.

edu_censorship_GeorgeBernardShawIn the past it was not censorship, it was in fact liberation!  But times have changed.  Teachers used to be the fountains of wisdom and guidance.  They would gather resources, or purchase textbooks, and thereby give students access to a wide world.  But now there is no need for that, and teachers who continue prescribing textbooks and using the same resources for all students, they are now ironically the censors.  They are limiting student freedom.  The Internet has changed the world this much!  It has turned liberators into censors overnight.  Amazing.

So please, if you are a teacher read this and share it. If you are studying to become a teacher then please do not become a censor.   Learn how to give your students freedom and structured guidance.  If you are already a teacher please do not continue being a censor.

Teaching to the Tests, “Hello-oh!?”

One interesting thing I have learned (or rather had confirmed) is that university teaching is far superior to high school teaching in a few ways.

  • You, the lecturer, get to structure the course however you want, provided you meet fairly minimal general university requirements.
  • Because of that structural freedom you can teach to the tests! This is a good thing!

“What’s that?” you say. How can teaching to the tests be a good thing? Hell, it is something I wrote dozens of paragraphs railing against when I was doing teacher training courses, and in later blogs. And despite not liking to admit it, it is what most high school teachers end up doing in New Zealand. It is a tragedy. But why? And why or when and how can teaching to the tests actually be a good thing?

The answer, and I think the only way teaching to tests is natural and good, is when the teacher has absolute control over both the test format and the classroom atmosphere and methods.

First of all, I like using tests or exams to get feedback about what basics students have learned. But I do not use these results to judge students. A three hour exam is only a snapshot. I can never fit in all the course content into such a short exam, so it would be unfair to use the exam to judge students who did well in learning topics in the course that will not appear in my exam papers. And students could be “having a bad day”, if I tested them another day their score could go up or down significantly. So I realise exams and tests are terrific for gathering course outcome quality information. But you are a bit evil, in my opinion, if you use exams and tests as summative assessments. Summative assessments should be feedback to students, but not used for grading or judgemental purposes. Instead, the only fair way to grade and judge students is by using quality weekly or “whole semester assessments.

Secondly, if a teacher is biased then “whole semester” assessments (like journal portfolios) can be terribly insecure and unreliable. So you need to try to anonymise work before you grade it, so as to eliminate overt bias. And you might think you are not biased, but believe me, the research will tell you that you are most certainly biased, you cannot help it, it is subconscious and therefore beyond your immediate conscious control. But you can proactively consciously control bias by eliminating it’s source, which is knowing which student’s work you are currently grading.

You can later think about “correcting” such anonymised grades on a case-by-case basis by allowing for known student learning impairments. But you should not bias your grades a priori by knowing which student you are grading at the time. A’ight?! Biased teachers are well-documented. Teachers need to be close to students and form strong relationships, that is a proven good learning requirement. But it works against accurate and unbiased assessment. So you need to anonymise student work prior to grading. This could mean getting rid of hand-written work, favouring electronic submissions.

If you use tests wisely you can use them as both student and teacher assessment vehicles. Students should not feel too much stress with short weekly tests. They should not be swatting for them, the tests should naturally extend learning done in class or from previous weekly homework. If you control the format and content of tests then you can design your teaching to match. So if you like highly creative and cognitive learning styles you can administer cognitive testing with lots of imagination required. If you prefer a more kinesthetic learning style for another topic you can make the test kinesthetic. You can suit and tailor your teaching style to naturally match the topic and then also the follow-up tests.

This sort of total control is not possible in schools under present day state-wide run standards-based exams. That’s why such exam regimes are evil and inefficient and terrible for promoting good learning.

With teacher-run lessons + tests you get the best of all worlds. If one teacher is slack, their students get disadvantaged for sure, but they would anyway under a standards-based regime. The difference with teacher-run courses is that the teacher’s exams and course content can be examined, rather than the students getting examined, and so ultimate education quality control rests upon the administrator who should get to examine the teacher resources and test formats and content. That’s the way to run state-based exams. You examine the teachers, not the students.

There can even be a second tier of filtering and quality control. The school itself can assess the teacher quality. Then slack teachers can be sent to state-wide authorities of assessment. We need to remember the state employees are the teachers, not the students. So we should at least first worry about assessing teacher quality, not student quality. Our present schools systems, around the world, backwards all this have. 😉  I know educators mean well. But they need to listen to Sir Ken Robinson and Alfie Kohn a bit harder.

So in the foreseeable future, sadly, I will not be returning to secondary school teaching. Never under the present national standards regime anyway. It basically would make me an ordinary teacher. But I have extraordinary talents. The NZQA run system would effectively dull my talents and would mask them from expression. Under the current NZQA system which most schools are mandated to follow, I would be a really horrid teacher. I would not be teaching to the tests, and my students would likely not acquire grades that reflect their learning.

It is not impossible to teach students creatively and with fun and inspiration and still help them acquire good grades under NCEA. But it is really, really hard, and I am not that good a teacher. The real massive and obvious flaw in New Zealand is that teachers think they can all do this. But they cannot. They either end up teaching to the tests, and their students get reasonable grades, but average learning, or they buck the system and teach however they damn please and their students get poor grades. I would guess only about 1% or 3% of teachers have the genius and skill and long fought-for expertise to run a truly creative and imaginary learning experience and also get students who can ace the NCEA exams.

If, as a nation of people who love education, we cannot have all teachers be the geniuses who can do this, and if it requires exceptionally gifted teachers to do this, then why oh why are we forcing them to use the NCEA or similar exam regimes? If you do not have all teachers being such geniuses, then, I think, morally and ethically you are bound to not using a standards-based summative assessment system for judging students. You instead need to unleash the raw talent of all teachers by giving them freedom to teach in a style they enjoy, because this will naturally reflect in the brightness and happiness and learning of their students. And to check on the quality of your education system you must assess these teachers, not their students.

The tragedy is, for me, that I think I would enjoy secondary school teaching a lot more than university lecturing if the free-to-learn system I propose was in place. The younger children have a brightness and brilliance that is captivating.  So it is a real pleasure to teach them and guide them along their way.  These bright lights seem to become dulled when they become young adults.  Or maybe that’s just the effect that school has on them?

*      *       *

So, the thing is, I see no reason why high school teaching cannot be more like university teaching. Please give the teachers the control over both their course style and their assessments. This will make everyone happier and less stressed. Test the teacher quality ahead of student quality at the national level. Make education about empowering students to discover their interests, and not to follow by rote the content provided by the teachers. And definitely not content dictated and remanded by a state-run government institution. If the government desire accountability of schools, they should look at teacher quality, not student quality. With good teachers you can trust them to get the most from their students, right! That’s a statement not a question!

There are many good references I should provide, but I will just give you one that hits most points I made above:

edu_FreedomToLearn_Rogers

That wasn’t an ad.  Here are the wordpress inserted ads …

Frankanscifisense

Here’s a v. quick post:  have you been dying to see an intelligent SciFi movie or series?  They are are few and far between right?!  One I am waiting for on DVD is The Martian (2015), I’ve heard ok reviews and the book it was based upon had very good reviews and listening to interviews with the author, Andy Weir, it seems like a quality piece of hard scifi that had some sound engineering physics thought behind it.   Hard to know whether to read the book or watch the film. Film is faster!  Life is short!  Therefore watch the film and sadly miss the book?   Too many mathematics texts to read anyway, so the film it is [sigh]!

If I’m not feeling wide awake enough for a mathematics or physics lecture during my lunch break, I might try a bit of scifi TV or read a science blog article, or sometimes find a good movie to dip into.

And I do mean “dip into”.  I eat fairly quickly, and not too huge helpings, so it’s all over in 15 minutes.  And that’s about as much of a movie I can watch in one session.  Heading out the the theatre is a rare event these days, and besides that, I like to watch a good movie in comparative solitude.

So every purple moon I might find an intelligent SciFi movie.  But I will start watching and get nervous that any moment the story will sensationalize and lapse into horribly saccharine, physically implausible unreality.  You cannot even begin writing a critique of the SciFi genre because 99% of what the film industry turns out is utter crap.  That might seem too harsh, the SFX are vastly better than in days of old, but the stories are the critical component of any good film or book.  And it is the plot, the dialogue, and the whole story structure that really sucks in just about every recent Scifi  film I have seen in the past decade or more.   (Hold on now, I am getting to a good recommendation.)

The problem I think is that the improvements in SFX have outpaced improvements in screenplays.  Older screenplays could be just as good or a lot better than modern scripts because the focus in the old days had to be on stories because the SFX totally sucked.  Take Star Trek as an example.  The modern Star Trek stories have a lot more fancy CGI and the screenplays use a lot more modern science ideas, so they seem pretty cool compared to the camp TV series.  Similar comments could be made about Doctor Who, another generation spanning SciFi series.  But if you analyse them a little more deeply, and think about the dialogue and the psychology, not a lot has really improved.  The dialogue in Start Trek Into the Darkness (2013) was fairly childish.  Whenever a cool science point could be made the pseudo-science explanations lapsed perhaps into even worse quasi-science than the dialogues from the original TV series.  They just use a few more modern science buzz-words.  The actual meat of the scifi science explanations is often a lot worse.  The logic is a lot worse, the liberties taken with reality more extreme. (Recall the “photon torpedo”? … OMG, … let’s not even go there!) The Star Trek franchise should be consulting the chap who wrote the Science of Star Trek books, or Michio Kaku, who can rhapsodize endlessly about plausible scifi science.

I could write a long essay on this, but I won’t.

Can I then get to my recommendation?

Sure dude.  Just hang on one more minute though.   The thing is, I suspect, what makes a really good scifi story is one that dials back the fantasy and aims for a lot of hard realism.  So something like the “near future” genre is always promising, but using plausible and reasonable extrapolations of current science.  Especially stories that obey the principles of conservation of energy, momentum, and the second law of thermodynamics.  Those are perhaps the most blatantly violated principles of science that bad SciFi movies in particular routinely abuse.  My point is that if you discipline your story to obey just these three principles then you will be constraining your plot.  Such constraints are beautiful things.  It forces the other human aspects of your story to be more powerful and it helps make the audience more involved and engaged, even if the average audience member is not aware of the principles.  (I lose count of the number of CGI-mediated violations of conservation of momentum in crashes and fight scenes.  Each instance just makes me more and more nauseous.  even fairly serious film makers like Peter Jackson, routinely violate conservation of momentum — both linear and rotational — in their CGI spectaculars.)

So when someone makes a SciFi film that does not even begin to worry about spectacular CGI, then I am extremely interested.  So here is the recommendation:  go and grab a copy of Robot and Frank (2012).

Robot_and_Frank_movie poster

A movie with no CGI pretensions, and a nice premise on the face of it.

I have only seen the first 15 minutes, so I am still nervous the plot will get derailed later by unrealistic physics or computer science.  But I think this is one film I can happily watch to the end based on the story premise.  Give it a go.

*      *       *

I guess it is possible the artificial intelligence postulates in this movie will degenerate into implausibility, but over the next week of lunch breaks I’ll risk it. 🙂

Licence:


CCL_BY-NC-SA(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/legalcode)

Propelled by Beams of Intellectual Light

One frustrating thing about being a mathematics teacher is the difficulty of conveying to young students the sometimes terrifying giddiness of plunging deep into mathematics. There is an awesome sort of thrilling vertigo associated with trying to understand, and work through, high level mathematics.

The cool thing about mathematics is that it is endlessly capable of providing such a thrill, no matter what your age or talent, no matter what level of ability you already have. There are also many different paths one can explore to get these adrenalin rushes.  Godel’s incompleteness theorems loosely suggest there is no end to the depths and heights of mathematical investigation.  There will always be a need for new distilled crystallized axioms that try to best express our most basic and unquestionable mathematical presumptions.  A possible future might even see multiple parallel universes of mathematics, pure imaginary worlds that can never collide because their alternative fundamental axioms will never be able to be proven to be across-world consistent, and yet which cannot be proven to be inconsistent.

One recent path I took was reading about some recent discoveries from the papers of Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan’s work is one of the most amazing collections in mathematical history. Not always the most applicable to modern technology (hardly any physicists have ever made use of Ramanujan’s results), but as pure abstract journeys of the mind Ramanujan’s work stands almost unparalleled in history.

math_Ramanujans.manuscript_Near.Fermat.Counterexamples

Ramanujan’s manuscript. The representations of 1729 as the sum of two cubes appear in the bottom right corner. An equation expressing a near counter example to Fermat’s last theorem appears. Image courtesy Trinity College library. (From: https://plus.maths.org/content/ramanujan )

The analogy I conjured up was that of climbing Mount Everest without ropes or oxygen. Getting deep into mathematics can be that terrifying. You constantly get the piercing anxiety of, “I will never understand this!” Everyone knows this feeling, because school mathematics is still compulsory in most countries. Everyone hits this barrier at some stage. No matter how good they are with mathematics. People only vary in when they get to such a wall.

People who hit this wall early probably bifurcate: they either haul themselves over the wall with gargantuan heart-pounding effort, and continue on to excel in mathematics or sciences, while the others get daunted by the height and cannot see the other side and give up.

mind_mindfields

An image I borrowed from http://universalhiddeninsight.weebly.com/ blog, it seemed to capture the physical/intellectual interconnections in our minds, plus a sort of infinite mental expanse quite well.  I didn’t want to post a brain explosion image!  That might give the wrong impression.

This is, I know, too simplistic a picture, but I think it captures the psychological impact of mathematical learning for many people. Sometimes you can hit several walls, and maybe only the sixth or seventh seems insurmountable, and so you retire grand mathematics ambitions and turn to maybe history or teaching or a relatively safe branch of applied mathematics. But even going down those seemingly safe avenues there are walls of unimaginable height and beauty that can disturb you.

And this is part of the wonder and beauty of mathematics.

The other imagery that came to my mind was the primal fear the astronaut Chris Hadden spoke about when sitting confined in a Space Shuttle launch cabin and getting the giant or all kicks up the backside when the main rockets ignited and hurled him into orbit. (By the way; Hadden recorded a pitch-perfect cover of David Bowies’ “Major Tom” track while in orbit on the ISS, one Bowie himself described as, “the best cover he had heard.”) Going by recent history, there is only a 1 in 30 to 1 in 40 chance of surviving such rocket launches. So it is a fantastic gamble deciding to be an astronaut. It is amazing people still volunteer, considering robots are almost capable of performing most of the tasks needed in space missions. Why take the risk?

If you talk to Hadden and his colleagues I’m sure they will tell you it is dozens of times over worth the risk. Just watching the Earth slowly rotate underneath in the vastness of black space is something that seems to change the soul.

With surviving great overwhelming terror comes profound spiritual awareness.

The terror can be purely mental, it does not have to be physical. But there is a fascinating connection here in the human brain. Terror and other similar deep emotions like fear and envy, arise in the amphibian primitive centres of our brains, the amygdala and hippocampus, while the impact rises up to higher conscious brain functions and we can sometimes get an experience of an inner world of abstract delight and insight when these primitive regions are stimulated. (I know the mappings of brain regions to psychological states is not as simple as this, so neurologists please do not hassle me about this, q.v.  The Amygdala Is NOT the Brain’s Fear Center, by Joseph DeLoux, Psychology Today, 10 August 2015. The amygdala is more correctly merely a threat-response system, it is not a source of conscious fear, the amygdala merely contributes in small part to a more neocortex driven feeling of fear or fright.)

The flight-or-fight response originates primarily in the amygdala, and it is an unconscious response. The consciousness of being in sheer panic or rage filters up to higher brain regions only after a few seconds or moments, which is neurologically a fairly long time — at least a few dozen or hundred cycles of 40 Hz brain wave activity. But we are eventually consciously aware of our responses. What the conscious systems do with these feelings is then a complex matter. Some people are able to thrive on the fear or rage and go deeper into the rabbit hole. Others rebel and go for safety. So perhaps a whimsical caricatured “difference between” X-Game competitors and Wingsuit flying daredevils and a mathematical genius is only the type of stimulus they fly form or dive into. Get anxiety from heights or open spaces or hanging upside down then you might be more of a mathematician. Get anxiety from an undecipherable maze of symbols on paper that are demanding decryption, and feel ill at the hopelessness of untangling them, then you might be more of a skydiver or rock climber.

So I wonder if the act of doing mathematics has a tremendous amount of associated unconscious neural activity? I wonder if this translates into a thrill and adrenalin rush when some insight is gained and a forbidding intellectual wall appears to crumble and a new revelatory insight into the world of mathematics is unveiled? And I even wonder if this can be addictive?

Whatever your inclination, when you next hear about a mathematical or scientific breakthrough, spare a thought for those who made those endeavours possible. For every breakthrough there are hundreds or thousands of researcher’s who will never get the accolades and awards, but who daily put themselves through the anxiety-ridden turmoil of smashing their minds up against intellectual barriers and paralyzing laser grids of the mind, or who feel constantly like they are falling from infinite heights of mental anguish and never know when the fear will cease. But all they are doing is sitting or pacing around in their laboratory or study wondering desperately where the much needed inspiration will come from to rescue them from the impending calamity of intellectual loss.

When the magical insight arrives, if ever, then the risk of the depression becomes all worth it, because the thrill of insight and discovery in the invisible planes of abstract theory and intellectual monuments is like being driven across the cosmos on beams of light. The journey is an expansion of your mind, it receives new ideas, allows your brain to form new connections, and opens up fields of intellectual inquiry previously barred. The propulsion system is imagination, insight and, dare I say t, some sort of spiritual impulse. If you are a physicalist then I suppose there are neural correlates for all of this — and you may think of it all as non-miraculous if it makes you feel better —, but think deeply and you might realise there is something more. Doing truly insightful mathematics or science does, I think, at the very forefront and apex of human endeavour, bring something new into the physical universe. From where it comes is perhaps unknowable. You might admit, if you have been touched by real inspiration, that perhaps, just possibly, maybe even likely, there is a world of imagination and abstraction beyond our physical reality, perhaps even closer to us that the atoms constituting our body, perhaps more like the essence of our selves, an existence our body and brain are merely borrowing temporarily ‐ or the converse, depending on your point of view.

This is what is so hard to explain to young children and even mature students. To explain the feeling of experience of these intellectual thrills, and to even hope to remotely compare them to physical danger and excitement, is incredibly difficult for a teacher. These are in the realms of “you really have to experience it for yourself.”

To replicate such intellectual adventure in a classroom is one of the prime responsibilities of a teacher. Yet our schools suppress most attempts in these directions, sadly. I call upon call teachers to put away textbooks and exam-preparation sessions, and replace them with adventures into mathematical depths that offer no clear or easy chance of escape. How you motivate such exploration is up to you, all I can say is try it! Just give your students freedom to explore. Then be prepared to catch them with your firm gedanken safety rope when they cry out in terror!

math_Ramanujan_Man.Who.Knew.Infinity

The Man Who Knew Infinity“, by Robert Kanigel, Abacus Books, 1992 (See goodreads.)

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Psychic Energy Concepts − Learning Your Superpowers for Real Dude!

Knowing how you work and learn best is really useful knowledge. It’s even more useful if you have some way to apply this knowledge. This, and the dubious concept of psychic energy is what this article is mainly about.

Psylocke

Elizabeth Braddock (Psylocke) uses psychic energy to fight evil. But what is this “energy” really?

If you are like me, you do not enjoy reading about vague and ill-defined concepts, especially if they are presented as authoritative and “scientific”. One such area of annoyance is the use of the word “Energy” in psychology. I came across this most recently when reading about MBTI. The previous post was an introduction to MBTI and related personality typology frameworks, which are routinely used to great practical benefit in life. It was jut the first half of this article. This is the second half.

The thing is, just because personality types are useful and productive does not mean people thoroughly understand them. And in particular, I wanted a better understanding of the role of the concept of psychic energy, or what Carl Jung referred to as Libido.

The Use of the Concept of Energy in Psychology

First, let’s be clear that energy is properly a technical term in the science of physics. It has many forms, one of which is potential energy (energy locked away in the position of a mass in relation to some force field), and another is kinetic energy (energy of motion, the faster or more massive a thing the more kinetic energy it possess, quantitatively). The key thing is that energy is numerically measurable, it is quantitative. It is not a vague concept, it has real meaning.

As you can easily imagine, these definitions are not arbitrary. Potential energy can indeed be turned into kinetic energy, that’s the way the world works — I’m not kidding — this is the fundamental fact of physical reality — this interrelation between potential and kinetic energy is literally precisely what makes the universe evolve as it does. In a deep sense there is nothing else to know about the world. What makes the world an interesting and beautiful place is that physics cannot actually perfectly predict what will happen to all the potential energy stored in the positions and motions of matter — and so physics cannot give us a complete account of past and future. All it can do is give us probability measures of how energy might unfold in the future or past motions of matter in spacetime.

This is why we need to supplement physics with higher level sciences like chemistry, biology and economics and even psychology, in order to fully understand the universe and all the life it supports you cannot get by just on Sheldon Cooper’s bank of knowledge.

But clearly the pure physics definition of energy is not what psychology has in mind when studying things like behaviour and temperament in human interrelations. So what exactly does psychology want us to understand when it employs the word “energy” or at least the phrase “psychic energy”?

Energy and Libido

Although this is probably an over-simplification, I will use “Libido” as a synonym for psychic energy. But what is this by definition?

It is not really energy, since energy is … well, … energy is Energy! It’s a concept in physics, not psychology. The brain gets energy from glucose (primarily). And glucose has little directly related to libido. Although, if one lacks glucose then libido plummets no doubt, but so will all other physiological and psychological functions! So the physics concept of energy is not really much to do with psychic libido.

But there is a common intuition we all share about mental energy. You can feel exhausted from certain mental activity, even when your physiology is well fueled up on glucose and other carbohydrates and proteins and other vitamins and food and water. And even when you are short on food and water, there are other mental activities that can energise you and uplift your spirits. So since this is clearly not about physics energy, we have these intuitions about something else. This is what we mean by psychic energy or libido. It’s the mental energy you can feel you have even when you have little physical energy. It is generally fairly independent from physical biochemical energy, although, as just noted above, you always need a little bit of physical energy to function. But given you have just enough physical chemical energy to walk upright and move your muscles, then there is still something else, something that can drain or revive you mentally, and this is the elusive concept of psychic energy or libido.

In MBTI theory psychic energy, or libido, is claimed to be directed inwardly for Introverts and outwardly for Extraverts. But what is this libido really? Is it merely a fictional concept, a nevertheless functionally useful device for talking about psychology, an artifice for usefully conversing about psychology, or is it a real thing, something which can be quantified and measured?

We do Feel Lows and Highs

I’ll take it as a given that everyone knows what one means by an emotional low (or high). These are roughly speaking the mental states of low (resp. high) psychic energy. But they have nothing directly related to physical energy levels, at least not obviously. But there are connections which will be why the word “energy” has a place in psychology. My main aim is to make this precise.

The Brain Controls Hormones

Hormones are those ubiquitous proteins that drive a lot of our biochemistry, most of it is subconscious stuff, but a few hormones are well-known to affect our moods, our emotions, and so they filter up in conscious level sometimes too the point where they become noticeable conscious irritants. Women have the luck of knowing this acutely when they menstruate. But less well known is the fact that men experience similar yet not nearly so intense psychological mood swings due to the banal effect of these dumb biochemicals, and men have a daily cycle, not monthly.

The point is that psychological and conscious mental states are not purely driven and determined by thoughts and intellectual levels of consciousness. A heck of a lot of our psychological and emotional mental states are crazily influenced by levels of dumb chemical hormones in our brains. But since our brain also is responsible for adjusting levels of hormones, this sets up some equally crazy feedback loops between the ostensibly quite disparate realms of (1) psychological states and (2) neurological chemical balances, or imbalances.

So psychic energy is fairly mundane. It’s not the SciFi power that enables people control of physical objects via thought waves. It’s just the effect of hormones on physiology. You feel “low in psychic energy” because your brain is causing your body to feel physically fatigued because the hormones are lowering your metabolic rates and such-like. This is the biochemical–neurological–psychological feedback loop. Biology does not respect human categorical levels of description though. And the causality can work in reverse. Low psychological esteem can cause the brain to enter loops of subconscious activity which cause our organs and cells to emit the hormones that lower metabolic rates, and thus can make you feel physically exhausted.

You could have high glucose levels and yet still feel exhausted because your metabolism in general is being told to shut down by your brain. And then an hour later with no more food intact you could feel great because someone or something has shifted your brain states into a positive affective condition causing the metabolically enhancing hormones to surge. Your brain does not just monitor blood glucose. It is a powerful entity. It can adjust hormones based upon other complex high-level cognitive states that have no simple biochemical correlates, and rather are correlated best with things we routinely refer to as psychological states.

Low Psychic Energy is Not Always Low Physical Energy

Low Psychic Energy can cause feelings of low physical energy because our brains do not directly perceive low glucose or low metabolic activity as tiredness. Our conscious perception of tiredness is complex mix of low level physiological states and certain neurological patterns of activity in our brains and high level conscious thoughts.

That’s right! Even a sad thought can make you feel tired and “low in energy”. But this is psychic energy, not necessarily physiological or biochemical energy. It’s worth remembering this the next time you feel tired or exhausted. You might want to reflect upon it and think carefully about the true cause. Is it real lowness in glycogen or other physiological chemical energy levels, or is it mostly psychological, or is it a cause in the intermediate level of neurology and hormone imbalances which can be easily corrected with some happier thoughts and some caffeine?

Treating ailments effectively is mainly about figuring out the most proximate and deepest underlying causes and treating these.

The trouble with treating psychic low energy levels, or low libido, is the complex mix of factors, which range all over the field from chemicals up to conscious thoughts. But if you at least try to treat one of the symptoms, because of the complexity of the causal chains, it will probably have a beneficial short-term relieving effect no matter what level you decide to treat. Have a Vitamin B does, a coffee & and cake, a brief but intense exercise, a hot shower, and maybe take a pause to watch an inspiring TED Talk for instance. It may not cure chronic depression, but I bet it will lighten your mood temporarily and give you a positive little burst of psychic energy.

So a Definition of Psychic Energy?

Yes, I think I have one. Psychic energy is not one thing, it is a complex of high level emotional states found only at the psychological level of human thought, mixed with objective neurological patterns in the brain, mixed with dumb biochemical hormonal levels and even raw chemical energy levels in blood glucose and glycogen. But the main referent for the phrase psychic energy or libido is the psychology level of exhaustion/sadness or alertness/happiness that is associated with the aforementioned complex of factors.

Because psychic energy has no single cause it cannot be easily quantified, and there would exist many different methods of plausible semi-quantification of the notion of psychic energy level in an individual. If you wish to do psychology science then choose a metric for measuring psychic energy, define it well and unambiguously, keep it as objective as possible (i.e.., do not make it too dependent upon patient reported “feelings”), and state your particular definition clearly so it is at least reproducible.

Used wisely I think the notion of psychic energy can be very powerful. I can conceive of practical uses in at least the following areas:

  • Daily motivation and humane employee productivity enhancement.
  • Sports performance enhancement.
  • Health professions, complimenting traditional treatment of symptoms of exhaustion.
  • General life satisfaction enhancement and career counselling and relationship psychology.
  • Academic study for the further advancement in understanding of clinical positive psychology.
  • Creativity enhancement in the arts and sciences.

And that’s just a beginning.

Psychic Energy and MBTI

The original reason I wrote this article was to better understand how the word energy can be used and interpreted within the framework of Myers–Briggs Personality Typology.

Here is the key paragraph which is repeated in many of the MBTI practitioner references and MBTI theory sources:

“People who prefer extraversion draw energy from action: they tend to act, then reflect, then act further. If they are inactive, their motivation tends to decline. To rebuild their energy, extraverts need breaks from time spent in reflection. Conversely, those who prefer introversion “expend” energy through action: they prefer to reflect, then act, then reflect again. To rebuild their energy, introverts need quiet time alone, away from activity.”

So how can one understand this paragraph in the light of the discussion of psychic energy?

To “draw one’s psychic energy from action” means that positive emotional states which correlate with certain neurological firing patterns in the brain get stimulated by physical activity and conversation and engagement with others for Extravert type personalities. And I would hypothesize that the same neural states and regions of the brain are fired up in Introverts by the opposite sort of activities, namely solitude, peace and quiet time for inwardly directed reflection.

By a positive emotional state one would presumably mean brain states that are correlated with subjectively reported feelings of happiness and objectively measured increases in skilled performance such as efficiently solving basic puzzles and other basic standard psychometric metrics of positive affectations.

To “expend one’s psychic energy” means that negative emotional states which correlate with certain neurological firing patterns in the brain get stimulated by solitude and excessive quiet and lack of engagement and conversation with others for Extravert type personalities. And I would hypothesize that the same negatively correlated neural states and regions of the brain are fired up in Introverts by the opposite sort of activities, namely solitude, peace and quiet time for inwardly directed reflection.

By a negative emotional state one would presumably mean the opposite of the positive affective brain states and their correlations.

If I could conduct an fMRI study on volunteers I would hypothesise brain scans correlated with subjective and objective reports of psychic energy (happiness or sadness) as depicted crudely in the following cartoon.

Extravert vs Introvert brain scans

Schematic hypothetical fMRI scans of two people having the same experiences, one an Extravert, the other an Introvert.

And I’d expect the reverse sort of data when the same volunteers are subjected to peaceful isolating stimuli for extended periods. I’m not sure, but maybe someone has already conducted such research? I can at least have some theoretical fun with this.

A Spot of Amateur Neurology

The prototype experiment then might yield data that looks a bit like the following schematic:

Stimulus functional doimance model.

This is a general hypothesis I’d call the stimulus functional dominance model. It’s saying that maybe the same functional areas of the brain “light up” in the two different people but in inverted activity ways because the same external stimuli are being given, but the emotional patterns of neural activity in this model are opposite.  What makes the Extrovert psychologically happy is what makes the Introvert psychologically sad, and conversely − in this model.

Or maybe the hypothesis should be that the dominant brain regions will be those that are responding to the stimuli, in which case the maps might instead look like this model:Response functional doimance model.

I’d call this the the response functional dominance model.  It’s saying that different regions “light up” because of the way the different personalities process the external stimuli, but the neurological correlates of emotional states are similar when subjectively reported.

What would be your guess?

Mine would be neither of these models should be dominant because we are dealing with a mix of stimulus and response. So I’d expect the fMRI maps to look quite different. They’d be a mixture of both models. But the stimulus aspects would be similar, not necessarily inverted in the activity of the regions, since stimulus is stimulus, it’ll light up the same areas in both brains. It’s only the response that should differ.

But then, Introverts process stimulus differently according to MBTI theory, so once more the fMRI maps could be weirder than a simple overlapping of social stimulus + exhaustion functional dominance in Introverts and social stimulus + happiness functional dominance in Extraverts, and conversely for the prolonged solitude stimulus.

This is all just some theoretical fun you understand.  Please don’t take it as a neuro–psychology science lesson!

Hormone Level Correlations

I’d go further of course and speculate about the correlations in hormones between Extraverts and Introverts.  Suppose we ask how adrenalin (the excitement hormone) and serotonin and norepinephrin (happiness hormones) change over time is response to either intense social stimulus or the opposite stimulus os prolonged solitary environment?

What would you hypothesise?  Go on!    Go ahead and giver it some thought

Here are two guesses about how hormone levels might fluctuate.    The first cartoon is for prolonged social stimulus.

 brains_extraverts_vs_introverts_hypothesis_hormones_social

Here I’m imaging studying two people at exactly the same party or in the laboratory stimulus environment, or whatever. Preferrably both together in real time. The only difference in the charts is supposed to be the two individuals.

The second cartoon is my guess for prolonged solitude.

https://oneoverepsilon.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/brains_extraverts_vs_introverts_hypothesis_hormones_solitary.png

Obviously the trends might not last.  Even Introverts can get bored with themselves. And even Extraverts can get overloaded with social stimulants.

This is just speculation again.  But imagine some actual data and the fun you could have telling psychological level stories about the data.  Could be a really interesting PhD topic huh?    Say you saw the above data, you might observe that some social stimulus spiked adrenaline in both the Extravert and the Introvert, but the spike is greater in the Introvert and leads to a decline in the pleasure hormones. They getoverstimulated too easily. The extravert has more tolerance and gets the buzz of adrenal excitement, but not the overdose whihc might lead to decline in pleasure.

If anyone knows of prior research on these topics then please write a comment.

These speculations touch only on the one dimension of MBTI, the E/I dimension.  So I expect a lot more interesting science could be done to test MBTI theory against neurology and other biophysical data which correlate with reported mood and other psychological states.

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In summary, the Psychic Energy referred to by MBTI theory is not strongly linked to biophysical energy. It is rather the complex of factors which, at a very low and marginal level do include chemical energy levels but also, more importantly are the factors associated with positive affective states in our brains, which correlate with subjective feelings of happiness and well-being independently of physically measurable biochemical energy indicators.

Knowing Your Superpowers

Yeah, well knowing your personality type is not a superpower, but it can be a bit like having one. When you know yourself better you will be able to actively avoid shit which brings you down,  and moreover, if you’re an Introvert you will know not to listen to lame friends who advocate extreme social interaction to perk you up, and if you are an extravert you will be able to cheerfully dismiss a concerned friend who advocate spending some decompression time alone, because you really know what you might need is some good company.

That’s just the beginning of using the science of psychology to discover your superpowers.  As a further next step I’d recommend taking the Signature Strengths Test over at www.sas.upenn.edu/authentichappiness/

It’s fun, but note that it’s not much more than fun unless you do the reading and take action to turn your known strengths into use for your benefit. This is one of the key messages emerging from the  comparatively recent and young field of positive psychology:  focus on enhancing your strengths, because this positive focus leads to greater happiness in general than focusing on correcting your weaknesses.  Leave your weaknesses aside, they will improve automatically if you just focus on enhancing your strengths.  Why?  (You might well ask.)  No one really knows, but my guess is that enhancing your strengths is just more fun than toiling on trying to overcome your weaknesses.  It’s a version of the old adage: “find work or an occupation that you enjoy, then your job and career will be your pleasure and not your misery.”

Psychic power to you all!

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Answers to Other Questions

Just answering my own questions here.

  • Is Psychology a Science? — Yes, it is now. See the TED Talk by Martin Seligman: The New Era of Positive Psychology.
  • Why do thinking and feeling have to be thought of as rational, and sensing and intuition as the irrational? — in the previous post I wrote that they do not need to be taken this way. The thinking of some people can appear quite irrational to others at times. And how people use intuition or sensation can appear quite understandable. How you perceive someone’s modes of behaviour can depend not only on their personality type but on your own type as well. What I think Jung meant was merely that Thinking & Feeling can be understood more generally as rational than Sensing & Intuition. Why? Because in Jungian typology Thinking & Feeling lead to outward decisions, whereas Sensing & Intuition yield internal mental changes which are not public.
  • Do Extraverts and Introverts have the same neurological active regions when stimulted by their different dominant prefered activities? — That is, do outward directed activities (talking with others, being bubbly and sociable) for Extravets fire about the same pleasure centeres in their brains as does inward thought and peaceful quiet excite in the brains of Introverts? And equally, do the activities which dampen Extravert emotions (solitude, isolation, excessive peace and quiet) fire the same neurological patterns and regions as in the brains of Introverts who are placed in loud buzzy social environments with forced excess engagements with others? I do not know of any research which answers this set of questions. So consider it an open topic, maybe you will be the researcher who first publishes an answer backed up by data.

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