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Dave's Diary : April 1996
Dave's Diary : June 1996
I receive a surprise visit from Kieran and friends from Aberdeen. I've gone down with a bad cold. Part of me feels I ought to be culled for the good of the herd. Sceptics about the external world should account for how alien pathogens literally become part of one's own bits of it. Social constructivists should be asked where they stand on the germ theory of disease.
A desperate drug addict and graphic designer appears on my doorstep. He has run out of cash before the end of the month. He's cold-turkeying and will do any design work at all for free if I'll lend him the money for his next packet of cigarettes. Though I'm pretty tolerant of soft-drug users - and Brighton is awash with them - one has to draw a line in the sand somewhere; and cigarette smokers fall firmly outside it. Visitors possessed by the anti-social urge to smoke nicotine tend to get exiled to the balcony even in the middle of winter. Deplorably, on this occasion I weaken. If the netsurfing public want multimedia pyrotechnics, then HedWeb must Adapt Or Perish.
I am e-mailed via the Psycoloquy mailing list a most interesting abstract of a paper by Walter FreemanABSTRACT: Experimental observations of the brain activity that follows sensory stimulation of animals show that sensory cortices engage in construction of activity patterns in response to stimuli. The operation is not that of filter, retrieval, or correlation mechanisms. It is a state transition by which a cortex switches abruptly from one basin of attraction to another, thereby to change one spatial pattern to another like frames in a cinema. The transitions in the primary sensory cortices are shaped by interactions with the limbic system, which express the goal-directed nature of percepts. They result from intentional actions in time and space. Each transition involves learning, so that cumulatively a trajectory is formed by each brain over its lifetime. Each spatial pattern as it occurs reflects the entire content of individual experience. It is a meaning and not the representation of a meaning. It is the basis for consciousness.Psycoloquy is a striking example of both the virtues and pitfalls of peer-reviewed journals, whether online or in their traditional printed guise. Psycoloquy's stridently trumpeted qualities of exclusiveness and scholarly rigour guarantee a consistently high quality of articles, commentaries and reviews. Its uniformity of excellence can come as a welcome break after feeding on a junk diet of low-grade info-sludge derived from too much self-indulgent netsurfing. On the other hand, the significance of non-mainstream developments of profound consequence for the journal's mind-brain-and-behavioural subject matter - the major psychedelics spring to mind here - will simply be missed. Strange to say, in analytic philosophy there is one daring and ill-deservedly popular rejoinder that can be invoked against this sort of worry. In a daring move, Davidsonians and their camp-followers basically deny there are any such things as incommensurable paradigms or conceptual schemes. I must remember this denial if ever tempted to fear I might lead an unduly sheltered life.
It follows that each brain creates its own frames of reference for time, space and associations, which are not directly accessible by any other brain. How, then, can two or more brains be shaped by learning, so as to form cooperative pairs for reproduction and groups for survival? Evolution has provided a biological, mechanism that first came under scientific scrutiny in the form of Pavlovian 'brain washing'. Under now well known conditions of stress in the internal and external environments, a global transition takes place, following which brains sustain a remarkable period of malleability. I believe that Pavlov manipulated a mammalian mechanism of pair bonding, already evolved for the nurture of altricial young through sexual orgasm and lactation, which is mediated by oxytocin and other neuropeptides. Our remote ancestors evolved by adapting this mechanism for tribal bonding through dance, chanting, rituals, and evangelical conversions (Sargant 1957). These dimensions of human experience can be encompassed by a theory of neurodynamics, but not by theories of representation.
Freeman WJ (1995) Societies of Brains Hillsdale NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum
Sargant W (1957) Battle for the Mind. Westport CT, Greenwood Press
My flat is overrun with strangers down for the music festival. When a (very) bohemian friend had asked if he could bring some of his friends down, and possibly friends of his friends etc, I was of course absolutely insistent it would be fine, a great pleasure etc, while gearing myself up for the visitation with levels of adrenaline more appropriate to the First Day at the Somme. In the event, my guests are unfailingly thoughtful, considerate and kind. I am even presented with a box of chocolates and a bottle of wine. I reproach myself for ever having had such curmudgeonly thoughts. It afterwards transpires they might somehow have omitted to mention they were E-ing their heads off. A standardly dismissive response to such news - that the kindness was "just the E talking" - to my mind misses the point. For I would hope there will come a time when it will be today's egotism, suspiciousness and lack of empathetic warmth for each other which will be treated as a drug-induced aberration - "it wasn't me talking last night, just that hard-core retro-drug." Quite what devilish agent could give rise to the vile pathologies of thought and behaviour practised by our present ruling elites is hard to imagine. But I certainly wouldn't want to touch it. Alas, MDMA itself is no panacea - and the SSRIs which can blunt its neurotoxicity after one-off use will also attenuate its effects if taken over time. Alas, too, the mass-introduction of polygenic germ-line therapies which can generate naturally E-like extremes of love and empathy may in practice be many decades away. Early next century, however, compounds will become available which are safer and cleaner functional variants of ecstasy. They could in principle be woven into the fabric of social life. The potentiality for subverting our DNA-induced selfishness of thought and feeling is one I find exciting. The hippie ethic of universal love, when combined with hard-core neuropharmacology, offers us a chance to develop new social formations which don't merely re-enact the legacy of the African savannah. If one wants the chance to become a nicer person, then it ought to be legal to do so.
I am trying to mug up on Adobe Photoshop. Unfortunately, the I-may-not-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like philistinism which has served me so well in life until now is of no use when producing original graphics for one's web site. I turn to some glossy computer mags for light diversion. Somehow I doubt if they add to the sum of human happiness. One simply loses count of how many times the latest piece of high-spec kit is described as "astonishingly affordable". Though I try to retain a childlike sense of wonderment at all the marvels of the world, I find that a sense of awe-struck incredulity at the giveaway prices isn't my prevailing sentiment. Quite how my screaming speed-demon of two years ago became a senile piece of scrap-metal so soon is still rather mysterious to me. After gulping down the latest propaganda, I wonder what percentage of frustrated and impoverished young technophiles would be prepared to swap one of their legacy kidneys for the latest Pentium Pro. It's nice to feel one is made of sterner stuff. I'm pretty sure that I'd hold out for a Silicon Graphics work-station and a direct leased line.
I derive a child-like satisfaction from a solicitous e-mail. My correspondent asks if I'm OK after my diary doesn't appear for a few days. The product of my late-night stream of consciousness is a stagnant and ill-frequented backwater of HedWeb compared to its less salubrious vice zones. So when other commitments prevent me from spending hours of quasi-random netsurfing on the usual pretext of looking for diary hotlinks, I don't reckon the thundering herds of poetry-lovers (no, I don't have the other half of the photo; honest) will either notice or care about my disappearance. On a different front, some difficult decisions lie ahead in my personal life. As befits a director of B(etter)L(iving)T(hrough)C(hemistry), my own existence has been immeasurably enriched by the Great Cryptographer's research labs; though I'd run them a good sight better if He'd let me write the master Equation. [Guiltily, I recall being contacted recently by a high-powered post-doc offering his formidable-sounding technical skills. It seems he'd inadvertently surfed into our grandiose Mission Statement and corporate logo. Gratifying as it would have been to offer him a £50 000K post as divisional head of our new Global Research Laboratory (or whatever!), I had to break it that we weren't taking anyone on at the moment; though of course his name...etc. On a happier note, it does look as though this year's budget may extend to the purchase of a domain name - for an extortionate 100 quid - though the staff will have to go hungry. Like the woman (cited by Peter Kramer) who was worried about the threat of nuclear war because it would disrupt her supply Prozac, I wouldn't feel life worth living without access the right pick-and-mix cocktail to edify the soul and animate the body. Indeed one unlisted side-effect of my current, mother's-own-traditional regimen is my galvanisation into authoring these web-pages. Without its wholesome uplift, the genetically-"natural" DP state-space of quasi-hibernatory torpor would get recolonised as my receptors gradually re-regulated. Just Throw Away Your Crutches the triumph-of-the-human-spirit brigade would doubtless cry. Yet I recall that near Lourdes a firm of crutch-makers plies a thriving trade replacing the discarded walking-aids of afflicted pilgrims whose (too) joyous celebration of another miracle of the holy spirit proved sadly premature. So I think I'll hang on to all the crutches I can get my hands on for now. Yet from a different perspective, what does one do if one hits a local maximum of cognitive and emotional well-being, given that it is bound to be globally sub-optimal? In one sense this new-found plateau will be good news. Yet ultimately (in my terms), it promises stasis. So should I take any significant health-risks in pursuit of more glorious sunlit uplands - since indeed an ever-ascending hierarchy of sublimity and cognitive excellence is in principle out there/in here for the taking. For now, at any rate, I incline to a boring conservatism and a lot more research.
Melissa tells me that she's worried she's not doing anything active for animal rights. I assure her that - since succumbing to last year's Dave-rant - she's probably helped convert far more people to vegetarianism than I have in a lifetime. She has indeed helped to awaken a previously dormant sense of compassion for victims of the master race in a truly remarkable number of males. Nor had I realised just how many poetry-loving computer scientists were lurking in cyberspace. Unfortunately, residual prudery forbids my asking if she'd like to illustrate HI with the latest batch of HedWeb Photo-Fun - now imminent. This is a shame. Visual representations of a logical argumentative structure can often be compellingly effective. I spend a most agreeable afternoon wandering around Kew Gardens in an old-fashioned organic VR. My companion and intellectual conscience is the polymathic Swedish-born Niklas. I am concerned that his uncompromising intellectual integrity might blight an otherwise glittering career. Academia is almost a showcase-exhibit for the Machiavellian Ape hypothesis. Most academics' idea of constructive criticism stretches little further than the accusation they are too modest about their own abilities. Niklas, on the other hand, will both hear and deliver criticism in complete equanimity. He is essentially a single-minded truth-hound in pursuit of its epistemic truffles (this is not a charge likely to be levelled at those who do their philosophising in diaries rather than refereed journals). He should be meeting Anders in Stockholm next month. The cultural anthropologist in me eagerly awaits reports.
I visit Brighton's stylish new Internet café. Less of a Cybar than a Theme Pub, it does serve a startlingly invigorating ginseng health tonic. Its reputed efficacy at curing computerphobia suggests another active ingredient. Amid the futuristic decor, I observe in action the understated masculinity of teenage cultural icon Duke Nuke 'Em - not to be confused, of course, with the role model and protagonist of yesterday's priceless accession to the HedWeb canon, Armageddon (Warcraft 2, reviewer, Luke Westoby, aged 14). I'm not quite sure what genteel offering we can expect next from our inordinately overpaid games reviewer - PanGalactic Apocalypse, perhaps. I suppose I really shouldn't be so priggish. From my own visceral responses to some of the Cybar gameplay, I infer that my ancestors were not all saintly pacifistic vegans. Who knows, if primed with fortified herbal tonics and pointed in the direction of the enemy, I too could become an human killing-machine. My parents, on the other hand, have never in their lives even tasted an intoxicating beverage - with the dubious exception of weak tea. An unexpected duty-free gift of spirits I received from a friend was once greeted with the suggestion I'd probably wish to tip it down the drain - where I suspect it all went, albeit via a slightly circuitous route. I find it odd just how philosophically uninteresting are the abnormal states of consciousness alcohol tends to induce in the well-sozzled psyche. If, like many scientists and philosophers, one's only personally vouched model for altered states of consciousness derives from the "normalising", serotonin-enhancing and anxiolytic effect of ethyl alcohol, then all the religio-philosophical fuss which acid-freaks and the like make over "hallucinogens" must seem well-nigh inexplicable. For in the ordinary course of things, one just doesn't realise how much of one's sense of Reality derives from a perishable feeling of familiarity with which the textures of consciousness are unreflectively suffused. By way of contrast, it's been said (and I wish I could recall the quote verbatim, though life can be simpler when the frailties of memory disguise the hidden shallows of one's plagiarism), that if Elvis Presley were to land in a flying saucer on the White House lawn, it's as nothing in strangeness compared to your first DMT trip. I fear this is still a dangerously anodyne formulation of the Tryptamine Experience. Of course, like an Aristotelian scientist decrying the need for such artisanal crudities as an experimentally-based physics, one can always devise a thousand-and-one a priori reasons for not enriching one's evidential base in such a manner. But the scepticism one feels about other people's intuitions is best matched by a large measure of suspicion of one's own.
Of late I have been thinking of adding to HedWeb a few ideas on life-enhancing techniques (biofeedback, cognitive therapy etc) beyond the neuropharmacological and genetic recipes I usually advocate. Since the capacity for deferred gratification of many netsurfers scarcely extends beyond five seconds, let alone fifty years, much of the paradise-engineering outlined in HI doubtless seems intolerably remote to its potential audience. It would be nice to offer something more immediate. Me-Want-Now-Gimme-Gimme is not an attitude of mind peculiar to netsurfers and small children; and some people, even at today's levels of neurochemical ignorance, have a tendency to seek hazardous shortcuts. Short or not, we are stuck for the foreseeable future with the distinctive emotional encephalisation which our genes have bequeathed to us. Fortuitously, I receive a marvellous list of favourite pleasures from Chris Bassett. On first visiting Mr Bassett's site a few months ago, I confess I'd high-mindedly marked him down as a dissolute hedonist of the earthier sort. It's just as well to remember, however, that one carries around only toytown cartoons of the other island universes out there - each just as real, and in many ways just as convoluted as one's own. In any event, just as actors cast in tragic roles suffer an increased incidence of depression, so conversely Chris Bassett's invitation to digital tourists to compile their own league table of delights seems a useful way of biasing their cognitive processing in mood-lifting ways - however trifling the consequent rise in spirits compared with the magical uplift to come. I've no such bias myself which isn't the result of pill-popping. Depressive, truth-seeking early Daves were so distrustful of our propensity to wishful thinking that they used to cultivate nasty thoughts on the grounds they were more likely to be true.
I am listening to The Best of Roxy Music. It's stirring stuff. I do love "Best of..." selections. This is because there are times when one feels one could have given even Mozart a few tips. ("Only the mediocre are always at their best"; said Somerset Maughan. Quite.) I'm also contemplating what it means to be physical. Sadly for the purposes of racy anecdotage, this is not a prelude to tales of orgiastic dissipation beneath the sheets of Brighton's seedier hotels. It heralds philosophical rumination on the ontology of contemporary theoretical physics. Occasionally, even with my dreamy hands-off approach to the world, I go down with a bout of physics-envy. Philosophers these days are sensitive to charges of sterile metaphysical speculation. They respond in ways ranging from cowed self-contempt to defiant system-building in The Grand Old Tradition. I try to strike a balance. For the converse of each metaphysical proposition one entertains is another proposition no less metaphysical. So in aspiring to know anything beyond solipsism-of-the-here-and-now, one is engaged in metaphysics up to one's hypothetical neck. This is so whether one is an out-of-the-closet philosopher or a practising scientist. In any event, trying to understand the nominally physical is especially important if one is only an inferential realist. Inferential realism is a position that one widely-used undergraduate introduction to philosophy (Dancy, Introduction to Epistemology) dismisses in a single sentence as too implausible to contemplate. Other philosophers are even brisker off the launch-pad in setting out their cardinal metaphysical assumptions. Anyhow, the inferential realist is a hostage to theory because (s)he lacks an off-the-peg "perceptually" derived ontology of material objects to fall back on if theoretical physics becomes too inscrutable. If classical, egocentric macroworlds are each only autobiographical con-jobs - psychological adaptations which are cunningly gene-coded by their competing host vehicles to promote inclusive fitness-maximisation - then the category of the mental properly embraces far more than is usually supposed in mainstream academia or the everyday folk-fantasies of common-sense. Given this (and a bunch more assumptions too, admittedly), then it falls to fundamental physics to say what really exists in the mind-transcendent world. But when tackling the intrinsic nature of this much-quoted fire in the equations, even the most clear-minded professionals are distressingly vague. The maths has taken over. Even space and time are liable to become derived properties on the Planck-scale where real things get done and don't just prettily "supervene". If indeed, as I suspect, the "physical" bit isn't doing any real work, and it's just an empty placeholder (or luminiferous ether-style excrescence on top of) for whatever the equations describe, then the adoption of a (easily misunderstood) naturalistic panpsychist ontology amounts in one sense to a comparatively conservative solution and dissolution of the mind-body mystery. Any such option is (as Crick's collaborator Koch scathingly notes while reviewing Chalmers' recent book for Nature) metaphysical. But just what is the status of any rival metaphysic, since field-etc-theoretic insentience is itself at best no less an empirically ungrounded posit? It comes down to my-intuitions-are-better-than-yours philosophising. I derive a certain grim amusement in being slated by more spiritually-inclined friends for the alleged scientistic reductionism in my potted world-redemption recipes. Whereas behind the mask there lurks a crack-brained(!) crypto-idealist. In both senses.
I start to read a book about Java. A mistake. Oh for a patience-and-pertinacity pill. It has left me feeling profoundly disempowered. Perhaps some of those anonymously martyred brain cells, sacrificed in early youth to keep the philosophy of mind an honest experimental discipline, could come in handy now. Oddly enough, proto-people have most neurons well before birth. By then, some third of the maximum tally is already lost. Thenceforth (does anyone under 30 ever use that word?), whether through neural darwinism or later periodicities of cerebral catastrophism involving weekend clubnights, it's downhill all the way. One is told, of course, that numbers don't greatly matter (graceful degradation rules OK! etc). But DP's know we don't exist nearly as much as we used to...
An e-mail arrives asking if I knew Hitler was a vegetarian? Didn't I find this unsettling? Another well-wisher tells me how much he likes animals - they taste delicious. I perform the on-line equivalent of biting my tongue. Brief acquaintance with the urbane savageries of academia has left me capable in extremis of caustic put-downs. But I try to be nicer than I think I am. For masks, one may fondly hope, have a tendency to fit. A far better tactic, too, at least if one aspires to make converts rather than enemies, is to congratulate one's correspondent on his singular wit and perspicacity, while hinting such extraordinary acumen might better be deployed elsewhere. My imagination, at least, is not always so disciplined. If severely provoked, I allow myself the luxury of fantasies of an unphilosophically vengeful nature. It's all rather primitive and genetically adaptive, no doubt; but what the heck, I didn't write the equations we dance to. It does lead one to wonder what sort of creature one might become with the creative genius of next millennium's leisure industry at one's disposal. For when sophisticated multi-modal virtual reality packages allow (post-)people to live immersed in any (phenomenologically "perceptual") environment they desire, and to choose body-images as exotic or clichéd as they wish, how well would one's character and idealised self-concept measure up to the challenge ("All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Etc.) Even the most uncompromising ethical consequentialist is likely to feel uncomfortable at the thought of some of the (to our mind unspeakably) vile virtual worlds on offer via drugs, VR software, enhanced adjuncts to lucid dreaming etc. Yet undoubtedly with the "right" encephalisation they can be very pleasurable - and harmlessly so, for who would bother going back to today's cussedly refractory DNA-customised worlds when they could be gods in realities devised for their convenience. (Perhaps one's worries are misplaced. From a more mature historical perspective maybe it's us DNA-worlders who are the real perverts). Owing to their opportunistic recruitment via natural selection, the ostensibly monstrous realms/field-patterns are regarded by us as [somehow] "about" something external to themselves - grounds perhaps for their proscription as intrinsically depraved in any context. A rape-scene is a rape-scene. But it is not clear that this connection is anything other than contingent. For what may question-beggingly be called "perceptual content" is no less susceptible to the fictionalist anxieties that have plagued naturalistic philosophers over its propositional counterpart. That's why, in their capacity as deep-dyed virtual worlders, earlier ill-drugged DPs used to worry about "post-representationalist" connectionist AI - because it's not just one's beliefs and desires that run the risk of losing their supposedly transparent and projectible status across time. It's their whole neural networked virtual worlds too. Or perhaps mine were worlds well lost. Sometimes I hope ultimate senility will enable my fading successors to rediscover the escapist joys of naïve realism again; admittedly not one of the more commonly-touted joys of one's second childhood.
Reading Ailing Leaders In Power by Hugh L'Etang. Quite frightening. By the time many "statesmen" have clawed themselves to the top of the greasy pole they are frequently sick and senescent. Even, or perhaps especially, "great" leaders rarely know when to go. And one wonders what course the Second World War would have run if the Fuhrer hadn't spent its latter half on a daily dosage of amphetamines.
My new contact lens system is working well. This doesn't stop my inveterate habit of manipulating my eyeballs to rotate my visual world or even double it up: ways of world-making on the cheap. I'd like to try those inverting lenses which turn the world upside down. After wearing them awhile, the mind/brain adapts, and one's world again appears the "right" way up, only to get reinverted once more when the lenses are removed. It may then display a worrisome habit of spontaneously flipping a few times before normal service is resumed. Very odd. As Bertrand Russell remarks, most of what passes for knowledge is mere familiarity. If that sense of familiarity is dispelled, as for instance by psychedelics, the hollowness of one's pretensions to understanding is revealed. On a baser note, I learn with an envious twinge that Steve has turned down 200 pounds a day for writing toy Java applets. It's all very unfair; for one knows that a stroke of real financial good fortune could make one so much more rhetorically self-confident in denouncing the evils of materialism. But where might it come from? I'm not one of the nine in ten Britons who allegedly play the appalling National Lottery. This is because my radical scepticism about the possibility of human knowledge doesn't in practice extend to the tenets of elementary probability theory.
Read the latest version of Mitchell Porter's absorbing Reality Model. I love grand syntheses and synopses. Presumably, given one's puny size and numerically finite constituents, they can at best be configured into a (sub-)Ideal Cognitive State or minimally extended here-and-now that captures the nearest one's ever going to get (nowhere?) to some conception of how things are. Any transitions from this Enlightened frame of mind would diminish rather than extend one's net understanding. Yet it's disturbing just how impoverished even such a maximally rich specious present could be, and how few elements this implausibly ideal state could actually contain. Could one even know if one were it? What would be its temporal depth? Is there any kind of objective mattering-metric to determine what would be included; and what left out? What sort of reflexive self-representation would it embody? Should a truth-fetishist aspire to instantiate such a state-type indefinitely? From then on, I suppose, epistemic progress could come only from literally and psychophysically getting bigger and better. (I wonder if some classically improbable branches of the Universal QM wave function must in fact code, via the playing out of strictly naturalistic interactions, the existence of field-theoretic pan-Cosmic Devils and Gods; their cognitive capacities and scope for intervention elsewhere, benign or malevolent, would nonetheless be severely limited.) Most of one's putative knowledge, like one's gappy portfolio of selves and virtual worlds in a dreamless sleep, has to count as "dispositional"; but if so, has one's occurrent self really got any more clue about what's going on than the most deranged psychotic? Perhaps not. I suspect, too, that with the possible exception of their hyper-euphoric affective tone, the modes of awareness of our post-human successors will have nothing in common with contemporary mind/brains beyond generic what-it's-likeness. This is because phase changes in the evolution of consciousness may yield such alien textures of experience that today's ill-organised DNA-driven flickerings couldn't even formally represent them. Perhaps, indeed, we can't explicitly represent even key features of our own states; for when they shift or disappear under the influence of psychedelics, for instance, one is reduced to wordy vapourings about the ineffable. Heavy. More felicitously, the Golden House Sparrow, as the in-house magpie prefers to be known, also alights on MP's bookmarks for fresh sustenance. Remarkably their legitimacy doesn't rest on the paradoxical endorsement of mythological award-giving beasts. If it's true you can judge a man by the bookmarks he keeps, I wonder if I ought to do a little bit of filtering before next heedlessly uploading mine. For do they say the wrong sort of thing about HedWeb? My mind drifts off (such is the remorseless narrative drive of my existence) to a distant relative who went off to Australia and produced thirteen offspring. Several of these themselves produced double-digit broods. (The record for a single mother is 69, to a peasant woman in eighteenth century Tsarist Russia; all but two of the kids made it to adulthood. Cool). Of late, however, there appears to have been a disastrous change of genetic strategy; a warning perhaps of the perils of unprincipled coalition government.
I am reading Robin Baker's Sperm Wars: "soft porn spiced with potted neo-Darwinism". I'm still hoping I'll be seized by an irresistible compulsion to learn Java, but the DP power-centres are refusing to budge. With the exception of my diary - neo-brutalist slabs of raw prose - I know I'm no different from much of the rest of the Web. Basically, we're small kids screaming "Notice Me! Notice Me!" at the tops of our voices. Yet for anyone with an ethical message [e.g. HI, delusive or otherwise] that they feel urgently needs a hearing, it's no good simply uploading a text and hoping its truth will become luminously self-evident. A never-ending hi-tech song-and-dance is called for to entice web-weary sightseers. Or perhaps a full-throated "The Hottest Babes Are Always On HedWeb!"? No, one's heart sinks...
I am delighted to learn HedWeb will be hosting the embryonic e-zine SPIKE, edited by Chris Mitchell. Chris has just returned from Columbia ("On business for HedWeb?" a friend asks dryly. No.) and hasn't yet succumbed to the philistine technophilia sweeping Silicon-Valley-by-the-Sea. (Brighton UK enjoys a variety of other epithets; some less flattering and more apt). The run of good news continues. I learn that HedWeb has been honoured by a Golden Cow With Her Chin Up Award. Blessed with such acknowledgement, can the editorship of Nature and a fellowship at All Souls be impossibly far behind? It would appear that the digital menagerie of cyberspace now supports vast breeding-colonies of fabulous gilded beasts whose sole raison d'etre, as far as I can tell, is the award of these mysterious accolades. What a contrast, one can only reflect, with the robust good sense of our Golden House Sparrow Site of the Day. Dizzy with success, I find myself turned on by a newly-acquired Cranberries CD. Though, I'm sure, I have my finger on the pulse of popular culture, I gather this discovery isn't exactly new. Like my childhood namesakes and forebears, I rock cross-legged to music in a way I've noted only in autistic children and severely disturbed primates. This may not be a seemly activity for a veritably top-heavy-with-wisdom philosopher. Yet as always it's my meso-limbic slavemaster which lets its world know who's boss. I tend while rocking to close my eyes to exclude extraneous pseudo-sensory input from disturbing an introspective reverie. The other sort of meditational discipline, I'm told, aims at evacuating the mind of thought, an austerity possibly easier for some adepts than others. My musical taste leans to bubblegum rock. But Dreams in particular I find spine-tinglingly good. Apparently the possibility of such a delicious but elusive frisson of pleasure is abolished by the pre-administration of an opioid antagonist. Just Saying No hasn't really been a problem here. It's probably just as well I've never tried exogenous opioids. On the basis of what the Great Archchemist has seeded me with already, there's some potent cosmic mind-dust around.
A trip to the opticians for a switch to daily contact lenses. Until recently I had complacently regarded myself as hawk-eyed. One of my greatest social terrors, however, on-line or off, is inadvertently offending anybody. So having sailed obliviously past one slack-jawed friend too many on the streets of Brighton, I resolved to do something about it. Wow. What a difference. The doors of perception have been cleansed. (Leaky) virtual worlder as I am, I can almost recover that prelapsarian innocence of a long-vanished era. Born-again Dave can dimly recall what it was actually like to live in the long-lost Real World, not a vice to which he's habitually prone. Rather proud of my promotion to at least a higher class of VR simulation, I head back to Kemptown's Lower Rock Gardens. Even now, crossing crisply-defined roads is the most reckless thing I do. So all due care is needed: I'm a very dangerous place. Whereas at present humans try to bring technological order and control to the environment via heroically circuitous means, I incline to a less Heath-Robinson approach to world-domination. In particular, I'm inspired by the electrode study where the experimenter stimulated the pre-motor-cortical tissue of a locally-anaesthetised subject (the brain has no free nerve-endings, so much of it doesn't feel pain). The subject's hand shoots up. "Gosh!" says the subject (I forget the precise exclamation), "you did that!". Next the experimenter stimulates an adjacent cortical area; and the subject voluntarily raises his hand. "I just decided to put it up." (I suspect my scepticism about Free Will reflects more than a congenital depressive's diminished sense of human agency). At any rate, this prompts the reflection that once the distinctive molecular machinery of phenomenological volition is worked out, there's no principled reason why its substrates can't be extended and selectively multiplied through the rest of our self-alienated cerebral tissue. Fancifully, I imagine exercising, delusively or otherwise, a God-like sense of control over one's virtual world as it becomes co-extensive with one's will. In a less fanciful vein, it's likely that our will-power can be biologically amplified; and eventually even the frailest spirit's surging life-force will leave poor old Nietzsche looking like a smacked-out lotus-eater. This probably isn't the sort of thing to think about too hard while crossing roads. Alas, my own meagre ragbag of volitional neurons, even tanked up on dopaminergics, are a lethargic bunch of no-hopers whom I'd cheerfully disavow. I contrast them, wistfully, with the luxuriant super-cells perpetually firing away in the hugely improbable Anders. I feel I have glimpsed the future; and it definitely works.
The universe, it seems, exists inside a single magnetic monopole. This monopole exists inside another monopole, and so on ad infintum. I learn this counter-intuitive snippet of information, not from one of Brighton's colourful cast of crazies, but Andrei Linde, one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of our age. It's excellent news that gifted popularisers of science such as John Gribben are coming on line.
A day full of trivial distractions and irritations. My ancestral namesakes, not believing in ill-conceived notions of personal identity, have a habit of putting off dealing with problems in the half-conscious knowledge that somebody else will have to deal with them. In particular, their anti-social tendency to place unwelcome-looking pieces of official mail unopened at the bottom of the draw, though a useful aid to their peace of mind, is causing me problems. I find that the big clearing banks seem to be the last refuge of Old Testament-style moralism. Years ago, before I learnt the virtues of discretion, I recall replying: "Dear Sir. From the apocalyptic tones of your last letter one might imagine that the stability of the entire Western banking system were at stake rather than my paltry £400. I trust you will accept my assurance that the sum will be settled in due course." Oddly enough, this did not have the desired affect; and I now bank with Barclays. Their promotional literature somehow always contrives to leave them sounding like a branch of the social services; a comforting thought.
I am enjoying the stimulating Transhumanist Archives. [link vanished] A frustrating and seemingly insuperable problem with all attempts to map out the future that is that one tends to rely on extrapolations of contemporary trends. (Another headache, though a source of rather fewer dark nights of the soul for all but analytic philosophers, is the scandalous lack of a naturalistic theory of reference to legitimate what we're up to). One can't by definition take account the unknown unknowns; yet they'll be precisely what makes the aeons ahead most distinctive and exciting. (Attitudes to the future may change if one's philosophical/general relativistic "block universe" conception of the world - no here-and-nows are ontologically privileged and all equally, tenselessly, exist - gets further enriched by some variant of Cramer's Transactional Interpretation of quantum mechanics - causality is a symmetrical two-way relation, and what we call the future is as much causing the past (and the specious present) as vice versa. IMO, only a combination of a post-Everett and TI QM can account for all the spooky quantum bizarrerie we know about; see the appendix for exhaustive mathematical details). For a start, many futurist projections implicitly assume that our descendants or successors will retain our hunter-gatherer style encephalisation of emotion. Recurrent themes are of domination and submission, inferiority and superiority, intelligence and stupidity, often in relation to computers or robots. These preoccupations doubtless enhanced the inclusive fitness of our ancestral genetic vehicles on the African savannah (and yes, futurists are predominantly male and with slightly higher IQs than EQs.) As matter and energy are systematically explored and reconfigured, however, radically different emotions (and probably whole new conceptual phyla and super-kingdoms of consciousness) will be discovered. Many of them have previously been genetically maladaptive. Or they entailed crossing illicit dips in the evolutionary fitness landscape. No less radically, these emotions are likely to get encephalised in countless new ways and infuse radically alien cognitive phenomenologies too. Some possibilities are ostensibly easy to imagine, but are nonetheless really impossible, like perpetual motion machines. Others, on the other hand, are more akin to new phenomenal colours: clearly feasible and easy to spell out, but in a literal sense, inconceivable. One of the good things about the advance of neuroscience and nanotechnology will be how sustaining the vile states of unpleasantness endemic to today's world will seem more and more an act of deliberate choice. This ought to hasten their demise. Present-day ignorance still allows a shoulder-shrugging abdication of responsibility - the prevalent yes-the-world's-a-terrible-place -style fatalism. I was gratified recently to receive an e-mail from a young nano-visionary who told me that my time-scales for replacing anguish and malaise with universal cosmic sublimity were too pessimistic. One expects to be wrong; but this was not an error that had occurred to me before.
I am astonished but delighted to receive an e-mail from the celebrated fleshpots of Singapore. It comes from my neo-Luddite friend Carboniferous Pete. Pete is akin to one of Goldschmidt's hopeful monsters: he suffers from the rare affective disorder clinically known as hyperthymia. This condition is marked by a tendency, other things being equal, to be quite exceedingly cheerful. The syndrome comes with a mood-congruent cognitive pathology to match, though without the signs and symptoms of clinical hypomania. If one happens, as I do, to nurse a deep-seated need to be liked and approved of, then it's all too easy to find oneself gravitating to happy people thinking happy thoughts. For one will notionally be caught up in them too. By contrast, if one features in a depressive's virtual world, one's namesake and causally co-varying avatar is likely to be steeped in negative emotion as well. If nothing else, this ought to serve as a self-interested reason to complement the ethical imperative biologically to eradicate depression. Pete's e-mail prompts me to start digging around for photos of our trip to Morocco. I'm thinking of scanning and uploading a few onto my site (of him and not me; alas the cost of disk-space is prohibitive etc). Morocco is a very red-in-tooth-and-claw sort of society (though, in fairness to the Royal Kingdom, my levels of psychological robustness would be taxed by the average vicarage tea-party). Many of the Moroccans we met had a curiously endearing habit. They would try to pick your pocket while looking you in the eye and swearing, with utter sincerity, their undying friendship. Friendship and an eye for the main chance don't get treated as mutually inconsistent in quite the same way as we're taught they ought to over here. Yet for all the harshness of Moroccan society (there are destitute beggars and severely handicapped people on the streets in a way that, until recent Tory Government "reforms", would be unthinkable in the UK), the warmth of both friends and strangers is a welcome contrast to the emotional frigidity of English life. Only the brief interlude of our Summer of Love (when "E"-ed-up people one had never met would come up and hug you and tell you how wonderful you are - my idea of constructive criticism) broke through the social permafrost - whose grip, of course, rapidly reasserted itself. After rummaging around, I find some photos of Pete. There is even a shot of me gazing melodramatically in risible Man-of-Destiny mode across the Atlas mountains. In fact, I find it hard to take these folk-perceptual ascriptions of identity very seriously. Their limitations are illustrated by a property of the dissociative anaesthetic ketamine. Nowadays used largely for veterinary purposes, it has a tendency to induce out-of-the-body experiences - "you" can actually look down from above on "your" notional visual body-image. The process presumably occurs as the mind/brain/virtual-world's visual and somato-sensory etc body-images, normally so well cross-modally matched and superposed, separate out. For the unsuspecting perceptual realist, K-inspired self-transcendence must seem a conclusive falsification of scientific materialism. For my part, the nearest I come to a conception of self identity - I-am-this-fleeting-self-referential-self-intimating-thought- disinclines pre-fronto-cortical Daves to identify very closely with the types of body-image with which they regrettably get associated - sub-nets of occipito-temporal and somato-sensory cortex with which, thanks to evolution, DP-type thoughts have been cruelly lumbered. Guilt by association, however, is rife, and I get pressed to exhibit cyber-pictures of the "real" me - a grotesque impostor! On the other hand, I don't see why authentic this-is-me-I'm-Dave-type thoughts shouldn't be replayed over and over again in a test-tube, for instance; though possibly with equally limited aesthetic appeal.
I am reading Andrew Hodges' biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. It's extremely good. The Web page is great fun too. The Net at its best.
The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and, rather more to the point, my meso-limbic dopamine system is kicking; so I go on a voyage of adventure and discovery that takes me to the furthest reaches of Sussex University Library. Though outwardly modernist in design, it strikes me as a cross between a mausoleum and an antiquarian bookstore. Perhaps I spend too much time on the Web. It would seem that a combination of budgetary constraints and the vagaries of its ordering system allow them to stock Astrology Quarterly but not Philosophical Psychology. Oh dear.
Insomniacs were once urged to count sheep. A small quirk of mine is that I make a habit of counting my thoughts. This tendency derives not from some strange obsessive-compulsive ritual, or a belief in the numerical significance of any particular thought-count. It's an aid to meditation: I and my ancestral namesakes have always been fascinated by an elusive, ineffable and generic property I find introspectively common to my thought-episodes. What criteria of individuation do I use? How do some thoughts self-intimatingly refer to themselves? Etc. etc. Introspection is a solitary vice held in singularly low esteem in our society by men-of-the-world, scientists and philosophers alike. It is left to be self-discovered rather than taught. Superficially, there are powerful anti-psychologistic arguments why it can be discounted as a source of knowledge either of oneself of the world. "What-it's-like-ness", at least at face value, is irrelevant to the logico-linguistic and semantic properties of thought. Nor does evolution care about qualia, "cognitive" or otherwise: what counts is deemed to be the functional role in the informational economy of the organism and it's environment. So why should I find what-it's-like for me, or anyone else, to have a thought so fascinating - irrespective of any virtual semantic etc properties the thought may or may not possess? It's because I think the what-it's-like-ness of each spatio-temporal thought-episode, in practice, all-pervasively shapes our conception of the world no less than the what-it's likeness of red etc shapes our conception of colour; and no less arbitrarily either. A silicon robot can behaviourally distinguish the very same electromagnetic frequencies and reflectancies as its sentient organic functional counterpart. But only a fallacy of equivocation awards the robot an understanding of colour. If I had, in computational/functional terms, a type-identical thought which bore a different set of cognitive qualia, then my world-view, I'd claim, would be radically and perhaps incommensurably different. Yet by computationalist/functionalist/eliminativist arguments I'd be having the same (functional type of) thought. It gets worse. One property of certain psychedelic agents is not just their comparatively trivial hallucinogenic effects on the so-called sense modalities. They can also change that unnamed and generic mode of what-it's-like-ness hitherto common to all one's thought-episodes. Whereas it was the variants (different thoughts, rival "propositional attitudes") which had previously seemed so significant, now they can all seem trivial compared to the altered and no longer deceptively neutral-seeming medium of thought itself. State-specific knowledge of variably incommensurable paradigmatic modes of being...(!)(?) - what a lot of verbiage to eff the supposedly ineffable. But unlike the congenitally blind person granted sight, there isn't a ready-made language and conceptual scheme waiting for the reckless psychonaut to slip into. He's pretty much on his own. Collingwood talked of the Absolute Presuppositions of an Age which were cognitively inaccessible to its participants. Today's psychedelics may grant the briefest and barest of intimation-by-contrast of some of the taken-for-granted presuppositions of hunter-gatherer psychobiology.
I reassure an anxious e-correspondent that I do not wish to murder her cat (possibly a more felicitous HI section-heading is in order than On the Misguided Romanticisation of Feline Psychopaths) though it's true I'd like to reprogram it. As far as I can tell, most of us possess a severely limited capacity to empathise with a mouse. It's as though a mouse's searing pain, fear and terror were somehow less real than one's own. Despite its incoherence, one's implicit sense that reality admits of degrees - that, somehow, certain times or places or dimensions or types of experience are more or less real than others is deep-rooted. As it is, I fear a mouse's mind-brain instantiates an entire, murine-body-image-centered, virtual world. It is a lived model in which good and (sometimes appallingly) bad things happen just as in our own, more computationally powerful, simulations. No doubt a mouse's emotions are less richly encephalised than those of post-infantile humans. Yet unless my circle of acquaintance is unusually brutish in their sensibilities, and I'm completely emotionally pre-literate, there's little evidence that the core emotional repertoire animating a rodent is very different from outgrowths of our own pleasure-pain axis. In evolutionary perspective, one can understand the genetic payoff from Nature churning out all these throwaway egocentric dystopias - "disposable" virtual worlds are the fitness-enhancing neural counterpart of the disposable soma theory of ageing. Thus on this conception it's not just genetic vehicles as traditionally understood which get discarded, in the guise of ageing "people" or otherwise, but also the data-driven virtual worlds those organisms host. Sigh. I long for the day when contemporary DNA-spawned perversions of consciousness are relegated, permanently, to the biological Dark Ages of history.
I unwisely desert the purity of cyberspace for the smoky, noise-polluted, fug-filled bear-garden of a traditional English pub. As might be imagined, the author of the Hedonistic Imperative is a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-swearing, celibate, quasi-vegan acetic etc. Yup, pretty boring; but I do have one redeeming vice. I meet up with my old friend Steve, currently Webmaster at Epic Multimedia. The only explanation I can think of for Steve's formidable intellectual prowess after 10 pints is that it represents an extreme case of the state-dependence of memory. He's learnt almost everything he knows while inebriated. So when his brain cold-turkeys, it reverts to its pre-teenage-type physiology. This is not a form of regression-therapy he practises very often. In the pub, we digress onto The Nature of Existence. (The sole recorded instance of the philosopher Bertrand Russell being lost for words was when he got into a taxi only to be asked by the cabbie "Well gov', what's it all about?") Steve, in his more philosophical modes, is a hard-line computationalist about mind and the universe. I, on the other hand, am a dedicated qualia-freak - for, plausibly or otherwise, it is quite possible for a philosophical naturalist to retain the formalism of the physicalist and computational paradigms while discarding traditional notions of the intrinsic nature of the stuff the formalism describes.
I am pleased to learn more of my friends are warming to the idea of appearing on HedWeb. I suspect they've read profiles of current occupants and discovered my write-up prose owes more to the pages of "Hello" magazine than to Evelyn Waugh. And why not? Everyone deserves to have their existence celebrated. Our culture and education system are geared to producing bruised, fragile and chronically undernourished egos. Were the self not a grammatical fiction, I'd say that everyone should cultivate a big one.
I have a rather too lively discussion with a friend centring over my tendency to proselytise for vegetarianism etc rather than treat it as some sort of personal badge of life-style purity. It is just possible that some sort of sea-change in our attitudes to non-humans is in the offing. The BSE scandal has already thrown appalling light on the government's willingness to run the (badly) calculated risk of lethally infecting its own population in order to keep the lucrative death factories running. The revelations of enforced and disease-transmitting cannibalism among factory-farmed herbivores seems to have shocked a lot of people out of convenient moral complacency. It's sad, however, that in our society one may still gain a reputation as a wild-eyed fanatic without leaving one's armchair; whereas Iranian teenage revolutionary guards apparently have to hurl themselves across minefields to invite similar epithets. It's all so easy for apathy to pass itself off as sophistication; just as mere indifference to the plight of others can always masquerade as easygoing tolerance.
If I were of a paranoid disposition, a cast of mind for which I've never mustered the necessary self-importance, I'd be tempted to see the explosive growth of Web self-publishing as part of a cynical long-term Conspiracy by the intelligence-gathering apparatus of the state. My reasoning? What could be a better way of enabling the police and security services to build up vast and intimate relational databases of information on all its potentially active citizens/subversives than to encourage them to share their thoughts with the rest of the world from the tenderest possible age. PGP encryption packages could be handed out at nursery school with web access - it still wouldn't make any significant difference to the information-gathering process. Most people, and certainly most people with potentially subversive views, are just too heedlessly keen on publicising their lives, ideas and prejudices to contemplate restricting their burgeoning Web-audience. (Possibly, too, the sorts of competitive web-site display (publicly flaunted hit-counters...for Chrissake!) clearly at work are a legacy of genetic sexual selection, a sort of digital lekking whereby clever young alpha males can advertise their potential fitness by displays of conspicuous web-nest building. This bower-bird tendency, to mix my ornithological metaphors, is of course my (spurious) justification for instituting a rival(!) House-Sparrow Site of the Day). Actually, a far greater problem than the State's intrusiveness, IMO, is usually its sheer indifference to the lives and opinions of its citizens, illustrated by the number of people simply living rough on the streets as a direct and callous result of government cutbacks in benefits. So though it's possible the security services, noting the dodgy material on my site, might take an interest, it's all so milk-and-water compared to some of the stuff out there that I'm not expecting an imminent knock-at-the-door.
More trance-like netsurfing at deliberately wacky hours to confound my gullible body-clock. I am one of those people for whom sleep is actually depressogenic - indeed there are rare cases of sleep-deprivation alone triggering euphoric mania in otherwise unsusceptible "normal" subjects. Yet even heavy-duty sleep-deprivation, combined with a night-time cocktail mix supposedly primed to send me high as a kite, leaves my brain obstinately unimpressed. It simply ticks over contentedly with the occasional cognitive spasm rather than succumbing to bleak philosophising. Sleep does, however, seem to play a restorative role in strengthening immune response. Sustained and complete sleep-deprivation is likely to prove fatal. The poor creatures we use to test this theory die from massive bacterial infections of the blood, victims of another of those Mengele-type experiments which so pollute the scientific quest for knowledge. Possibly readers of an electronic diary feel they deserve something a little more soul-baringly confessional or salacious than the news that its author spends too many hours riveted to a computer screen. Possibly, on the other-hand, they'll feel nothing worse than indulgent pangs of self-recognition.
DP Interview Dec. 2003
DP Drug Regimen August 2005