Friday, September 30, 2005

le parcours des blogueurs

My buddy's wife laments the fact that she has porn star tits.

Wooj posts on what should be done in Iraq.

Brian rants on the whole "it's because we're Korean and use chopsticks" meme. I heartily agree.

Joel links to footage of a cage fight between a bear and a lion. Yours truly stares, fascinated-- then disappointed that the match didn't end in a death. Yes, I'm sick. Sorry, Joel.

Captain Kirk surveys the tall tales that have sprung up in Katrina's wake.

Oranckay examines a Hankyoreh piece about NK's bizarre refusal to accept international food aid.

I'm a bit slow on the draw, but Peter's site also talks about the recent video footage of the North Korean woman being beaten by NK soldiers after she'd returned to NK.

The Nomad posts on the Great Kimchi Scare of 2005. Be a good patriot and Just Say No to Chinese kimchi!

The most scholarly discourse on vomit I've yet seen. For those who can't read the Chinese: the character for vomit is pronounced t'o in Korean, and consists of the character for "mouth" plus the character for "earth." As the blogger says, the concept is one of "dirt coming out of the mouth."

Posting while dead?

Jelly offers a different sort of foodblogging: what to do when your stove is on the fritz.

This guy deserves way more hits than he's getting. Read:

You must forgive me. I often grow forgetful about what I post here. This is because I view this blog like a rape. I just want to finish a post [quickly], take a shower and forget it ever happened. Oh, and I feel empty afterwards, knowing that no one will ever love me.

If you're gonna question the morality of our troops' conduct, you'd better be funny about it. Way-lefty Fafblog yet again fits the bill. And the current Picture of the Week had me busting a gut.

Lorianne offers us a picture of a satanic ritual in full swing and tells us a bit about her dog's substance abuse problem.

Over at Maverick Philosopher, they're now questioning the evolutionary value of consciousness. Egads.

Bill once again offers an excellent post on Intelligent Design. The post segues smoothly into a short discourse on religion. Well worth your time. Give it a read.


Thursday, September 29, 2005

argumentum ad ignorantiam

The "argument from [or to] ignorance" is a logical fallacy. Here's what one entry says about it:

The argument to ignorance is a logical fallacy of irrelevance occurring when one claims that something is true only because it hasn't been proved false, or that something is false only because it has not been proved true. A claim's truth or falsity depends upon supporting or refuting evidence to the claim, not the lack of support for a contrary or contradictory claim. (Contrary claims can't both be true but both can be false, unlike contradictory claims. "Jones was in Chicago at the time of the robbery" and "Jones was in Miami at the time of the robbery" are contrary claims--assuming there is no equivocation with 'Jones' or 'robbery'. "Jones was in Chicago at the time of the robbery" and "Jones was not in Chicago at the time of the robbery" are contradictory. A claim is proved true if its contradictory is proved false, and vice-versa.)

The fact that it cannot be proved that the universe is not designed by an Intelligent Creator does not prove that it is. Nor does the fact that it cannot be proved that the universe is designed by an Intelligent Creator prove that it isn't.

The argument to ignorance seems to be more seductive when it can play upon wishful thinking. People who want to believe in immortality, for example, may be more prone to think that the lack of proof to the contrary of their desired belief is somehow relevant to supporting it.

Arguing that the materialist case is flawed is not support for the substance dualist's side, which does seem to include a bit of wishful thinking. The hidden agenda of most substance dualists seems to be along the lines of, "People have souls." We'd all love to believe that we don't disappear at death. The substance dualist makes the mistake of arguing from ignorance when trying to put forth his own claim that mind is immaterial-- this in blatant disregard of (but demonstrating an amazing flair for wildly reinterpreting) evidence pointing to the intimate association between the brain/body suite and one's mental activity. The canard that makes me laugh the most: There is no evidence of a causal connection between material and mental states.

Let's suppose the mind is immaterial. Let's grant that qualia are in the mind. A problem arises: qualia are components of experience, but we live in a material world that impinges on our senses and provides us the grist for our qualia. What if there were no material world? Would a person have qualia?

Every example of qualia has invoked the physical world: the taste of juice, the feel of the wind, the sound of a symphony, the sight of a work of art. I tend to think this implies a tight linkage between qualia and the physical world, but I suspect that substance dualists, wanting to preserve the mind's separateness from matter, would be at pains to deny this. On what grounds would they do so? What qualia would there be without material reality? Note that the dualists' denials rely on material motor neurons to type themselves out onto keyboards; they rely on material keyboards, computers, and the Internet, and further rely on material people, material eyes trained on material monitors, to read the denials. How seriously can such denials be taken?


my amazing cream

Holy shit-- they weren't lying. All you need is air.

Back when I made that dinner for my friends, one of the things I attempted-- but failed at-- was making whipped cream to top off the ice cream I'd bought. I bought a "brick" of whipping cream (if I may appropriate the French term une brique de lait, signifying the brick-shaped boxes of milk so common in France, Switzerland, and elsewhere in Europe)... then realized I didn't have the first damn clue how I was going to whip it. Wire whisk? Fuck that-- I'm lazy. Then it dawned on me: Max's blender.

So I got online and found some instructions for using a blender to make whipped cream, but I ignored the cardinal rule: the whipping cream won't become cream if it doesn't have a lot of air to work with. On that fateful day a few weeks ago, I poured until the blender was over two-thirds full of cream, screwed on the rotating blades, then went to town. The recipe warned me what might happen: you end up making butter. Sure enough, that's what I got: a whey-like juice plus... well, butter.

It probably didn't help that I'd added some sugar in the hopes of sweetening the cream.

Today was different. I decided to heed all warnings and proceed with caution. Max's blender doesn't have any holes in the top of the container, so I couldn't follow the online instructions exactly. Those instructions encouraged people to whip the cream full-force after unscrewing (or otherwise removing) the transparent grip on the blender's top, and then loosely covering the hole with one's fingers, thereby allowing the cream to "breathe" while it's whipped. Max's blender is hermetic, so to achieve the proper airiness, I filled the container only one-third full.

Success! Perfect results after barely 20 seconds of whipping, and Mother Nature herself lets you know immediately when the whipping is done: the blender motor suddenly whines at a higher pitch, indicating sudden solidification: the cream is hovering above the blades, which are spinning much faster because they're hitting nothing.

Amazing. I hereby congratulate myself. Now I need to find some young, nubile nipples on which to smear the cream. In the meantime, praise be unto Max for bequeathing to me what has proven to be a very versatile kitchen appliance. I'll be very sad the day that blender disintegrates. Given the frequency with which I use it, I fear that day is not far off.


live giant squid finally caught on film

My brother sent me the happy news: Japanese scientists using remote-controlled cameras were able to take pictures of something never before seen: a live, healthy giant squid. The shots of the squid show it using its enormous tentacles to grab the bait that rode on a line alongside the camera. The squid ended up losing a tentacle in the process. Scientists were startled to discover just how nimble and aggressive the mollusc was, the new data undermining old preconceptions of the giant squid as sluggish and ponderous. The squid caught on film is a mere 26 feet long. My only question is how good it tastes. I expect the Japanese to give us the answer to that question pretty soon as well.


Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Ho-tep invades Smoo

There were five of us watching "Bubba Ho-tep" this evening-- only three from my conversation class, plus two guests: a colleague of mine and the friend of one of my students. I'm not sure what the students thought of the film; they were polite enough at the end, but the movie might have dragged for them (it's a fairly slow-paced flick). We watched it with English subtitles turned on to aid comprehension, but I was still the only one to laugh at the major jokes (my colleague, an Aussie, wasn't up on the LBJ references). At the very least, everyone enjoyed the dinner I'd prepared-- seafood spaghetti (forgot to get the fettuccine, so I had to make do with regular old sghetti), garlic bread, and a decent salad. No fusion pita appetizer this time around, but there're some leftovers to tide me over for a day or so.

Earlier today, the freshman girls made sure to tell me that they'd left me a message on a chalkboard. I went into Room 304 and saw (in pink chalk, no less):


--surrounded by hearts, no less.

And thus was the blackness in my soul lessened a degree. In all, not a bad day today.


the movie party happeneth tonight

Watching "Bubba Ho-tep" with the students tonight. Cooking for them, too. Can't talk now-- no time.


mom-jjang adjumma

Charles at Liminality takes us on a linguistico-cultural exploration of adjummas and the rise of the mom-jjang adjumma-- essentially, the Korean MILF. Be sure to click the link in his article to see just what a Korean MILF looks like (no, she isn't naked, but there's little left to the imagination... and she looks like she could beat the shit out of you, sorta like Jennifer Lopez in "Enough," but without the huge ass).

Here's another link if you're still MILF-hungry.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

a warning of Dennett musings to come

Inspired by Malcolm Pollack's reference to it, I've printed out Daniel Dennett's fascinating (if typo-ridden) paper, "Quining Qualia," for deeper perusal. One of the things I couldn't help noticing was the almost Buddhist strategy Dennett adopts in the paper, wherein he forcefully questions whether qualia exist at all, and whether there exists an irreducible subject experiencing them. This dovetails nicely with the general tendency in Asian thought to question subject-object metaphysics. The current setup among Western philosophers seems to be that "I [subject] experience my qualia [object]," when the existence of a fundamental "I" is itself in doubt as far as Eastern philo and religion are concerned.

More on this later. Dennett articulates the case far better than I can.


706 steps and Ben Venuto

After a shameful two-month hiatus, I went up Namsan this evening, from about 10:15 to 11:45PM with a 5-minute break on the mountaintop. Not much seems to have changed up top; renovations continue, but the tower's still not open. The huge divider screening the tower off from tourists still reads "COMING SOON," as if the tower were a long-awaited feature film or a half-hearted promise of orgasm.

On my way down the mountain, I made an effort to count the number of steps. Unless I'm mistaken, it's 630 steps from my traditional "summit" line to the arboretum level, then another 76 steps down to street level. A total of 706 steps. I feel like I should be singing statistics in an AIDS-related musical. Or starring in a horror movie.

I bent down to measure the height of one step with my hand. If I'm not too far off, it was about 6.25 inches high. Some steps are taller; some shorter. Assuming the average is about 6.25 inches, then 6.25 x 706 = 4412.5 inches, or 367.7 feet, or 122.57 yards. Not much of a climb, when you break it down that way.

After passing the Namsan and Yongsan public libraries, I did a double take as I approached that Italian restaurant I blogged about so long ago. It used to be closed for renovation and had been named Sole; now it's open for business and has been rechristened Ben Venuto ("welcome!"). I'll definitely have to try them out one of these days. Perhaps a trip with the parents & brother...?

In other news-- despite the shitty treatment by the main office of my department at Smoo, the highlight of my day was finding out that the incoming freshman girls told my female colleague they think I'm "hot." I had a good laugh at that: I'm definitely hot, in terms of how much I sweat. But hey, if you're into double chins, fat asses, bulging waistlines, and hairy mantits, then I fucking smoke.

And now... it's off to bed. An amazing 400-some hits today, thanks to the fortuitous linkage. Once again, all praise to Mike and to Reuters for the article. All I did was quote.


Monday, September 26, 2005

bumped from my own fucking classroom

Hooray for professionalism!

Our office made a mistake and scheduled a 1PM eomeoni yeong-eo (Moms' English) class in Room 305, right where I was to be having my conversation class. I found this out when a student tracked me down around 12:40PM, asking, "Where are we supposed to be today?" I had no idea what she was talking about, so I tromped over to 305 and saw a couple grannies sitting there. We spoke in Korean briefly; I discovered they were students in the Moms' English class, and that they'd been moved over from Room 306, so this wasn't exactly comfortable for them, either. They'd been moved because of the Freshman English program, which started only last week. Apparently, the main office had forgotten I had a class in 305 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Thanks, guys.

We moved to 304, with some student grumbling. Barring another scheduling mistake, 304 will be our new home until the end of term.

Fuck. One thing I hate is unplanned changes. But... this is Korea. Unplanned changes are how it usually goes.

To be fair, I'd have to admit the same shit happens in the States, too, but come on-- not with nearly the same frequency.

End rant.


Sunday, September 25, 2005

possibly light blogging?

My parents and my brother David are arriving in Seoul on October 4 and 5 (Dad and Mom have their travel passes; David's got to fly in separately). I'm preparing my place for their arrival (and looking into extra housing), which probably means there'll be less than the normal diarrhetic flow from my keyboard.

Of course, I've posted "light blogging" warnings in the past, then promptly ignored my own warnings, so take this announcement with a grain of salt. Meantime, please visit the fine blogs on my sidebar, drive up their traffic and make them pay extra money for the bandwidth.


the Friday Frenching

This past Friday, I had the chance to teach a student some French. A lady in one of my level 2 conversation classes is a French major, and she's studying Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince for one of her lit classes. Her homework, basically a Q&A worksheet, had some questions on it about the beginning of the book (the narration where the author talks about drawing a snake swallowing an elephant and being told by his elders that the engorged snake looked like a hat), and it was a pleasure to help the student with her grammar. Although my own French is showing signs of rust, I'd still love to be able to teach a French class at Smoo.

For those of you who read French, you might find this link interesting: it's a translation of some dialogue from "Full Metal Jacket"-- the scene where we first meet the drill instructor. The French version contains a bunch of slang I remember, a bunch of slang I could figure out despite not knowing it initially, and some expressions I simply never learned and couldn't quite figure out. Great vocab workout for yours truly. Matthew Modine's character, Joker, is renamed Guignol in this version, and Private Pyle (the dude who goes nuts and shoots himself later on) is renamed Grosse Baleine (fat whale). I guess the French wouldn't have understood the Gomer Pyle reference.


the Chinese dragon in my garage:
revisiting Sagan and qualia

I've quoted it before: Carl Sagan's evocative image of "the dragon in my garage," his attempt at showing the worthlessness of positing that which is unverifiable. It may be time to revisit that story and tweak it slightly to address a similar problem.

In Sagan's example, we hear someone claim they have a dragon in their garage. The dragon is, however, immune to all possible tests for its existence: it floats, leaving no footprints; it's incorporeal, so you can't tag it with spray paint; it's heatless, so it has no infrared signature, etc.

Well, in my garage, I've got a Chinese dragon. It's plenty real, but it appears only to me, so only I can experience its reality. Let's say that this dragon scratches me across the chest one day. Will it leave evidence? No, of course not: as I said, only I can experience its reality. Evidence of its presence is completely unavailable to everyone else. I, however, know I have a Chinese dragon in my garage.

Will you take my claim seriously? Why should you?

What if you had a Chinese dragon in your garage as well, and your interactions with it sounded a lot like my interactions with my dragon? Would you be more inclined to believe my claim? What if everyone claimed to have such a dragon hidden somewhere?

The comment-thread discussion at Dr. Vallicella's blog has reached a crucial phase as we on both sides of the substance dualism debate focus on the "reality" of qualia. Dr. Vallicella contends, in the comments, that qualia are subjective facts. I'm not sure what this might mean. The phrase strikes me as self-contradictory. To me, qualia are lot like the Chinese dragon.

In the example above, everyone claims to have their own dragon, but no one can confirm the existence of anyone else's dragon. What, exactly, is the ontological status of each dragon? How do we know how real each of those dragons is? Can I trust that your dragon is as real as mine? What if some people do indeed possess such dragons, while others are merely hallucinating them? Is there any way to confirm who has which type of dragon?

This is precisely the problem with trying to establish a meaningful argument on the basis of qualia. The arguer wants to move from "it's true for me" to "it's true for you," but can't make that move. Qualia can arise from misapprehensions, right? Just how reliable are they? A sight-quale involving a nonexistent snake is a classic example of how we fool ourselves. Hearing a loved one's voice after that loved one has died is another such example. This unreliability doesn't strengthen the substance dualist's case.

Basing a line of argument on something of dubious ontological status is a bad move. Proceeding from what is empirically confirmable (by which I mean, confirmable by others) is a much more solid way to proceed if we're serious about exploring the nature of mind.

Note what I'm not saying: I don't seriously question the existence of my own and others' qualia. In my long post, I argued that we all have such qualia, but that they aren't confined to first-person ontology-- they aren't merely "subjective facts." What I'm trying to say, with my Chinese dragon example, is that you cannot make the subjectivistic claim about qualia and then expect to build an argument based on that claim. If we can't get past the very first step-- confirming to each other the existence of our respective Chinese dragons-- it's hard to make general claims about all those dragons.

[NB: The above point is being missed again and again by Dr. V and his posse. They want to contend that it's enough for me to know that I have my qualia. The problem, though, is that whatever argument Dr. V and Company build from that premise cannot be said to apply equally to all sentient beings. What, then, is the purpose of formulating an argument that's true only for me? Don't arguments presuppose at least two interlocutors?]


Ave, Bill!

Bill Keezer recently wrote a fantastic post on the Intelligent Design debate, which I recommend to all interested parties. If you want to leave comments, you'll need to go here. Some highlights from Bill's post:

So what constitutes design? Already we have two parts to it, the object and the purpose. Generally we consider the object to have been created to meet the purpose for which it is to be used. So whenever we talk about design there is always the concept of purpose contained within it. As we shall see below, we often include function as a proxy for purpose when discussing design. If something functions in some way, we often accept the idea that it was designed to function that way. Yet, as I will show there are cases where there is no purposeful design in the function, or else we are led to consider everything is designed. So yes, the appearance of design does not entail design.

There is one other problem with using the word design. It often brings up an image of metadata controlling the assembly of parts, i.e. some super blueprint that states precisely the location of each component in the assembled organism. Even scientists use this analogy when explaining to laymen how DNA is the master code for the body. Actually it is not an analogue of a blueprint.

All genes do is code for the creation of proteins. These proteins in turn are either enzymes that create other biochemicals, or form part of the structure of the organism. What is also needed is a timing mechanism, that turns the genes on and off. Nature is very parsimonious. There is a constant reuse of some protein or structure on larger scales for new purposes in new species. The various mutational and gene replication and mixing processes create the opportunity for totally new processes and proteins and constantly new combinations. Survival is then the means by which these are weeded out. As noted above those things or combinations that create a slight advantage will, over time, become fixed and dominant in a population.

And here, regarding Dr. Vallicella's use of the phrase "cosmic accident":

The connotations of cosmic accident are taken into a normative context, when they were defined in a factual context. Here there is an equating of an accidental collocation with an evolutionary process. The two are not the same at all. A collocation of rocks is a truly random process. Nothing selected for the collocation, it just happened. An evolved organism has been subjected to constant pressure to survive. That it is the sum of events that occurred randomly once and now are conserved and controlled by the internal environment of the organism places it in a different category altogether.

It's a post that deserves careful study. Bill is a theist while I'm a nontheist, but we both agree that Intelligent Design is on shaky ground. As a buddy of mine used to say in response to the creationist contention that evolution is "only a theory": "No, evolution is a fact. The theories all deal with the mechanisms of evolution." I think that about sums it up.


Saturday, September 24, 2005

Julie in her own words

"Found poetry" is a style of poetry in which you make a poem by cobbling together bits of prose found elsewhere. If anyone were to ask whether you'd written any given line of the poem, you'd be forced to say no, but the Gestalt would be yours. What follows, then, is found poetry using words from Julie's wonderful blog, Persephone's Synaptic Misfire. Why? Because it's her birfday, that's why. Happy Birfday, Jules.

Holy cats
I'm getting a minivan
i just want
stupid redneck kids

When I feel like taking a walk
until I go broke or stir-crazy
I really like
using towels as cat litter

all the third-graders pet
a small, naked Dalai Lama
something I miss doing when I'm working

we don't keep sugar in the house
what makes him snort like that

clap one paw
say "hello"
go real slow
see who does Uma Thurman's hair
and break out the bourbon before noon

When i feel like a brownie
i remember
pug farts

I did pretty well today
did some laundry
breathed some
didn't turn blue

an Unusual Child
goes through Max's nose and into his lungs
she eats what we eat
It was almost like having
the ghost of Jerry Orbach
for Show and Tell

New doctor this morning
he got my veins to bleed
after I'd been out and around
took a scope to my jugulars
his Buddhaness
makes me feel like a bomb

Snow crab legs. Yummmm.
Death and hurricanes.
Now, where's my helmet?

... woot!


mind and willful ignorance

Here's an amusing exchange.


Britney Spears (substance dualist): Mind isn't reducible to matter. It's something completely separate from matter.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (nondualistic materialist): How do you figure?

Britney: Materialist theories of mind can't explain the subjectivity of conscious experience. Qualia, for example. How can materialism explain them? Qualia have a first-person ontology: my qualia are mine alone, radically subjective. They aren't available to everyone else. They don't exist except from my point of view.

Arnold: You're sure you have qualia?

Britney: Of course.

Arnold: OK. I'm sure I have them, but I'm not sure you do.

Britney: What?

Arnold: If I agree that qualia are radically subjective, then you have to agree that it's impossible to confirm anyone else has them. But let me indulge you for a moment. Do you think artificial minds have qualia?

Britney: Hold on a second. I'm not sure I like the phrase "artificial minds."

Arnold: Would you prefer "artificial breasts"? No, wait-- I see that you do. May I grope them?

Britney: Yes. The problem is that you can't really build an artificial mind. You can build something that simulates the mind, perhaps, or at least simulates conscious behavior. But you can't construct something that's actually conscious. The mind isn't material, so it can't be built out of material things.

Arnold: I was afraid you'd take that stance. You realize, of course, that your approach to mind dooms you to permanent ignorance about its fundamental nature.

Britney: I never said that.

Arnold: No, but you implied it. You've made two unprovable claims: first, that mind is immaterial, a claim that places itself outside the purview of scientific inquiry, making it, as Carl Sagan contended, "veridically worthless." Second, that qualia are radically subjective, which makes it impossible to build an argument about minds in general on them. How is this different from solipsism? And by the way, am I pinching your nipples too hard?

Britney: No, that's OK. I like having them twisted, too. Yeah, like that. See what happens?

Arnold: Impressive. They turn into bullets.

Britney: I still don't get the whole "ignorance" thing. I'm a philosopher, Arnold. My entire life has been one long inquiry into the nature of reality. Why would I wall myself off from certain speculative possibilities?

Arnold: Because your fundamental commitments prevent you from seeing a very obvious truth: materialistic assumptions about minds are producing results. We're building artificial entities that exhibit increasingly complex behaviors. Sometime in the future, those entities will manifest behaviors that are, effectively speaking, the products of consciousness.

Britney: You can't be sure of that! Twist harder-- Owww. Yes, like that. Oh, you are Daddy.

Arnold: Why can't I be sure of that?

Britney: Because no matter how complex an entity you build, there's no way to confirm that the thing actually has a mind!

Arnold: Yes-- my point exactly. Your underlying claim is that we can't test for consciousness, ja? That, dear Britney, is an admission of ignorance. What if we devise amazingly stringent, subtle, comprehensive tests?

Britney: You still won't have proven anything. Let's say you make a robot that acts so human it can pass for human. It's still just a machine, just a complex version of a toaster. It won't have a mind, it won't have that immaterial spark.

Arnold: How can I convince you that this hypothetical machine is indeed conscious?

Britney: You can't. It's simply impossible.

Arnold: That's why I say your position is one of willful ignorance. Such a test, you contend, is impossible now, and will always be impossible.

Britney: Back up. I still don't get your accusation about "ignorance."

Arnold: Look, you're saying that the mind is immaterial and that qualia are radically subjective. This means that your side can never really understand what mind is, because you're convinced there's no way to explore it scientifically. Further, you insist there's no way to test for the presence of consciousness, which is tantamount to saying you don't know what consciousness is. After all, when you want to test for something-- to see whether it's there or not-- you have to know something about it. Take AIDS testing. If I don't have any idea what AIDS is, it's kind of hard to design a test for it, don't you think? By the same token, if you don't have a clear idea what consciousness is, it's kind of hard to test for that as well. I infer your ignorance from your inability to envision a test for consciousness.

Britney: Speaking of hard... you're kind of hard right now, too, big boy.

Arnold: Must be the Viagra, because to be honest, I feel no particular attraction to you. Your bullet-nipples taste like Bubbalicious bubble gum. In fact, I think I just chewed one off and you didn't even notice. So much for qualia.

Britney: Anyway, yeah, I see your point. If you don't know what something is, you can't test for it. Good God, your cock is huge!

Arnold: So we're in agreement that substance dualists rely on their own ignorance about mind in order to remain in their little fantasy world?

Britney: I wouldn't be agreeing with you if you weren't massaging my clitoris so expertly right now, you magnificent bastard. Ooooooooh, don't stop!

Arnold: Magnificent bastard. I like that. Just call me Rommel.

Britney: Mmmmm. Rommel the Desert Fuck. It's obvious we're about to bang each other's brains out, but before we do, I've got one more question for you.

Arnold: What is it?

Britney: You seem to be saying that your side knows what mind is, but we both know that that's absolute bunk. The "strong AI" school, for example, talks big about artificial consciousness but hasn't actually designed anything approaching the complexity of the human mind and human behavior. Think about language translation-- one area where the mind shows its power and complexity. Current language translation programs produce awful, mangled translations from one language to another, largely because they're not sensitive to things like intonation, mood, and other holistic, "fuzzy" social realities. I don't think we'll ever be able to develop a perfectly reliable artificial translator. If you guys know so much more about mind than we do, why are you still paddling around in ineffectual circles?

Arnold: You're trying to make me lose my erection, aren't you. But it won't work. I said I took Viagra, so you're still gonna get what's coming to you. By the way-- sorry I munched your other nipple.

Britney: That's OK. They grow back. You're avoiding my question.

Arnold: I think you're being uncharitable. Translation programs are awful, it's true, but developing more advanced programs with a greater sensitivity to context isn't an impossibility. Why does your side constantly run to the "It's Impossible!" bunker? Bunch of girly-men! As to your deeper question: No, we don't know more about mind than you do, but we at least put forth theories and act on them. What has your side produced aside from unprovable claims and a host of objections? Are you any closer to solving the problem of mind? Is philosophy any closer to solving any of the basic philosophical problems? Don't make me laugh!

Britney: Laughing makes guys cum harder.

Arnold: Our side begins with a simple assumption: mind is totally dependent on matter for its existence. Every bit of progress we've made in the field of artificial intelligence has been predicated on that assumption. There has been no evidence-- none-- that we are on the wrong track. In the meantime, all those critiques of materialism result from a deliberate attempt to ignore the progress we've made, or to denigrate it as not being real progress at all. I'm amazed at the lengths to which people will go in order to preserve the illusion that they are angels in human clothing. What, in the meantime, has your side done to contribute to knowledge about consciousness? From where I stand, it's done nothing! You have nothing to say to that?

Britney: Mmmpf. Mmmmmmpffff.

Arnold: Whoa. Sorry.

Britney: (pop) Not easy to talk with a big dick in your mouth. Let a girl breathe, huh?

Arnold: Damn-- my cell phone. It's Maria. Look-- to be continued, eh? Again, my apologies about the nipples. If they don't grow back, I'll buy you two new ones. And sorry to fuck your head and run. I know that's rude. (dashes off)

Britney (shouting after him): You've got qualia, Arn, I know it!

Arnold (over his shoulder): No, you don't!


Friday, September 23, 2005

feed your students... then depress them

For tonight's viewing of "1984" (the Hurt and Burton* version) I had three-- yes, THREE-- students. One had to leave in the middle of the movie, so she missed dinner: we stopped the film after about an hour to order Chinese food, which arrived surprisingly quickly. We talked a bit about movie symbolism and what it's like to teach and learn English (and Korean). I got to hear a few student rumors up close, and offered some insight into the minds of my colleagues, all of whom I described in ringingly positive terms.

After the dinner break, we started the flick up again, and by the end, my two remaining students were thoroughly depressed. North Korean society was mentioned more than once by way of comparison to "1984." I made bold to mention the things that made me uncomfortable in South Korea: omnipresent cameras, loudspeakers in the Olympic Park (and other parks), the speaker on the wall of my dorm room (standard in many apartments). For balance, I talked about how the privacy issue gets debated in America, and how American companies can monitor their employees' activities fairly closely these days.

Spielberg's "Minority Report" might have been on to something, though: instead of mind control by a cruel and repressive government, we're more likely to be monitored by corporations interested in getting us to spend our money on their grounds and work according to their rules.'s software, a low-grade form of AI, already makes my shopping experience much easier by tracking my preferences and offering me selections based on them. Sort of creepy, that: rule through seduction.

If I had to choose between tyrannies, though, I'd rather live in Spielberg's dystopia than in Orwell's.

I didn't discuss the irony of the Korean government's censorship of the film (the blotting-out of the naughty bits, and, I think, the chopping away of some dialogue), but I'll hit that topic when I see my students again next Tuesday.

I might have to go rent "Equilibrium" so my students can see what happens when Hollywood nuts take "1984" and make it into an action flick.

*Say that phrase in your head repeatedly. Hurt and Burton. Hurt and Burton. Hurt and Burton. Hurt and Burton. Hurt and Burton. Pretty cool, the echo, eh? It gets even funnier when you start saying:

Hurt and Burton version
Hurt and Burton version
Hurt and Burton version
Hurt and Burton version

There's just something about the American rhotic "r" that inspires cackling.


the irony of watching "1984" in Korea

I went to the recently reopened Smoo library on Thursday afternoon for the purpose of checking out "1984," the version starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. They had it on video and not DVD, which was disappointing. Doubly disappointing-- and deeply ironic-- was the fact that the movie had been severely cut: nude scenes contained plenty of "blotting" to keep innocent Korean eyes from viewing white people's naughty bits.

To be fair, the climate of censorship has changed in recent years; the only recent movie I saw that featured serious tampering was "Sideways" (a flapping dingle is blotted out by what appears to be a luminous cloud... or maybe it was, uh, ball lightning). But the video version of "1984" likely dates back to the years when anything and everything was being censored. Upshot: we get tits but no bush whenever the character of Julia is naked on screen. Perhaps bush is thoughtcrime.


Ave, Malcolm!

A new addition to my blogroll (no image yet, but a link is on my sidebar) to Waka Waka Waka, the blog of one Malcolm Pollack, who shares my anti-dualistic proclivities. Pollack's blog is currently Vallicella-obsessed, but through no fault of Pollack's: Dr. Vallicella is once again beating the drum of substance dualism, and some of us with a naturalistic bent have responded by mounting our own little counterattack (well, perhaps Malcolm would describe the situation less dramatically).

"Waka-waka-waka" is, as you know, the war cry of Fozzie Bear. It's a fantastic title because it lowers your expectations about the blog's content. After smiling at the Fozzie image, you'll find yourself shocked by posts with titles like, "Are Qualia Epiphenomenalia?" and "Intelligent Design."

My own recent rantings on Dr. Vallicella's fine blog can be found here and here and here.

So far, the substance dualists posting their support of Dr. Vallicella's arguments are taking the anticipated tack: (1) casting doubt on the status of artificial consciousness (and thereby implying that ignorance about the nature of mind is crucial for preserving their point of view) and (2) arguing for the radically subjective nature of qualia, which has the embarrassing side effect of nullifying all arguments from qualia, since I can confirm the existence of no qualia other than my own.

I'm increasingly convinced that substance dualism is little more than a solipsistic fantasy. The fact that the dualist holds mind to be immaterial-- and therefore immune to scientific proof or disproof-- is disappointing but not unexpected: human beings like their hocus-pocus and will go to great lengths to preserve it.


Thursday, September 22, 2005

no words

This breaks my heart. Thanks, Robert, for blogging about it.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

bouffe à l'italienne

Let's let the pics speak for themselves first:

Backstory: Lotte Mart is a strange place. Some of its products are bizarrely expensive, but in the midst of the exorbitant prices are some sweet deals.

Take sausage.

Lotte Mart offers a W9800 (almost $10, US) package of various sausages-- not a bad deal considering the alternative is to go to Hannam Market, where a third of that amount would cost almost twice as much. True, by buying Korean-made sausages, one sacrifices a bit of quality (Wo ist mein Gott verdammte Landjaeger, bordel de merde!?), but I can tell you that the above sausages tasted just fine once cooked, and would have gone nicely with sauerkraut or cheese or mustard.

I'll be going back for those sausages, too. My French buddy's wife, Véronique, made a fantastic Alsatian dish once: a baked mass consisting of piles of sausage, peeled potatoes, bacon, and sauerkraut. There might've been some other vegetables hidden in there, and cheese might have made an appearance at table; I don't think I noticed. I remember greedily scooping up sausages and potato and kraut by the gob, squishing a mess of mustard next to the meat, and digging in with near-obscene enthusiasm. Fantastic meal.

I aim to replicate it. It'll be the perfect winter dish. There is, of course, only one winter dish superior to it.

Cheese fondue.

But that, friends, is a post for a different day.


popular template!?

A particular template seems to be proving rather popular among bloggers on my blogroll. Take a look at:

Bill's Comments

It Makes a Difference to the Sheep

Verbum Ipsum

Luckily, these bloggers are all male, so there'll be no estrogen-fueled grumbling about Fiona and Jacqueline wearing the same dress to the party.


my hole

I'm still not used to having only 31 teeth. While I generally forget about my mouth-dolmens when eating a meal, today's session with Xylitol brand chewing gum brought home the fact that the left side of my face no longer chews normally. The gum wad kept slipping into the void where the beleaguered Upper Left Wisdom Tooth once stood. Felt strange.

"Getting used to" the absence of the tooth won't mean forgetting its absence; it'll mean becoming accustomed to a new set of sensations.

I have no clue why this post is so fucking serious in tone.


postal scrotum: Buddhism and... autism?

Don W. writes:

Hello there, Big Hominid!

I've got a question for you.

This is something that's been plaguing me for quite some time now. Finally, suddenly, in the drunken late-night early morning, it occurs to me that the Hominid is the man to inquire of.

I'm wondering about religious identification and student behavior.

Specifically, having taught all ages here in Korea for most of the past four years (previously in Seoul and Kimpo, now in Busan), I'm wondering about Buddhism and what might very loosely be called autism, or a kind of extreme withdrawal from one's surroundings and peers.

At this point, I suspect, you're either nodding your head in agreement, or wondering what the hell I'm on about.

It must have been all the way back in around the summer of 2001 that I first began to notice this phenomenon. I was teaching adults, some business, some government types, at a Seoul hakwon. One young woman was almost pathologically withdrawn (not that I'm a shrink to be judging such things!) to the point, anyway, that she wouldn't even answer my simplest questions. ("How are you today?" Silence. She understood but wouldn't answer. The ULTRA-shy type.)

When the topic of religion finally came up, I learned that all the other students were self-described Christians of one sort or another. She somehow mustered up the courage to admit to being a Buddhist.

At this point of course, it was a matter of sheer conjecture on my part. Right off the bat, a lot of people would accuse me of illogicality, but I think you will concur that there's nothing INHERENTLY illogical about hypothesis-forming (the hypotheses being discardable if they don't prove out):

Hypothesis: Buddhist equals ultra-shy.

Sub-hypothesis: Positing one's observable, 3D, everyday reality as "illusion" or "maya" is bound to have this effect. If reality is bogus, then flee from it! Disconnect! Live within your mind! Don't listen to that teacher's voice too closely: ***he's merely an illusion, after all!*** Just keep subaudibly chanting that mantra of yours, and ignore your surroundings. Your morning English class is a mere illusion, after all. It must soon pass.

Don't get me wrong, Hominid:

I am fundamentally so "Buddha-friendly" that I'm standing right on the brink of abandoning my overt Christian profession.

I tell Koreans that I'm a Christian, and they think that I'm a 10-hour-long each Sunday church-going Presbyterian.

I tell them that I'm Catholic (closer to the existential truth), and they wonder aloud why I don't go to Mass. (Much too difficult to begin to explain about Vatican II, let alone Vatican I, let alone how being a tradionalist of sorts sets one at odds with one's fellow "progressives" within the Catholosphere--forgive the soju-inspired coinage, if you will.)

Why not just save myself a whole lot of trouble by saying I'm Buddhist? You know: Acknowledge the spiritual side of things, attempting to live the Eightfold Path (10 Commandments--whatever), observing ahimsa to the best of my ablility, etc.

Utterly worthless factoid which you will promptly forget: I had my head shaved on Buddha's birthday earlier this year. This of course means precisely nothing. Except that I noted the date. And felt inspired to do something about it. And am not exactly ANTI-Buddhist, at least within the walls of my own mind, if you see what I mean . . .

Nonetheless . . .

A very clear pattern has worked itself out in my teaching.

Within the past year I've had to deal with at least two near-autistic children. Not a professional diagnosis, but the best I can do. Both Buddhist. Both have refused to answer questions, have refused to read aloud from the textbook--repeatedly, again and again and again, to the point of morbidity--have been indifferent to classmates.

Happily, I AM seeing some progress with the latest young girl in question. She wears the wooden beads around her wrist and is extremely withdrawn. Recently, I've enjoyed a bit of success in drawing her out of her shell. But just a bit.

Another student, it just occurs to me, rather less severe in his abstraction, is a high school senior on his way to Yonsei University. Not quite morbidly withdrawn, this fellow: he does TALK, but seems awfully detached. On the few occasions that I've passed him on the street (just by chance, out of class), I've attempted to make eye contact, or say hello, but he's off in nirvana somewhere, if you know what I mean. He seems happy, but "not all there."

Again, with the wooden beads around the wrist.

Your thoughts, Big Hominid?

(P.S.: As always, I'm drunk and it probably shows here, and yet the drink brings on a kind of strange lucidity by lowering the inhibitions and thus clearing away dust, if you see what I mean. It's all clear, to me anyway, if only in a somewhat wobbly way, and certainly all true. Heck, this email has been 4 years in the making, as you will have gathered, and I'm addressing it to you, author of an eagerly anticipated blue-bound tome of devotional import, for reasons which will not perhaps require elaboration.)


From one of your biggest fans (I know, it makes me sound even more drunk and thus very likely reduces my credibility to add this bit, but it is true, and so there),

Don W
Busan, South Korea

I was planning to write a long reply to this, but I'm about to hit the sack (then, perhaps, go to bed). Like my underwear, I'll be brief.

First: a note of congratulations, Don-- you're a better typist when drunk than many folks are when sober.

Second: In my own experience with Buddhists-- monastic and lay, Korean and Western-- I've seen no obvious correlation between their introversion/extraversion and their beliefs.

Third: I can almost guarantee you that the "maya" theory isn't operative in most Buddhist consciousnesses, for a number of reasons: (1) not many Buddhists seriously believe that the route to salvation comes from renouncing an illusory phenomenal world. In fact, most Buddhists think the world is plenty real, but its fundamental nature is empty-- this is different from seeing reality as basically illusory, I think. The truck that's about to hit me is no illusion, but there is no fundamental, permanent truckness to the truck. The truck's collision with me will prove that the truck and I are both impermanent. (2) What "maya" means is open to debate. Not all Hindus and Buddhists use the term to mean "illusion." Some (especially certain Hindus) use it simply to refer to "the phenomenal world." Many Buddhists make no reference to the term at all. (3) Buddhists of a Zen persuasion will have been thoroughly conditioned by the Taoist meme in Zen to affirm this world and this moment rather than reject those things.

If Buddhist = ultra-shy, we'd be seeing a hell of a lot more shy Buddhists than we actually do.

That's my quick take on the matter, anyway.

How's the head feeling today?


Monday, September 19, 2005

Buddhist dog!

UPDATE: Welcome, users! A sudden spike in my normally low site traffic led me to consult my SiteMeter, and I discovered that this blog post had been linked in's Buddhist Humor section. Thanks for visiting. If you're interested in religious topics, scroll down to the bottom of my sidebar ("Sacred and Profane" section) and browse the links I have there. Many links lead to posts I've written on topics like Zen, interreligious dialogue, and religious pluralism. Quite a few links lead to posts featuring gross, scatological humor, so tread carefully if you're easily offended. (Personally, I consider it ironic that so many self-described "religious" folks are easily offended. In my book such people suffer from puckered assholes. Nothing a splintery broomstick can't fix, eh?)

Hats off to Reuters and to my buddy Mike for finding the "Buddhist dog" article. Enjoy your tour of my blog, and feel free to comment (civilly) or email me.

The Maximum Leader sends me a link to this amusing Reuters article about a very Buddhist dog. I'll quote the article in full:


Fri Sep 16,10:31 AM ET

The newest acolyte at a temple on an outlying South Korea island is a dog who has learned to sit, stay and perform Buddhist prayer rituals alongside the monks.

Monks at Buljang Temple on Chindo island off the southwest coast said the stray called "Hama" now joined them at prayer.

Hama -- Korean for hippopotamus -- follows monks into the temple and bows in the same manner for prayer, a temple official said. Some local Buddhists, who believe in reincarnation, are wondering what Hama may have been in a past life.

"Since about a month ago, when the monks were performing a ceremony paying respect to Buddha, they were joined by this one-year-old dog," the official said by telephone.

Hama is one of a traditional Korean breed called chindo, which originated on the island.

Hama's exploits have made the national news in South Korea and attracted a lot of curious onlookers to the temple, where about 30 other stray dogs live.

"The dog bows just like a monk," said college student Park Sang-jin, who visited the temple after hearing about Hama.

The Korean jindo-gae (Jin Island dog) looks like this:

They can be adorable, but they're usually loud and quick-tempered. One of my relatives owned a Jindo dog who'd gone insane. I didn't approve of its treatment: it'd been stuck on a one-meter leash for almost its entire life (eleven years, at that point). The dog was a mess. At the same time, I suspect that Jindo dogs are more prone to insanity than, say, black Labrador retrievers, which are among my favorite dogs.



Perhaps in keeping with the anglophone tendency to begin book and movie titles with gerunds, I might change Water from a Skull to Drinking Water from a Skull. This would introduce a certain ambiguity, though. Would the title be (a) referring to the act of slurping water out of a cranium, or would it simply be (b) indicating that a certain skull contains drinking water?

To lay it out graphically, the ambiguity offers a choice between:

1. Drinking (Water from a Skull), i.e., the acting of drinking (X), and

2. (Drinking Water) from a Skull, i.e., (X) coming out of a skull

Some people say I have too much time on my hands.


Aussie linguistic encroachment

The expression "Good on ya" (with stress on the "on," as in, "Good on ya, mate!") isn't from American English; it's largely Australian. I've noticed, however, an increasing number of Americans who've quietly adopted the expression as their own in both speech and writing.

I credit the Aussie-accented sharks from "Finding Nemo" with this trend.


coming soon?

I've been cobbling this book's manuscript together for a while, and we're approaching a critical phase. Here's a possible cover design for the book I promised my mother-- my mea culpa after churning out the filthy Scary Spasms in Hairy Chasms. I decided to go for the serious look (many of the religion-related books on my shelves have navy blue covers or something close):

(Students of Korean Buddhism will doubtless recognize the "water from a skull" image.)

Note, too, that this isn't a big design departure from the cover I did for Scary Spasms. Simple title... big, ugly face on the cover... long-ass subtitle. Would you buy a book that looked this grim? Of course you would!

Here-- compare covers:

The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity
(my copy of the book has a much darker cover than this, but in the same style)

Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion
(yeah, yeah; so it's not navy)

The Introduction of Buddhism to Korea
(my cover seems like a ripoff of this one)

The Blue Cliff Record
(aha! what I'm talkin' about, baby!)


last night's full moon

It peeked out through the clouds, looking thoroughly evil and Halloweeny, despite the lingering heat. I loved that moon.


Sunday, September 18, 2005

your Chuseok post

James Brown sang it in "Rocky IV":

coast to coast!
easy to get

I'm assuming he wasn't thinking about freeway traffic around cities like Los Angeles and DC, and he sure wasn't thinking about the Seoul-Pusan Expressway. All you poor bastards on the highways, stuck in your 15-hour traffic jams this weekend, all I can say is... haw haw.

Chuseok finds me home and sick, but I'm going to heave myself off my chair and go for a Namsan hike since today is, after all, the Harvest Moon. Nothing beats an evening viewing of God's shiny left buttock while it hovers benevolently above us, valiantly leading us not into temptation, but delivering us from evil.

What will Chuseok be like for Koreans in the future? Even now, the tradition is fraying. Here I am, at home, sick and avoiding my relatives. The couple times I've been to Chuseok and Seol-lal (lunar new year) celebrations here, the young folks have been quick to skip out as soon as the formalities were over, more interested in StarCrafting each other to death at the local PC-bahng than in hanging with the older folks, absorbing their ancient wisdom.

These days there are professionals who sell their services to families that can't be bothered to set up their own Chuseok ceremony. The pros come to your house and lay out a pre-made spread appropriate to the size of your gathering. While this is a modern twist on an old tradition, it's also somewhat retro: Confucianism, as it evolved, often included a person or people known as "Master of Rites."

Me, I'm waiting for the advent of tele-Chuseok: a sort of teleconferenced cyber-ceremony in which people will telecommute to the k'eun-jip (lit. "big house," usually meaning the house of the eldest son, where all the relatives gather), appearing on screen to celebrate with folks hundreds of miles away. Such a scenario isn't without its advantages: you'd drastically cut down the number of family arguments (not a problem in my own family; we all see each other so rarely), not to mention save on gas and time.

Perhaps we can look forward to a "Total Recall" scenario in the coming years: the implantation of pleasant memories of a nonexistent Chuseok celebration, leaving you with a warm feeling inside. "Damn, it was good to see those two hundred relatives again!"

In the meantime, as the Korean diet continues to Westernize, I expect traditional foods-- rice cakes, jujubes, fruit, etc.-- to be replaced by Big Macs (complete with incense sticks rammed into them), Buffalo wings, and apple pie.

Or how about something uniquely Korean: a Chuseok-of-the-future in which people meet in cyberspace as MMORPG avatars of themselves! Old, crippled folks can appear as young'uns; young'uns can appear as the old. Imagine the twisted role playing scenarios you could come up with! How many avatars will be naked? How many will be shape-changers (or e-transvestites)? How many characters will smuggle video game weapons to the MMORPG Chuseok celebration? I foresee a lot of online carnage as spoiled kids of the future suddenly halt in mid-prostration, type "Fuck this shit!" into the dialog box, whip out bazookas and go to town on everyone in the room. Aliens and mutants from Doom 3 start appearing, ripping apart all those who'd managed to survive the bazooka attack.

I won't live to see such pleasant things, but they're guaranteed to figure in Korea's collective future.

Happy Chuseok, all. May God's pockmarked left buttock shine upon you with extra conviction this evening.


toward a Hominidal theory of mind: redux

Having posted yet another of my longish comments over at Dr. Vallicella's fine blog (see here), I'm reposting my essay on the nature of mind here, to allow newcomers to comment on it without having to email me. On the assumption that people of above-average intelligence will want to read this essay of mine, I won't waste time explaining to the big-brained how to append comments: figger it out your damn self!

Haw haw.

A quick word of thanks to Dr. Vallicella and the various commenters on his blog who have helped me begin to organize my own thoughts on the age-old "mind-body problem."

I title this post "toward a theory" because by no means will it satisfactorily establish anything about the nature of mind. I'm not a philosopher of mind, nor am I an accomplished meditator experienced at plumbing the depths of my own consciousness, nor am I well-versed in neuroscience, psychology, or other cognate fields.

With all that going against me, I now sally forth to lay out my own tentative position on what the mind is.


This essay deals not so much with the question of a mind's particular properties and functions as with its basic nature. Nevertheless, it might be a good idea for me to lay out a brief sketch of what I consider to be the properties and functions of the mind.

The mind is the source of mental phenomena. This means the mind is the source of feelings, ideas, sense-impressions, and memories (we ight also include language). It's also the source of reason and other forms of cogitation. It's the source of things like attentiveness and focus. In the everyday world, we often hear that "the body follows the mind." This could be taken to mean that the mind is the source of behavior, which in one sense means it's the source of one's will, one's desires. But some behaviors that result from the mind's burblings aren't necessarily traceable to will. The mind is, arguably, the source of those unwilled behaviors as well. Notice that I didn't say the mind is the same as the brain-- an issue I'll touch on briefly near the end of this essay.

Now-- onward.


There are several competing theories of mind, but of the greatest interest to me are those rival theories that, on the one hand, declare mental phenomena to be non-material, and on the other, declare mental phenomena to be entirely a function of matter. The general terms for these two rival positions are substance dualism and materialism. My own position, which I'm still fleshing out, I'll label as nondualistic materialism or materialistic nondualism. This may correspond roughly with established "-isms" like epiphenomenalism and neutral monism.


The philosopher René Descartes is often cited as one of the main proponents of substance dualism. Descartes posited two major categories of things: res cogitans and res extensa, which we might loosely translate as mental phenomena and physical phenomena. From the Cartesian standpoint, neither is reducible to the other.

One reason, perhaps the strongest reason, for believing this to be the case is the existence of so-called qualia, which might be thought of as elements of personal experience.

In philosophical Taoism, we learn that "The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal (or true) Tao." There is no discursive approach to (ultimate) reality. To know it, you can't read about it. You can't hear someone else's account of it. You have to experience it for yourself. This is true whether we're talking about the taste of chocolate, the pain of an ear piercing, or a kiss.

The Western philosopher would say that the Taoist is talking about qualia. Qualia are radically subjective (the singular form of the word is quale, pronounced something like "kwah-lay"); some would call them "private." The philosopher would agree with the philosophical Taoist that qualia are essentially intransmissible, ineffable. One can try to communicate qualia linguistically, and our imaginative faculties do provide the ability to "reach out" and try to empathize, but it's rare indeed to capture the reality of an experience just from words alone.

What's it like to experience a nine-gee turn in a fighter jet, for example? We can try to imagine it, but unless we actually have the experience, we can't know what it's like.

So there are objective facts, such as "Chuck Yeager pulled a nine-gee turn in that jet he was testing yesterday," and there are qualia-- only Chuck Yeager and other pilots who've pulled nine-gee turns can know what that's like.

I said qualia are radically subjective, though, and this is important. Of the pilots who have pulled nine-gee turns, can we say that they all experienced the turns in exactly the same way? We can't, and because we all have different sets of accumulated experience, there's good reason to believe our experience of the same phenomena can never be exactly the same.

So-- with qualia being radically subjective, ineffable mental phenomena... it's possible that facts and qualia are substantially different things. The substance dualist would say that they are, and this is one important reason why the substance dualist rejects the idea that mind has a material basis.


I think there are major problems with the argument from qualia. First, I question their radically subjective nature. Second, I think that, if we agree that qualia are radically subjective, we can then do nothing useful with the concept. Third, there's the question of the trustworthiness of qualia. Let me discuss these objections in turn.

First objection: I have reason to believe that qualia contain an objective element because people, as a matter of everyday discourse, "relate to" each other. We've often heard it said after someone's expressed a problem: "Oh, I can relate to that," or "I know how that feels." This isn't accomplished through telepathy; it's accomplished, I think, through the fact that experience, far from being merely subjective, has something of the objective about it.

If qualia were absolutely unique from person to person, how would we be able to say "I can relate to that"? Emotions like sympathy and empathy would make no sense in the face of my qualia's supposed radical subjectivity. It would be impossible to ask anyone to "put themselves in my shoes" if we were certain that our own experience was absolutely unique.

While I don't want to deny the uniqueness of anyone's perspective, I think it might be better to conceive of qualia in terms of Wittgenstein's "family resemblances." By this I mean that, while my experience of stubbing my toe won't be exactly the same as yours (even if we stub our toes in exactly the same way), the experiences nevertheless contain common, overlapping traits. We all flinch after touching a hot iron because we feel the iron's heat in mostly (not roughly) the same way. Despite minor variations in our personal wiring, our qualia will be similar enough that we can speak reliably to each other about our experiences. Similarities in reports of "peak" experiences lend credence to the idea that it's not merely an objective external reality to which we are responding, but also that the human sensorium contains certain more or less "standard" features.

In fact, we usually trust that similar situations produce similar experiences, evoking similar thoughts and emotions. This is how the producers of Coca Cola market their soda's formula to billions of people, and it's how Hollywood relies on plot formulae to churn out its films. If Coca Cola and Hollywood proceeded on the assumption that everyone's internal reality was unfathomably subjective (and by extension, unfathomably diverse), they'd never make a profit off their products. The contention that experience is essentially a private phenomenon fails to explain why we constantly make these sweeping assumptions about others' behavior and inner life.

Imagination also plays a role in experience. How many of us have ever actually ridden on a flying horse? I'd wager none, but does this stop us from imagining that swooping, whooshing experience and perhaps having a small taste of what it would be like? When we read Harry Potter novels, are we all plunged into completely different imaginary worlds? I think not. It's not merely the objective text that prevents this, but something internally standard as well that keeps us on roughly the same plane as we experience the unfolding of JK Rowling's plot.

I don't mean to detract anything from the Taoist's original contention. I agree: experience has to be experienced. But experience isn't as radically subjective as all that.

In fact, I'll end this first objection by noting that the issue of qualia's intransmissibility might not be some sort of metaphysical limitation: it might be a merely technological one. If we are able to develop devices that allow us to "plug into" someone else's mind and experience what they do-- i.e., see what they see, feel what they feel, etc.-- the case for qualia's "privacy" will be severely weakened. (I wrote on this a while ago: see here, and scroll down to the conversation about chocolate.)

Second objection: This is related to the first. If I take seriously the idea that qualia are radically subjective, I can't use qualia to construct arguments applicable to people other than myself. This is, in my view, a major flaw in the argument from qualia, and it hovers dangerously close to out-and-out solipsism.

The substance dualist doesn't really want to go the solipsistic route: he believes there's an objective reality, that there's more than just res cogitans. But if qualia are so intensely private, and there's no way to bridge the gap between "first-person and third-person ontology," then how is substance dualism not, in effect, a kind of idealistic monism or even solipsism? One has plenty of reasons for believing there's something going on inside one's own head, but one can never be sure about anyone or anything else. How practical a stance is this?

Third objection: This is related to the previous two objections. If I am truly locked inside my head, unable even to verify the objective existence of a world beyond my skull, I have nothing against which to check the reliability of my sense data, my qualia.

As Dr. Vallicella and others maintain, a quale's esse is nothing more or less than its percipi: a sense-datum's being is nothing more or less than its being-perceived. Fine. But suppose I'm an amputee who has a recurrent "phantom limb" experience. Such cases are common: a patient reaches over to scratch an itch that, effectively, isn't there. With no recourse to objective reality, how can one differentiate between truth and illusion? In the instant one reaches over to scratch, one is unable to make the distinction. Similarly, hallucinogens, which alter brain states and produce twisted images and perceptions, show that qualia can be chemically manipulated.

The inherent unreliability of qualia makes any argument based on them somewhat suspect, because the substance dualist seems to be at a loss to explain where qualia come from, and he provides us no means by which to substantiate them both to ourselves and to each other. The substance dualist believes there's a res extensa, but can't argue from the inside of his skull to the outside world. The argument from qualia, multiply flawed, leads nowhere.


My own stance is more in line with materialism (also called physicalism). All the properties we associate with mind, all the things we call "mental activities"-- are epiphenomenally related to matter. We can think of the history of mind as a chart:

Matter > Life > Mind

I'll tell you a story. It's not one that everyone agrees with, but bear with me.

First, there was matter. As matter interacted with itself, certain complex and repeating patterns began to appear. Some of those patterns exhibited emergent behaviors, such as self-replication. Thus it was that life arose epiphenomenally from matter. Life was an emergent phenomenon. Then, as patterns of life gained even greater complexity, mind arose from life. The End.

Please note that the above chart doesn't make clear that mind is a subset of life, and life is a subset of matter. The chart might give you the mistaken impression that matter disappeared when life arrived, and that life disappeared when mind arose. Perhaps a better illustration might be a three-tiered pyramid, with matter at the bottom, life in the middle, and mind on top. The lowest tier cannot disappear, and the pyramid metaphor makes clear that matter is the basis of life and mind.

Other analogies are illustrative. Just as computer software requires hardware to be run, so it is that mind requires matter to exist. However, the software/hardware analogy doesn't address the epiphenomenal nature of mind, because software didn't evolve out of hardware, whereas I would contend that mind did evolve out of matter. Nevertheless, the analogy points out the most important thing: if there's no matter, there's no mind there. Matter is logically prior to mind: it has to come first. More: matter is necessary for mind.

My stance is informed by the progress we continue to make in science, both with regard to what neuroscience tells us about the brain and body, and to the work being done on artificial intelligence (AI) by luminaries like Ray Kurzweil (with whose thought I'm only now becoming familiar; just a few weeks ago I had little idea who he was).

Science, as yet, can't conclusively prove that mind is inseparable from matter. As I see it, science is building a case for materialism, and is doing so on multiple fronts. Perhaps Kurzweil is right to speak of what is currently happening in the field of AI as "reverse engineering" the human brain.

However, I don't see mind as reducible to matter, if by this one is trying to claim something like "the mind's activity can be comprehensively explained through simple physics." No, it can't be thus explained. In the computer analogy, one can see that software and hardware need each other, but that they operate according to qualitatively different rules. As Robert Pirsig notes in his book Lila, a software specialist doesn't have to know everything about hardware to do his job. The same is true, in reverse, for the hardware specialist.

I would submit that, while mind isn't reducible to matter, it does absolutely depend on matter for its existence. The problem of "interiority," of subjective experience (qualia again) isn't yet solvable, but might be in the future.

I can't prove mind's absolute dependence on matter to you, but I can lay my argument out this way. Science's breakthroughs in the fields of human cognition (neuroscience, psychology, etc.) and in AI are all predicated on materialistic theories of consciousness. It's obvious to scientists that substance dualism is, scientifically speaking, utterly useless. You can't form theories leading to developments in artificial intelligence if you're already convinced that mind isn't material. It's a non-starter.

And as the science advances, each advance represents another piece of evidence for the materialist's case. The substance dualist's arguments, on the other hand, first focus on what hasn't yet been explained, and then posit non-material consciousness (whatever that might mean) as the best, and perhaps only, way to make sense of the inexplicable. For the substance dualist, the case is open and shut. As far as he's concerned, there's simply no way to establish that mind isn't immaterial. It's a strategy that opens the door to a lot of hocus-pocus, in my opinion. This is similar to a "god of the gaps" approach in evolutionary theory: the theory hasn't explained everything, therefore those gaps in the explanation indicate the work of God.

Except the gaps keep getting smaller, don't they? Religion, whenever it tangles with science on science's own ground, always ends up in retreat. History is replete with examples of this. Substance dualism, a stance generally favored by the religious, has done nothing but make claims. Denial and refutation seem to be the only things on offer from the dualist's camp. The only proactive contribution to the discussion has been the positing of immaterial mind.

A scientist, however, would like to see and explore this "mind independent from matter." Is this possible? If the dualist claims that the mind, by its very nature, is not apprehensible by science, then this is little different from Carl Sagan's argument about "the dragon in my garage" from his book The Demon-haunted World. To wit:

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved." (italics added)

I think Sagan has a point. The substance dualist walls himself off from even the possibility of having his view empirically contested, insisting that the mind is so radically other, causing physical changes through an incomprehensible-- yet somehow possible-- process, that it is totally immune to scientific proof or disproof. In the meantime, the dualist offers no positive arguments for his thesis. All the while, science continues to reveal the intimate relationship between physical processes in the brain-body suite, and mental/cognitive processes. At the same time, science, unlike substance dualism, remains open to the possibility that its own assumptions about the nature of mind may be quite wrong. Substance dualists, by contrast, too hastily trot out the dangers of mule-headed scientism, but do so while adopting a stance immune to discussion.

As I wrote earlier:

To date, science has not discovered a disembodied consciousness, which makes me lean toward the high likelihood that consciousness is not disembodied. Cut off a person's head-- are they still conscious? In what way? How do we know? Where is their consciousness, if no longer "in" their body? A substance dualist can provide no useful, verifiable answers, whereas a naturalist can say "cessation of physical function entails cessation of consciousness"-- which is likely true, given the millennia-long lack of reanimated corpse and ghost attacks.


I've dealt with substance dualism, so let's move on to materialist critiques of Ray Kurzweil's brand of "strong AI" materialism, a school of thought that considers truly sentient (not merely ostensibly sentient) machinery possible.

One prominent critic of Kurzweil is John Searle, himself a materialist. Searle believes Kurzweil's "strong AI" is founded on a false assumption: that non-biological, functionally equivalent parts can be assembled to produce something conscious. Searle isn't a substance dualist, but he does argue that only biological entities can have minds.

Searle's most famous argument against the possibility of conscious machines is his 1980s-era "Chinese Room" thought experiment. There are several versions of this argument, which generally goes something like this:

Imagine a room in which you find a man. He's got a complicated rule book with him, whose purpose is to help him interpret symbols-- Chinese characters, in fact. The room has two slots, one for input and the other for output. Someone outside the room slips in a piece of paper with Chinese characters on it. The man in the room then consults the book, which tells him to respond to the Chinese characters he receives by writing out a different set of Chinese characters on another slip of paper, and passing these characters out through the output slot.

Searle's point: outside the room, it looks as though an actual, written conversation in Chinese is happening. But inside the room, the man manipulating the slips of paper has no clue what he's reading; he's merely using the rule book (analogous to a computer algorithm) to determine how to respond. At no point is the man (or his rule book) demonstrating anything like true "understanding."

Searle is attacking the syntactic nature of computer programs and contending, via his Chinese Room argument, that consciousness isn't present in this setup, and never can be.

Kurzweil has, of course, responded to this charge, and it's worth quoting here. Here is what he says in the context of a debate about the meaning of IBM's Deep Blue, a computer program that played chess against world champion Garry Kasparov:

It is not at all my view that the simple recursive paradigm of Deep Blue is exemplary of how to build flexible intelligence in a machine. The pattern recognition paradigm of the human brain is that solutions emerge from the chaotic and unpredictable interplay of millions of simultaneous processes. And these pattern recognizers are themselves organized in elaborate and shifting hierarchies. In contrast to today’s computers, the human brain is massively parallel, combines digital and analog methods, and represents knowledge as highly distributed patterns encoded in trillions of neurotransmitter strengths.

A failure to understand that computing processes are capable of being—just like the human brain—chaotic, unpredictable, messy, tentative, and emergent is behind much of the criticism of the prospect of intelligent machines that we hear from Searle and other essentially materialist philosophers. Inevitably, Searle comes back to a criticism of “symbolic” computing: that orderly sequential symbolic processes cannot recreate true thinking. I think that’s true.

But that’s not the only way to build machines, or computers.

So-called computers (and part of the problem is the word “computer” because machines can do more than “compute”) are not limited to symbolic processing. Nonbiological entities can also use the emergent self-organizing paradigm, and indeed that will be one great trend over the next couple of decades, a trend well under way. Computers do not have to use only 0 and 1. They don’t have to be all digital. The human brain combines analog and digital techniques. For example, California Institute of Technology Professor Carver Mead and others have shown that machines can be built by combining digital and analog methods. Machines can be massively parallel. And machines can use chaotic emergent techniques just as the brain does.

My own background is in pattern recognition, and the primary computing techniques that I have used are not symbol manipulation, but rather self-organizing methods such as neural nets, Markov models, and evolutionary (sometimes called genetic) algorithms.

A machine that could really do what Searle describes in the Chinese Room would not be merely “manipulating symbols” because that approach doesn’t work. This is at the heart of the philosophical [sleight] of hand underlying the Chinese Room (but more about the Chinese Room below).

It is not the case that the nature of computing is limited to manipulating symbols. Something is going on in the human brain, and there is nothing that prevents these biological processes from being reverse engineered and replicated in nonbiological entities.
(italics in original)

Kurzweil's "strong AI" tends in the direction you might imagine: the merging of people and machines. His position in the mind-body debate might be described as "functionalist," insofar as he believes that non-biological materials can reproduce brain functions and eventually be their equally conscious equivalent.

Imagine a world in which "wet circuitry" exists. Your brain is severely traumatized, so you're taken to the hospital and a chunk of your brain is scooped out and replaced with this wet circuitry, which has been designed to replicate your brain functions. Voila-- cognitive abilities restored (even though you're missing a bunch of engrams that were lost in the brain trauma)! Is such a world possible? Kurzweil would say yes, and so would I. Will we live to see it? No, of course not. But the important question is whether such circuitry will possess the functional equivalents of mental phenomena like intentionality and so on. Kurzweil and I would say, Why wouldn't it?


Despite my materialist leanings, I don't believe that the mind is exactly the same as the brain. We're still trying to understand the biology of consciousness, and there's reason to believe that consciousness, while primarily rooted in the brain, is also distributed through the body. I'm not wimping out and suggesting that the mind is also something other than brain and body; I'm merely suggesting that the physical elements of mind might include more than just the brain.


There's a lot more to this mind-body debate than I've covered here. My own point of view is close to Kurzweil's, but it's also in agreement with Searle insofar as both Kurzweil and Searle see human consciousness as arising epiphenomenally from matter. All three of us are materialists in that sense. But I side with Kurzweil over Searle in believing that functionalism has merit: non-biological elements can and will be assembled to produce machines that can pass the Turing Test and be perceived as truly conscious. Searle's Chinese Room argument attempts to show how a machine might cheat the Turing Test, but I think cheating the test is impossible, and assume Kurzweil does, too. The substance dualist won't be convinced, of course. A machine could pass the Turing Test, exhibit all the signs of conscious activity, and still the dualist will insist, in the face of strong evidence, that the jury's out. This insistence will sound increasingly puny as progress continues beyond the threshold of human intelligence.*

Substance dualism strikes me as an untenable position for the reasons I've already given. The argument from qualia is unconvincing because of the very nature of qualia: if they are indeed radically subjective, then no meaningful claims can be made about other minds. More than that: I don't think qualia are entirely private and inaccessible, because human beings are wired in similar ways to have similar experiences and modes of experience (taking into account cultural mediation, etc.). We daily assume that we can relate to each other, which undermines contentions about radical subjectivity.

Substance dualism also fails to produce any constructive arguments on its own behalf. It can't present us with an examinable immaterial mind, nor can it do more than make untestable, unprovable claims about this mind. In the meantime, science, proceeding on materialistic assumptions, continues to make progress in fields like neurophysiology and AI. How is this possible if those assumptions are fundamentally wrong? The substance dualist's notion of "mind" truly is little more than Sagan's dragon in the garage: veridically worthless.

I see mind as rooted in and inseparable from matter. No matter, no mind. Cut off a person's head, and that person's no longer conscious. Introduce certain hallucinogenic chemicals into someone, and you give them hallucinations. Watch a person age and experience dementia, and you'll see firsthand how the brain's deterioration exactly parallels the mind's deterioration (cf. also the story of Phineas Gage, the poor bloke who suffered a massive head injury and literally became a different person afterward). Mind is built upon matter.

But I also believe that mind retains its own distinctiveness and isn't simply reducible to matter. The hardware/software analogy makes this clear: mind is inseparable from matter, but follows qualitatively different rules from it. And just as an ocean wave relates nondualistically to the ocean, possessing its own distinctiveness while fully integral to the greater whole, so it is that mind relates nondualistically to matter. There's no need to radically dichotomize the two. This, then, is what I'm calling my theory of materialistic nondualism.

*There are solid ethical reasons to be wary of Kurzweil's vision. A good critique is Bill Joy's essay "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," to be found in the collection Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in the Matrix, edited by Glenn Yeffeth. Joy sees frightening difficulties associated with the three major technologies of our time: genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics. All three technologies can produce catastrophes because they all deal with (potentially) self-replicating products. Joy gives us a spooky quote from George Dyson: "In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines." The point being made is blatantly Darwinian: humans will lose if forced to compete with machines for space and resources.

UPDATE: The fusion of people and machines has been happening for a while. Here's one of the latest examples: a man with robotic arms controlled by his mind. Intentionality meets the machine! A qualia-related quote from the article: "Eventually tiny sensors in the fingertips will allow Sullivan to feel texture and temperature." Feel! I'm not sure a substance dualist can explain how this is possible. Make this case into a thought experiment: how intrusive will the prostheses of the future be? Artificial eyes? Artificial optic nerves? Artificial brain neurons? Artificial brains with intentionality?


Ave, Jelly!

Jelly turns 14 today! Woo-hoo! In Canada, that means you can drink, drive, and have sex-- all at the same damn time!

Go visit Jelly's hilarious blog and learn about

1. teachers who fart in class
2. bad manners
3. foodblogging gone wrong
4. balloon art
5. school drudgery

And now, it's time to cut the cake!

The cake, you idiot, the CAKE!


Saturday, September 17, 2005

"Bubba Ho-tep": the review-- now UPDATED

I scattered some stills from the movie through my review. Go back and take a look.


death poetry

Over at the Oranckay's blog there's a fascinating post about the death poem of the Venerable Beopjang, who (if you'll pardon the Christian phrase) gave up the ghost this past Sunday.

Peter does a great job of translating the Chinese, and the exchange between him and Charles of Liminality is also quite enlightening (pun intended). Sperwer's comment, currently at the bottom of the thread, provides a useful guide as to whether the translation approaches the spirit of what Beopjang was saying.

My own death poem is, of course, known to readers of this blog:


[reading in columns, from right to left:]

bul un shi
dae nam geun
mu so yong


in a time of misfortune
a large penis
is useless

Your homework is to dig into the archives and find out the history of this proverb, which isn't originally Chinese.

It took a bit of brain work to reduce the original proverb to a nine-character saying, but I've been bothered ever since a commenter wrote in to say that many Chinese proverbs are four-character sayings (think: "jae beop gong sang" from the Heart Sutra, or the folk proverb "sae ong ji ma," or "mu han bul seong," or any number of others).

Can anyone figure out how to get nine characters down to four?