Tag Archives: University of Helsinki

Robots, Drones or Holographs?

This past week I’ve had the privilege to attend the twenty-first annual “Toward a Science of Consciousness” conference here in Helsinki. It was a brilliant opportunity to meet with leading intellects from around the world in fields of physics, psychology, neurology, philosophy, social sciences, etc. Part of the organizers’ strategy was to keep building on the popularity of David Chalmers’ “Hard Problem” approach, while making room for Deepak Chopra’s brand of mysticism, Susan Blackmore’s post-parapsychological perspectives, various quantum physics possibilities, the latest in neuro-science research, and plenty of philosophical speculations in between. I guess the coolest part has been just having the chance to hang around chatting with all sorts of respected thinkers who are really into this sort of thing.DSCF0039

Last year’s conference in Arizona, as I understand it, featured an interesting intellectual show-down between Chalmers and Daniel Dennett. I would have loved to sit in on that one, but I was pretty sure from the start that it was beyond what I could indulge myself with. Hearing that they would have the conference in Helsinki this year though, I made a point of getting myself signed up as a volunteer worker for the project as soon as possible. I’m very glad I did.

Dennett was not involved this time around, and taking his place this year in terms of providing scientific skepticism regarding the concept of an explanatory gap in conventional scientific research regarding the phenomenon of consciousness were noted neuro-scientist Patricia Churchland and philosophy professor David Papineau. Like Dennett, their perspectives were effectively that, on the basis of something like Occam’s razor, there is really no reason to assume that a non-physically based phenomenon of consciousness exists. Physics, and the sciences derived therefrom, have yet to convincingly explain why we have sensations at all –– why life should feel like anything; why our self-preservation mechanisms involve emotional aspects, empathetic responses and the broad phenomenal world of self-conscious reflection –– but it is still theoretically possible to dismiss those sensations as irrelevant abstractions or as abstract illusions produced by our “selfish genes”.

DSCF0013The primary defender of the perspective that phenomena of conscious experience need to be considered as part of the basic data that scientists and other academics need to find explanations for was Philip Goff, who argues for a metaphysical theory known as panpsychism. Chalmers has previously voiced some sympathy for Goff’s perspective on things, but this time he showed no particularly strong commitment in that direction. In fact in his keynote address to the conference this year Chalmers offered up another perspective on things which, he readily admitted, would effectively necessitate a rejection of panpsychism: consciousness as the “m-factor” in quantum physics.

Without going into too many technical details (especially since Chalmers himself did not go into too many technical details), the idea relates to the fate of Schrodinger’s poor little cat. According to the most basic understanding of quantum theory, in the random situation where this cat might or might not be killed as the result of random sub-atomic forces, until a measurement is taken that “freezes” the situation, we have to think of the cat as being both alive and dead. Something about taking measurements –– properly investigating the situation –– however, creates a more definitive state of affairs. Once we have somehow looked into the cat’s box we can either say that the cat is alive or the cat is dead; it can no longer be both. In this sense the investigative process–– the measurement, m-function, or whatever you want to call it –– “collapses the quantum wave function,” giving us a precise set of points of reference rather than a field of non-specifically localized energy vibrations.


David Chalmers offering his basic perspective on quatum physics

That much is pretty much generally accepted among physicists who are into this sort of thing. The unknown is what it is about the measuring process which causes this wave collapse. Is there something about the energy of consciousness itself which causes physical entities to take on perceived solid form? Is conscious energy then its own force within the quantum universe that brings about specific points of reference in the physical world? Or is the cause and effect the other way around: Is consciousness a form of energy which is released at the point when a quantum wave collapses and particular particle locations come about? What would the ramifications for this sort of theory of quantum dynamic be?

20150613_134849[1]Meanwhile, on the level of macro-physics, there are all sorts of things related to neurological function worth exploring, which various conference participants were playing with in various ways. One of the most interesting was the use of ultrasound projection into the brain as a means of mood regulation. Apparently the new thing among those who are fascinated with various means of self-medicating to alter their states of consciousness is to project various forms of energy into their brains, ranging from electric current to magnetic fields to various frequencies of radiant energy above and below the x-ray range. All of these forms of energy are commonly used as means of diagnostic imaging; they are projected into the brain and other parts of the body as means of looking at the hidden structures and activities going on in there without cutting the patient open for the doctor to see directly. As side effects these energies can alter the operation of the tissue they pass through, increasing or decreasing metabolism there. The very newest thing here is ultrasound. As it happens, when it comes to ultrasound, there are devices which have already been approved for experimental use among those who are trying to improve their mental function in military situations, or in gaming simulations of military situations. Within the range of what that same experimental permit allows, the University of Arizona is now experimenting with the use of ultrasound machines to alter people’s moods and eventually try to treat monopolar depressive illnesses. In practice this involved voluntary participants putting a little speaker up against their right temple, having pulses of sound that only dogs can hear blasted into their brain for less than a minute, and seeing how that effected their mental processes. I didn’t try it myself, but for the different volunteers there were different drugs that the experience brought to mind. Private experimentation, dangerous as it may be, seems rather likely to follow on this matter.

So speculation remains open, not only about what the underlying principles are for our conscious experiences, but as to whether the various forms of research being done in the field at this point in history are really even asking the right questions. One thing that seems rather obvious is that the brain plays a key role in the whole process, but there are different models regarding the ultimate metaphysical principles involved in brain function. I would summarize the alternatives that were being bounced around last week as falling into three categories; those given in the title of this essay.

DSCF0019The first would postulate that people are essentially physical machines, or in a sense robots, with the human brain as a particularly powerful self-programming computer which operates the body according to certain basic principles that are “hard-wired” in, and others which it picks up as it goes. The old analogy of a clockwork mechanism explaining things is rather outdated, but the sort of robots that sci-fi authors like Philip K. Dick wrote about could still be used as an explanation for the idea. According to this way of thinking, conscious experience is just a side effect of the ways in which our genetic programing realizes itself through our bodily functions. “Free will” is just an illusory sensation that goes along with these bodily functions as they develop through the ways in which our genetic programming adapts to and is realized within our material environment(s). Even so, from this perspective it is speculated that as Google’s self-driving cars and other such technologies are further developed, as a by-product of their increasing complexity they will start to have their own subjective experiences of something like emotional satisfaction or frustration with the ways in which they are able to carry out their given tasks. From there they may eventually begin doing something akin to our own processes of moral decision making. This is the sort of belief which characterizes the physicalist approach to consciousness. As unlikely as it may seem in many respects, this is the clear majority perspective in the field at this point.

A rather different approach, but holding many common features with physicalism, would be to recognize all of the self-regulating physical functions of these bodies –– with all of the genetic, bio-chemical, semi-automated environmental adaptation mechanisms, etc. which they include –– but based on what it feels like to operate within one of these units, to believe that there’s more to it than that. In other words there could still be a non-material dynamic or force of some sort which is effectively operating the controls for our bodies. Think of this in terms of drones –– the unmanned aircraft that are continuously being flown over the Middle East by the one branch or another of the U.S. government these days. Semi-secretly, somewhere in North Dakota (probably), tomorrow morning a man will have breakfast with his family, maybe drop off his kids at school, and then go to “the office”… to sit there for the day piloting a little unmanned aircraft called an MQ-9 over on the other side of the world, searching for “enemies of freedom” on which to unleash its hellfire missiles and other implements of destruction.

dronestrikes630x420As with a self-driving car, everything about the operating capacity, guidance systems and automatic responses to environmental conditions in an MQ-9 predator drone can be explained purely in terms of its internal equipment and the programming of its on-board computer systems. Yet unlike the purely robotic vehicle, the drone actually does not “decide for itself” where it will go, what it will deliver and who it will kill on any given day. There is some conscious agent controlling this mechanism, external to the mechanism, who ultimately decides what it does, and who is ultimately morally responsible for its actions.

To the outside observer it might be impossible to determine which vehicle being actively remotely controlled and which is robotically self-directed. If an enemy (or commercial competitor) would capture either sort of unit, it would be a rather challenging and uncertain process to determine whether it is self-controlled or remote controlled based solely on evidence gained from the machine itself (especially if they were not able to monitor the various sorts of radio signals that the machine in question would give off and receive as it operates). They might easily mistake a drone for a robot, or a robot for a drone. If you fire a bazooka at either, destroying significant parts of its on-board electronics or mechanical controls, the resulting reduction in its operational capacities will be pretty much the same for both. So in terms of this analogy, how can we say whether or bodies are entirely self-controlled units, or whether we have conscious “souls” which somehow operate our bodies?

In any case, those who assume, on the basis of the conscious experiences we have of our bodies and what lies beyond them, that each of us is essentially a conscious entity of some sort, with an essence distinct from the our bodies and brains, and that this conscious essence is that which (under normal circumstances) ultimately controls the body and experiences the sensations generated by the body’s sensing apparatus, are classified as functional dualists. This position entails the possibility that there could also be some bodies around us that operate without any sense of conscious experience, famously referred to by Chalmers as zombies. Dualism as such is generally seen as a respected minority position among consciousness researchers. It is still subject to critique from some strict atheists for being a little too close to a religious world view for their taste. Even so, this is how I would currently classify myself, with a fair amount of acknowledgement given to the possibility of error of course.

There is a third alternative view as to how our conscious selves and our bodies relate to each other though: the body and its brain can be seen as a projection generated by either individual or collective consciousness, analogous in many ways to a holographic image. From this perspective, while the body and its environment can be experienced on all sorts of different levels, none of these experiences prove beyond doubt that the reality of what is being experienced is essentially material. This way of conceptualizing things is best known in the history of western philosophy as Berkeley’s radical idealism. It also has strong connections with the “Christian Science” religious orientation, and it is quite strongly associated with the sort of Hindu mysticism currently being popularized by Deepak Chopra and his fans who were present at this week’s conference. According to this view the primary focus in the study of consciousness should be on self-awareness and meditative focus as means of projecting a healthier identity into the bodies and brains which our consciousness is continuously creating through its capacity to project such things. I’m not really sure what to say about this, other than that it remains an interesting though counter-intuitive possibility for explaining life as we know it.

Ultimately, however, from my perspective, the important issue is still the Kirkegaardian one: rather than determining with absolute certainty how our conscious selves and our physical selves relate to each other, what we really need to determine is what is worth doing with ourselves, whatever we happen to be. Needless to say, our starting assumptions regarding what ultimately makes each of us who we are have a significant impact on what sort of meaning we try to find for our lives; but if these speculations don’t have any impact on how we live our lives, from my own perspective at least they have extremely limited value.

20150610_173457[1]On the other hand, however, I must admit that my view in this regard as well is probably a minority position; and given the number of people who have demonstrated a fascination with the subject by gathering in Helsinki to talk about it last week, there seem to be plenty of people who find other reasons for exploring the subject of consciousness and seeing it as valuable. And regardless of the differences in viewpoint I have with some of the positions presented last week, it was a truly fascinating experience unto itself. I certainly hope this isn’t the last time I will be able to take part in such a conference.

Cheers to all of my new friends from the occasion.


Filed under Education, Metaphysics, Philosophy

Finland’s Future in Philosophy of Religion

Clarification to outsiders who may not have been aware: My weekend blog entry actually had nothing to do with professors of philosophy per se, nor with professors of philosophy of religion, within my own department in the university these days. Whatever the flaws of these professors, pretentious misapplications of Bauman are not among them.

As it happens, one of my current supervising professors is retiring soon, and this morning (September 30, 2013), as part of the process for selecting his successor, the faculty of theology held a sample lecture audition of sorts for the three top candidates for the chair. So as one last little tidbit for September I offer my readers a quick review of the event and my initial impressions as to how I would like to see the selection process go.

Another fresh perspective from Helsinki's concrete cubicles...

Another fresh perspective from Helsinki’s concrete cubicles…

I won’t bother to name off the candidates, but for those who wish to discover who I am talking about here it shouldn’t be hard. Of the three one was a Norwegian man, one was a Finnish woman and one was a Finnish man. The presented their stuff in that order. Their approaches were rather different from each other –– one might even say distinctive –– and which is chosen for the position will have a major impact on the future of the subject area within the University of Helsinki, and thus within Finland as a whole. Based on the candidates’ presentations I would go as far as to say that the faculty’s hiring decision in this matter will provide an important indicator of the status quo of academic politics within Helsinki’s concrete cubicles (rather than ivory towers).

All three candidates were given the task of lecturing for exactly a half hour on the topic of “The Challenges of Philosophy of Religion in the 21st Century”. This was intended to serve less as proof of how much they know about the subject than what sort of teaching skills they happen to possess. In brief, the Norwegian fellow tackled the subject by providing an ambitious survey of 9 challenge areas he considers to be important, the Finnish lady tried to construct an interactive classroom situation to get people talking about one aspect of the question, and the Finnish man took an approach somewhat in between the former two –– involving showing his expertise in two particular areas of concern within the field and mixing samples of his personal expertise with token elements of audience interaction. It might be worth noting that the female candidate was the only one to use Finnish as her presentation language: both of the men presented in English, though in the case of the Finnish fellow he also interacted with the audience a bit in Finnish along the way.

I can honestly say that neither language nor gender had anything to do with my personal view that among these three the female candidate would be the least suitable for the position. What she set out to show was that she has been reading up on the latest trends in constructivist pedagogical theory; what she failed to show is that she has a confidence-inspiring grasp of the subject matter –– rather to the contrary in fact. The premise of her sample lecture was that if we have rational grounding in theoretical mutual understanding, greater religious tolerance will follow. She thus attempted to initiate discussions on what we thought of the religious tolerance situation in various historical and cultural contexts, writing up on the chalk board some general themes from the audience responses. There was nothing resembling disciplined philosophical inquiry involved, nor was their evidence that she knew more about the topic than audience members. At best it was amateur café philosophy, in the looser sense of the word, looking for a place within the university walls.

On the other extreme, sort of, we had the Norwegian candidate, who did not make any particular attempt at audience participation nor at demonstration of awareness of current fads in teaching practice. The challenge he set for himself was to provide a particularly ambitious theoretical overview of the whole field within his allotted 30 minutes. He did so with a brilliant young man’s zeal and charisma, all the while letting a certain level of performance anxiety slip. Some commented after his lecture, rather justifiably, that it had more the feel of a research conference presentation than a lecture to be presented as part of a master’s level course on the subject. He also failed to make a token mention of the fact that next year there will be a five-year academic “Center of Excellence” project starting in the faculty on the theme of “Reason and Recognition in Religious Research” which the person who gets the position he is applying for will have a key role in. He did show that as the outsider in this process he had done his homework and he knew of the important role of Wittgensteinian thought in Helsinki in general, together with factors of heavy Lutheran traditionalism, heavy theological liberalism and light cultural progressivism. His 9-point presentation was based on a 3 x 3 structure: three points each within the categories of classical questions within the discipline, post-structuralist debates of the recent past, and future directions he sees the subject going in. I was particularly impressed by his emphasis of building dialog with other disciplines and establishing societal relevance in general. His weak area though was in terms of proving that he was not just a talented performer, but an interactive team player.

The Finnish man –– the proper insider for the position both in terms of gender and ethnicity –– was positioned last to show his skills in the best possible light. He came across as a compromise or middle ground figure between the two presenters which preceded him on the stage, making some attempt at charismatically displaying theoretical competence and some attempt at bona fide audience participation. It must be said, however, that he fully succeeded at neither.  In terms of proving his theoretical merits he passed around a book that he had got published this year and he presented a very dense 20-slide PowerPoint presentation, not all of which he had a chance to go through. The core message within this dense package was that there are, according to his theoretical paradigm, two primary categories of challenges for contemporary philosophy of religion: 1) boundary crossing in terms of recognition and communication, and 2) providing something resembling existential relevance. Valuable perspectives, but not very well unpacked within the course of the sample lecture. At the half-way point he slipped into nervous spouting of theory, stuttering and looking at the ceiling as he went. One of his slides contained a couple of pictures in addition to text: a depiction of the stereotypes associated with the battle between science and religion, which didn’t really increase his contact with the audience by much. Three of his slides announced “group exercises” which seemed to be stuck in in order to be able to formally check off one box on his pedagogical methodology checklist. In a hypothetical graduate seminar these would have provided starting points for research papers to be presented by students to the rest of the class, but in this context they merely provided breaks in the rhythm of things to enable the speaker to regain his composure.

Thus none of these presentations were perfect, though all of them were respectable in the sense of doing better than I would have done under the circumstances. All things considered though, I have to say that at this point I’m rooting for the Norwegian fellow. My primary reasoning would be that he demonstrated clear performance skill and charisma, general competence and open-mindedness in the field, and a good balance between self-important promotion of his own theoretical perspectives and the laissez faire café philosophy approach. The point of the exercise wasn’t to demonstrate what sort of research supervisor the person would be, but I got the strong impression from the exercise that this guy would be the most useful research supervisor of the set.

The lady candidate, based on her performance, would be a significant disappointment to me if she gets the job. She seems like a nice enough person, but she doesn’t inspire confidence or a desire to pursue academic excellence. If she is selected it will send a message that anti-patriarchal gestures and promoting formal compliance to current pedagogical fashion is more important than encouraging deep, original and disciplined thought within the department. Stranger things have happened, but I would not expect them to in this case.

The male Finnish candidate shows potential as a promising young academic, and I would hope he remains a department staff member whether or not he gets the job. My primary reservations regarding him are in terms of his being the candidate who represents the greatest risk of academic in-breeding: a Helsinki theology man whose influences seem to be Helsinki theologians and whose professional merits are based on his performance in Helsinki. He speaks and performs in a fashion clearly utilizing the best of insider information on the matter –– showing that he has the sort of theoretical and technical skills that the selection process bureaucrats are looking for. What he doesn’t show is fresh perspective or a vision to make the work of the department more relevant outside of the department… other than within the sort of international academic sewing circles that professors in general tend to use to legitimize themselves. I won’t be majorly disappointed if he gets the job, but I really don’t think he has the most to offer.

It would be a major innovation for the University of Helsinki to hire someone not fluent in Finnish to take a professor’s chair not specifically designated as “multicultural” or “Swedish-speaking”. In exploring this sort of innovative possibility, Norway is really the most conservative choice they could make in terms of a potential candidate’s background: another Nordic Lutheran country of about 5 million people with a mix of traditionally religious and liberally-minded folk, looking with some reservation at the innovations going on in the larger Nordic countries (population-wise) of Sweden and Denmark. But given the limited range of adventure possible in this context at present, the adventure of having my current professor replaced by a Norwegian seems like one of the more interesting ones to embark on.

So there’s my $0.02 worth, with interest, on the state of affairs here. I’ll provide further updates as I learn more.  As always, comments and alternative perspectives are more than welcome.


Filed under Education, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Religion, Respectability