Thursday, April 30, 2015

On getting fatter (yup, you read that right): the advantages of unadulterated mass

Recently a friend directed my attention towards what he thought must surely be a typo in the post where I announced I was finishing maximal strength training to reorient my training towards shot putting (intensification mode), as at the end of the first paragraph it could be read my next training block would focus on “speed and explosiveness, and getting as fat as possible”, Sure, he thought, I meant “getting as fast as possible”, as nobody in his right mind would, in this “image culture” we live in, pretend to gain weight unless he were in dire risk of malnourishment and about to die of hunger (either after a bout of anorexia or just being rescued from a Somali prisoner camp).   

Well, I’ll share with you what I shared with him, as for reasons that will become apparent (and which will allow me to show some original artwork by yours truly, as many readers think my drawing abilities do not go any further than the stick figures I used in my analysis of the poser clean last year). There was no typo, and I really intend to gain some weight, and I do not give a damn how that affects my overall look.

First with the reasons for weighting more. Since I was a very young shot putter, being not specially big (fat), I have noticed the fatter throwers tend to do better, even when being distinctly weaker (as measured, for example, by how much they bench press). The conservation of momentum (also known as Newton’s first law, or “the principle of action and reaction”) niftily explains why: if we consider the thrower and the shot at rest, their momentum is zero. After the shot separates from the thrower, it has acquired a momentum that equals the product of its mass (16 pounds for the competition shot, 14 pounds for the masters' –above 50- I’m training with) by its velocity (let us call it v, non-capital). Now, as momentum can not appear from nowhere, the momentum acquired by the shot must be equal (and of opposite direction, momentum being a vectorial magnitude) to the momentum “lost” (or gained in that opposite direction) by the thrower, which in turn equals the mass of the thrower (a paltry 94 kilograms, or 207 pounds) by his velocity. The velocity of the thrower is damn hard to increase, and essentially is limited by how fast his muscles can contract (and the lever system formed by those bones involved in the throw, which we can assume are all and every single bone between the little toe and the upper cranium). Bone length (and muscle insertion points) can not change, and the speed at which muscles contract is largely genetic and, again, darned difficult to improve, so for the duration of a training cycle it is safe to consider it constant.

The length of the put (how far the shot goes), in turn, is dictated by the height from which it is launched (again, given a certain technique, which in my particular case is refined enough not to tinker with it, a constant), the angle (equally constant for a refined technique, around 36-39º above the horizontal) and the speed. Bingo! We have the variable we can more easily influence to launch farther: more speed, more length traveled until the shot hits the ground. Now, given the previously mentioned conservation of momentum, the momentum of the shot will be equal to the momentum of the thrower (in this case, me), which can be expressed as:

M * V = m * v

Where M is my mass (94 kilos)
V is the velocity with which I move backwards (and downwards) after launching the shot (for simplicity’s sake let’s say it’s 0,71 m/s)
M is the mass of the shot (7.257 kilograms, or 16 pounds)
v is the velocity of the shot (unknown)

So:                                                             v = V * M / m = 9.2 m/s

If we assume the shot is launched at a height of about 1.82 m (6 feet) which is roughly my height (it separates from the hand when the arm is fully extended and the hand is a tad above forehead level), that speed should take it slightly above 10 m, which roughly sounds about right (I hope to be above 12 meters now, hopefully above 13 and inching towards 14, but I haven’t measured properly yet, so this sounds we are still roughly in the ballpark)

By the way, if you want to know where the 10 m comes from (and also learn a bit about shot putting mechanics) I can not recommend highly enough this (relatively) recent article, where they also explain why the optimal angle is the aforementioned 36-39º instead of 45º, which is the standard optimal angle for ballistic movements: biomechanics of shot putting

Given that you can not modify the shot’s mass (its regulated and checked by the judges in every competition), and the recoil speed is the darnedest thing to improve (although I also try, hence all the sprinting, jumping, skipping and whatnot I do these days), let’s have a look at what would happen if, keeping both magnitudes constant, I just gained 5 kg; for starters, the speed at which the shot leaves the hand would become:

                                                                      V = 9.7 m/s

So those extra 5 kgs on my frame give me almost half a meter per second additional speed of the shot. Now let’s look at how further that means the shot will fly: 11.21 m!!! or almost 1.2 meters more, an improvement above 10%.

I could even fantasize with gaining 10 kg (which would put me in a far chubbier category), which, everything else being equal, would allow me to send the shot close to the 13 m mark without having to gain a iota of speed.

Going from a relatively lean 94 kg to 104 is no small potatoes, specially with an active lifestyle which includes the real deal when it comes to keeping weight off (heavy barbell training). I would need to stuff myself with the most calorically dense foods I could find, as many times a day as I could, and that is not something I want realistically to do (also, the effects of such overstuffing in other health indicators, from heart condition to joints and mobility, are too steep). I already had to fight an uphill battle to go from a somewhat scrawny 89-90 kg a year ago to my current 94, and I do not really feel like fighting it again.

I can now hear you crying: but what about the abz, Vintage! Having visible abs is the be all, end all of every fitness enthusiast these days, and nobody in his (even more her) right mind would risk hiding them under an unsightly layer of disgusting blob… Well, I will let you in a little secret that may save you from years of unnecessary slaving in the gym: the ladies just don’t care that much about abs (or about physical appearance, for that matter), and we guys are looking more and more like a bunch of obsessive compulsive morons fretting incessantly about the size, striations and vascularity of our muscles, which happen to attract the attention exactly of the 0.0001% of the population that attend regularly to the gym for similar pursuits (overwhelmingly composed by other males, btw, so not much for a heterosexual there to look after). I know, I know, young girls have already been educated in the lies of the fitness industry magazines (another piece of shocking news: those magazines are not paid by the cover price the readers disburse –that doesn’t even meet the distribution costs- but by the supplement industry which uses them as advertising channels to convince the unsuspecting public they would be better off consuming every kind of useless snake oil) and surely they appreciate a well-toned, slim manly body.

Let me put it in graphical terms, then (which doesn't mean I'm going to recur to profanities, but that I'm going to do some drawings to illustrate my point). Every slob that starts lifting and reaches a minimal level of proficiency (let’s say being able to squat with a weight equal to his body’s on his back, deadlift a tad above that and bench press three quarters of it) automatically starts seeing himself in the mirror like this:

It may be a case of mild vigorexy, the effect of additional testosterone in his bloodstream or the psychological impact of feeling able to better move and keep and upright posture, but that is not really how he has started to llok like; that same lad, with that modest level of achievement, is rather seen like that by the opposite sex (and by the discerning members of his own sex):

Bummer! You may say. But probably it’s because the numbers he has put up are not that impressive in the first place, and moving such lowly weights is not conductive to some serious muscular development. So you decide to embark on a longer, more serious journey of physical improvement where you increase day by day the weights you lift, and judiciously adjust the sets and reps and auxiliary exercises after the first linear gains have been exhausted to keep progressing no matter what. So after slaving it for a few years (forget about months, every program that tries to sell you noticeable body composition improvements in a few months is blatantly lying) you get to move some respectable weights: twice you bodyweight in the squat, twice and a half in the deadlift and one and a half in the bench press. Now you have some noticeable muscle in place, and if you have eaten judiciously and kept your body fat percentage below 20% (which shouldn’t be that difficult) you may be objectively getting closer and closer to our first figure (however, if it is visible abs you want the body fat has to drop below 10%, which is an order of magnitude tougher and not that healthy to begin with). However, and here comes the bad news, this is still not how the ladies are going to see you now. The feminine sex has a particular distortion in their visual organs (aka eyes) that makes them perceive most muscular males under this guise:

So it’s a heads you win, tails I loose proposition. If you are in the iron game to impress the opposite sex, you are always going to get caught between the Scylla of wimpy and the Charybdis of beast (like in beauty and the same, but without turning into a charming prince at the end). How do I know? When I was in what I considered to be the best shape of my life my own mother told me that with that broad back, protruding traps and bulging biceps I looked “gross and unbecoming”… if even a mother’s love can’t see through a moderate layer of muscle, do not even dream that the amused look of the chick in the treadmill when you proudly display your physique in the gym betrays any kind of sexual interest, but rather is a sign of her judgemental opinion of you being probably vain, shallow, self-centered and most likely uninteresting. And loose any fear of hiding those hard gained abs, nobody gives a damn about them anyway.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

After the Game of Chicken was (supposedly) over (what to do with Greece)

Wow, talk about your way of thinking being validated! After my last foray in the metaphysical realm, which culminated Yesterday with the end of my series about dualism in the XXIst Century (don’t jump ship yet! I swore I was finished and I am!) I had started writing an update on my series in the Greek tragedy, and when taking in my dose of good journalism in the GNoOT I find this piece of blatant plagiarism: The James Dean movie that explains the Greek debt negotiations A catchy headline, isn’t it? Just may be too reminiscing of this one, from yours truly: Playing a game of chicken with your country or may be this other one: The game of chicken final outcome

Not that I think that Mr. Neil Irwin actually read any of my posts two months ago, was dumbfounded by their brilliance and has bid his time until appropriating the idea (without giving me proper recognition), poor me. Just shows that memes are limited, and probably all the ones with even a minimal brand recognition and minuscule potential for pop culture cross reference are already in use. As it is, one of my recurrent nightmares lately is adroitly perusing the Internet a few hours before having to publicly defend my dissertation (which I hope happens soon enough) and discovering with horror some obscure publication from a few years ago that contains all the arguments I have painfully developed over the best part of the last six years…

Now back to the matter at hand, the Greek negotiations seem again close to a standstill (you may remember two months ago they were greeted as the second coming, when I already branded them as a piece of irrelevant skullduggery whose only achievement was to kick the can down the road for a couple of months, and barely buying time until the next big payment came due, which happens to be right about now) and the markets are panicking again at the prospect of a Grexit, a Greccident or even a controlled default without Greece leaving the euro (a Grefault?). Panicking up to a point, that is, as equities are not as down as they were in February, when it seemed no agreement was possible between the newly elected Greek government and the Troika.

Time then to revisit how my predictions have stood the test of time (no biggie they have been mostly validated, predicting the obvious in the short term has no special merit) and dust off the old crystal ball to give some hint about how things may develop. But first a nod to my friend Yannis Varoufakis, the “erratic Marxist” (in his own words), which has been demoted as head negotiator of the Greek government to be substituted by the deputy foreign affairs minister Euclid Tsakalotos (which will need the analytic capabilities of his original namesake to be able to find the straightest way out of the current mess –knowing full well the difference between a theorem and the axioms it is derived from, btw). His sacking may have temporarily increased the price (and decreased the yield) of Greek bonds, but sympathetic observers like me will miss his gumption (even if his infamous photograph disrespectfully showing his middle finger was fake, it is already revealing it could be considered legit).

What I said back then could be equally said now: no country can be asked to keep a primary surplus of 4.5% as long as the eye can see. Want proof? Let’s take a look at the German (those paragons of uprighty fiscal virtue!) deficits of the last 9 years:

Even now, when the rest of the world (and their own citizens) are paying the state money to keep their savings (with negative yields their creditors essentially accept to be paid back less than what they advanced in exchange for the supposed security the German state provides them with) and with their economy “expanding” (I have to use quotes as the sclerotic societies of Europe are not capable of much expansion) they can’t go much higher than 0.7% surplus, in a society with a super-healthy tax base, with virtually no tax evasion and a culture of transparence and trustworthiness. Expecting Greece, with its culture of tax dodging (from the super-rich to the everyday public servant), its insufficient means of fiscal enforcement and its lack of adequate record-keeping (even real state is thoroughly subject to dispute) to generate a surplus (even after excluding debt payments) of 4.5% never had any chance of happening.
But of course, you may say, that is precisely the state of things that has to be changed, and the only way to change them, to jerk the Greek electorate out of their complacency and their systematic acquiescence to be fooled by a political class that for decades has been telling them they could have many things in exchange for nothing and that painful choices (bread or circus?) could be postponed indefinitely. And the only way to affect such change is supposed to be to force austerity upon them until they renounce their wayward ways and accept that living frugally and within their means is the only way to economic bliss? Well, sorry to break the news to any bozo that thinks economy is a morality play (which unfailingly consider him/ herself to be in the side of virtue, and thus deserving only rewards, whilst is always other country/ race/ class who deserves to be punished by their sins), but no economy has ever, in the whole history of the human species, reformed itself through fiscal prudence imposed from outside. Conquest, plunder, pillaging, raids by external enemies that razed the villages and escaped with booty and enslaved populations have historically shown some promise in forcing societies to change their mores and become more prudent, increase their productivity and be more forward-looking (to escape from the miseries of the present?) and less lazy (the lazy tend to be overrepresented between the massacred). But the threat of devaluation? Not much of an incentive.

Want proof that living beyond one’s means is so deeply embedded in modern statecraft there is a whole school of economics devoted to its justification? Look no further than the current dominant center of the World-System, the almighty USoA. Except for the small blip of the second Clinton presidency, they have been in deficit for most of my adult life, and intend to be until the Sun becomes a red giant and Earth is obliterated (give or take a few years):

Of course, that has created a whole subspecies of political pundit, the “deficit scold” that specializes in predicting the “debasement of the dollar”, the loss of confidence of international investors and runaway inflation any day now if there is not a drastic course correction and the deficit is immediately curbed (usually through savage cuts to the “less favored” segments of society –the growing number of outright paupers in one of the world’s most opulent societies- which happen to belong disproportionally to a race different from that of the pundit)… my point being that continued deficits do not seem to imperil the well being of a polity to the point we are led to believe by some. And the protestations to the contrary normally are tinged with more than a scent of certain type of “morality” that sees as unacceptable any redistribution to “those people”, but doesn’t have any qualm to funnel as many funds as needed to much costlier (and less justifiable on ethical grounds) military operations and equipment.   

So back to my original point, threatening Greece with an impossible to meet condition of fiscal balance is not likely to be of much help inducing them to reform, and the condition never made much sense in the first place, so I would expect it to be substantially relaxed in any scenario of the current impasse resolution.

Of course, the Troika knows it, and the only reason they keep it nominally on the table is because it is their main bargaining chip, what they will in the end offer for Tsipras and his boys to show their electorate. The real leverage they have (and it is a mighty leverage) is the “power of the purse”. If Greece tries to gain the concession of a lower surplus target too cheaply, they can always threaten to stop sending money their way, condemning them to default, amid an ugly chaos of bank failures, (increased) capital flight, if there is some capital left in the country and most likely currency change (as they would be forced out of the euro). After that there would be massive devaluation, which (may be) would cause a significant competitiveness gain, and potentially a rebound of economic activity, returning to the path of economic growth. Of course, nobody knows exactly how it would play out: how deep would be the chaos, what the impact in the normal functioning of society would be (lights going off, surgeries not being performed, schools not opening as the public sector sorted out who was being paid and how much…), how long would it take for the new (or old) currency to take hold, how much would the economy contract (further and atop an approximate fall of around 20% due to austerity in the last five years), how long it would take for the inevitable economic recovery after the slump and how robust would that recovery be (when would the Greek economy recover its pre-crisis level). No wonder the Greeks are scared shitless of being thrown out of the euro, but the rest of Europe shouldn’t be too complacent; as Varoufakis said, “everybody that thinks he knows what the consequences of a Greek exit would be is being delusional”.

Because after that Grexit it would have become abundantly clear to any creditor that the euro is an artificial construct with clay feet, and that a euro in a Portuguese bank is by no means the same as a euro in a German bank (as it was not definitely the same as a euro in a Greek bank, which happened to be converted into drachmas without the poor creditor being able to do much about it). Think for a moment what that would do to the interest rates in all the periphery countries, that have grown for a couple decades since the introduction of the common currency thanks to being awarded the same interest rates as Germany…

So the Greeks have some leverage after all. If they default it will be mayhem and havoc, do not pay heed to analysts telling you that most of the Greek debt is nowadays in the hands of institutional investors that can take the hit of writing it off without serious impact to their balances. It is not the Greek debt that matters, it’s the chain of Irish, Portuguese, Spanish (Italian? French?) debt that would immediately demand a much higher yield in return for the (rightly so) perceived risk of holding it, given the Greek precedent, that would in turn send their economies, not yet fully recovered from 2008, in a tailspin that would make their anemic growth of the last two years look like a skyrocketing ascent.  

This is why, regardless of what the bookies say (some betting parlors in London have stopped taking bets against Greece, as the odds were already considered by the market to be so overwhelmingly against it) I still think it more likely than not that an agreement will be reached. It speaks poorly of the negotiators' abilities they have not been able to do so yet (sorry Yannis, I’m throwing you under the bus here), the overall shape of such agreement being quite evident for some time now: the Troika will relax the primary surplus target (to something in the vicinity of 0.5-1.5% of GDP) and Greece will commit to a mildly unpopular program of continued austerity (even that reduced surplus target is not going to leave them much elbow room) that will be made more palatable to the electorate with some more or less populist morsels (from raising taxes to the super rich to allowing for some increase in pensions, public sector salaries or public sector jobs). It is funny that what foreigners perceive as one of the easiest measures to adopt for a leftist party, the hardening of the laws against tax evasion and the closure of loopholes and deductions to increase the fiscal receipts, has been so far pursued in the faintest, less enthusiastic way. I wonder if it may have to do with tax evasion being centered, in most countries (but not in Greece), in the upper classes of society, whilst in the Hellenic republic it is so widespread between all classes of society that it is not seen by the have-nots as a measure to recover what those that have owe them, but as an unalloyed danger.

Now the really big question is, would that be the end of the story? I’m afraid not, as we are well beyond the AAOS point (when All Available Options Suck). No matter how lenient the troika ends up being with the surplus target, the Greeks are not going to comply with it. It may happen in one year, two years, three at most, but their economy is simply structurally unable, given their current productivity level, to compete internationally at the current prices. They do have a monopoly over sights of the Acropolis, the Piraeus and the Aegean islands, but the rents they are able to extract from those have an upper limit, and a dwindling one at that (there being so many competing sights in the world, at more affordable prices). They would need decades to regain the productivity needed to have a viable (from the economic standpoint) society, probably rewriting the social compact in the process. Much before that it will become apparent they only adopted half the “structural” measures agreed, they will keep on failing to meet the planned budgets and their cash needs will keep coming in much higher than expected, and we will need to replay this sorry play all over again. After they ensure enough cash for the transition, they should freely choose to leave the euro and look for their best interest outside the EU (by the way, so should Spain, Portugal and most likely Italy). But the post euro future of the periphery of Europe, and the re-ignition of the political project after the madness of its subordination to a failed economical one deserve a post of its own. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Sketch of a dualist metaphysics for the XXIst Century – Part III and last (I swear)

For the last couple of posts I have been groping (sometimes painfully slowly, I reckon) towards the sketch of the title by highlighting the problems I saw with the (overwhelmingly) dominant understanding of what constitutes reality, and I essentially dispatched the most traditional objections to the alternative I was about to present, reducing them to an appeal to the alleged existence of alternative explanations, which upon close examination resulted not to explain at all the kind of phenomena I will argue constitute an (almost) entirely separate class from purely material ones. So we have developed, thanks to the Scientific Method, a wonderful understanding of how the material world behaves (a material world which includes a substantial part of ourselves, but which I am ready to argue does not include one hundred per cent of what we are), but that method, awe inspiring and a source of unlimited pride as it is, has precious little to tell us about the possible existence of some additional elements of reality that are as “real” (in the double sense of observer independent and internally consistent –i.e. non contradictory, as is well known a contradiction can be considered equally independent of who is contemplating it and in traditional logic allows the derivation of any consequence) as the ones we can measure and weight, which occupy space and are affected (and have the potential to change) by time, the ones that have a number of properties that interact in predictable ways with our senses, or with measuring devices that greatly enhance what our senses can tell us about them (we’ve mentioned mass and volume, we could add electric charge, spin and, at quark level, “color”). All I’m saying is that we have developed wonderful tools (both conceptual and practical) to understand and predict how matter behaves, and that success has led our civilization to dictate that matter is all there is, problems and lacunae left by that approach be damned. But that is like the drunkard looking for his keys under the proverbial lamp post, just because there is more light there, regardless of where he actually may have lost them. We happen to have more “light” (the light of reason, in a very enlightened metaphor, if I may be forgiven for such a lame pun) in our understanding of the material world, in our ability to predict what is going to happen to “stuff”, and thus we confidently declare that such world exhausts all there is to know, and that such predictions constitute all there is to say if we do not want to descend into non-scientific (non-reputable, non-social-prestige-conferring) blabber.

So having devoted two long posts (here and here, for those of you disinclined to navigate inside the blog, or reading this from outside) to try to gain some reputation back for the possibility of non-material aspects of reality, I am finally going to spell out what properties that kind of reality may have, and only towards the end of that post I will tackle with the difficulty posed by the fourth argument against dualism (M.4). For a change of pace, I’ll write it in aphoristic mode:

SD1.1 The Material Universe (MU) was designed: Its properties (total amount of energy, gravitational constant, Planck constant, decay time of protons, electric charge of the electron, speed of light, etc.) were devised by a Mind (M) which is not itself part of that MU:      

(read as: There is a Mind which is not equal to the Material Universe AND a Mind which does not belong to Material Universe so that Material Universe implies Mind)

SD1.2 Our prima facie impression of existing as free agents capable of having intuitions (of mathematical truths between others) and of acting of our own accord is not an illusion, we truly are, we truly perceive, we truly decide, and that perception and decision require a non material substance to happen, which we will call Individual Mind (IM):  

(there are multiple Individual Minds so that for each one of them it is not true that they belong to Material Universe)

SD1.2.1 As no currently existing IM has a substantiated claim to having created MU, there is (or was, as far as we know such Mind may not exist any more) a separate M that did it:

(there is a Mind distinct from every Individual Mind which is implied by the existence of the Material Universe)

SD1.2.2 There are multiple really existing IM’s:   

(for every Individual Mind i there is at least another Individual Mind k so that the existence of the first implies the existence of the second AND they are not equal)

Basically that’s it, that’s what (I humbly am led to believe) we can infer from both the configuration of reality and our own phenomenological unfiltered experience: the Universe was designed (by a non-material entity existing outside from it), and our feeling of being a separate entity from the matter that surrounds us is real (we are minds, and being a mind requires a non-material substrate), and both facts are related. The first confirms that matter is not all that there is, and the second, comprised of being able to feel, attach value to what we perceive, and choose between different courses of action, all of them being actions that we can not imagine matter doing, gives us a strong hint that may be we also are (partially) a non-material entity. For simplicity’s sake, I’m assuming both substrates (the one that the entity that created the Universe in the first place was made of and the one we identify everyday by having experiences that matter can not have) are equivalent, and calling them “minds”. I’m not claiming that clears everything, and after such astoundingly unoriginal result we can close the book of Metaphysics and consider all its ages long discussions finished. I’ll have more to say in a moment about how those “minds” interact with matter (hint: it’s complicated) and what additional properties we can assign to them (hint: not many), but I would like to spend a moment first dispelling a few likely misunderstandings.

First of them, I’m not sure about the validity of conflating those minds I think we are warranted to consider as “really existing” with the traditional concept of “soul”, at least if we think of that soul as a timeless reality which somehow can exist outside of the body, has full control over it, survives its demise and is afterwards either rewarded or punished forever for its behavior. Second, the acceptance of the Universe being designed (and thus the acceptance of a mind that designed it) does not necessarily imply the acceptance of the tenets of faith of some revealed religion or other. A mind created the Universe, allrighty, but that doesn’t automatically mean that such mind is still around, or that it has dictated how we should behave in a book centuries old whose meaning has somehow survived unscathed through the countless evolutions of concepts and systems of interpretation that have afflicted every other creation of the human spirit (and that for some reason seems more involved with how we should dress, what we should eat or with whom we should have sex than with how we should organize our society or what kind of respect should we show towards the Natural world). I’m not claiming either that those additional deductions would be entirely illegitimate, but I see them as much less warranted than the ones I’ve formulated about the existence of minds distinct from our own, and not entirely dependant on their material basis).

For the record, I do believe that the original mind that created the Universe is still around (being powerful enough to create a vast and complex Universe like ours, immortality, or just standing outside of the passing of time, seems like small potatoes), and that having organized things so we came into existence, being sentient, and intelligent (or aspiring to be so), and free was an act of love which warrants our belief in the overall goodness of such mind, and that such goodness, when conjoined with the universe-creating power before mentioned allows us to believe that we will also be granted more life, and a fuller life, than the one we can enjoy whilst tied to this material substrate, subject to the 2nd law of thermodynamics (unavoidably subject to corruption and decay). But I also recognize those beliefs are clouded by hope and by desire, desire for a fairer, more just world, where the multiple wrongs and injustices we contemplate daily in this one may be corrected. I couldn’t claim for those beliefs a level of certainty similar to the one I have for statements SD1.1 to SD1.2.2, and in no way would I pretend to impose them on anybody else, or proselytize about them being myself so uncertain.

Let’s get back, then, to those humbler statements, and how they could resist the encounter with the opposite argument we still had to tackle, M.4, or the problem of the evident influence of the physical state of a certain part of the material world (the brain) in that substance postulated as separate and different (the mind). Keeping to the basics, I stated in SD1.2 that the justification for postulating the existence of our own mind as separate from the rest of the material universe was threefold:

·         we could perceive (not just apprehend aspects of the material world through our senses, but additionally to realize that we are apprehending them, we have the ability to “perceive ourselves in the act of perceiving”, to self-referentially notice our own conscience in the act of being conscious),

·         we could assign value to what we perceived (so it was not just marked by its “intensionality”, using Brentano’s words, but also and most crucially by its “mattering to us”, of being important in reference to our very particular an impossible to interchange with any other self, regardless of what any other could think of that) and

·         we could decide (which, if it is not an illusion as monists have been massively forced to believe, just invalidates the whole chain of causation which supposedly runs unbroken from the Big Bang to whatever the final fate end of the Universe ends up being)   

You may have noticed that all three barely justify postulating a different substance, as you may ascribe all three capabilities to everyday matter (if being termed a hylozoist or a panpsychist, a moral objectivist and an indeterminist does not scare you). I just think it is more economical, given the limited instances we see of those behaviors happening (or seeming to happen), to recur to this separate substance only in this case, and thus define only persons as participating of it.

So if we settle on a different type of entity (mind, the old res cogitans) preferring it to the alternatives (either all matter thinks, and lucky us when it is configured in a brain that thinking becomes self conscious, or no matter thinks, and our conscience is an illusion) nothing prevents us to propose whatever functional dependencies we see fit between that type and matter. Minds may require brains to develop their potential. They may very well depend on the neural configuration within our skull to interact with the rest of the universe, to learn, to store their own experiences, to execute mechanical calculations, even to run those parts of their everyday functioning that can be translated into algorithms (something I have the hunch constitutes a much smaller percentage of mental activity than what proponents of strong AI would like to think), thus creating the impression (entirely justified and real) of an unconscious part of the mind which works following purely mechanistic rules, entirely supported by material circuits made of neurons and neurotransmitters, and affected by the delicate chemical balance within our skull (and adjacent parts). If the neural machinery starts malfunctioning (be it by trauma, injury, lack of nourishment, outright neglect or simple old age) the mind shrivels and withers, and may completely cease functioning in a process that can be as gradual or as sudden as the changes in its bodily support.

Now, you may say, what is the difference between such a (heavily dependant on its bodily “vessel”) mind and the purely physical mind of the monists? Aren’t you just taking those features of the mind that the physical sciences still can not account for and ascribing them to a shadowy entity (“the mind”) which happens to have by definition all the “mindy” features you could not explain otherwise? How is that watered down dualism different from the “double aspect monism” postulated by Polkinghorne and the like? (for the record, I see also some merit on Polkinghorne’s approach, and he treads more water from his monism than me from my dualism, as he sees it as a precondition for the future resurrection of the body in which he believes with more apparent conviction than I). All valid concerns, for which I’m afraid there is no definitive answer, other than my dualism allows me to do some predictions that monism would have difficulties defending:

·         Contrary to what many people would have you believe, we will not see any AI “appearing” in our lifetime (or in anybody else’s lifetime, for that matter). Intelligence is non algorithmic, dependant on a peculiar substance (that mysterious mindstuff) we do not know how to replicate, or to bind to any artificial contraption. We will see computers doing more and more wonderful things, and replacing more and more human capabilities, but we will never (a strong word) make them care about anything (we do not even know how to start with that one!) or (as it is necessarily a non-algorithmical event) recognizing that it has finally understood a theorem (although in that particular case it can already do the next best thing, which is “prove” it in a limited number of steps from a well defined set of initial axioms)

·         Due to the possibility of minds breaking the chain of causation, we will not see the consolidation of any “science of the Spirit” with any actual predictive power. Psychology will keep on being a hodgepodge of heuristic rules and tautological assertions that are either commonsense and self evident or abstruse to the point of becoming unfalsifiable, or outright false. Ditto for Economics. If the litmus test of those “Sciences” is becoming something similar to Asimov’s “psychohistory” able to predict precisely the evolution both of individuals and of society, sorry but it is not gonna happen

·         As the person is made by the conjunction of body and mind, and we know only how to treat the ailments of the first part, knowing very little (after all those centuries, what a shame), every attempt to substantially increase the life expectancy of advanced societies is doomed to fail woefully short. I’m standing on one leg here, as nothing I’ve presented so far indicates that the influence of the body on the mind can run the other way also, and I’m extremely, extremely skeptical of every claim that it is so (all those pseudo medicines that become periodically fashionable under the label of “holistic medicine”, and which unfailingly are exposed for those who know how to see as quackery of the worst species). However, I would be surprised if the mind would not also become frailer with time, and ended compromising the capability of the body to keep going

·         At some point in the near future, when the deceleration of technological progress sinks in (unless we really get rid of the current way of organizing society, a.k.a. capitalism, which lays at the root of such deceleration) and we realize we have failed in both the development of AIs (the singularity of Kurzweil & Co), the effective lengthening of human lifespan (the prediction of everybody living beyond 300 years, or nay such ludicrous figure), and the deciphering of human behavior, we may even consider that particular phase of our History characterized by the consideration of reality as being formed exclusively by matter as finally over (and may then transition to a more “Ideational” culture, in Sorokin’s terms, probably in some new center distinct from the one ruling world destinies today)

So there you are. For each of those predictions that get disproved I’ll seriously reconsider my current dualistic stance (maybe with the exception of the third one, as I'm not really that sure about it in the first place), and if all four prove to be wrong, I’ll admit monism is the most serious contender for a full description of what is “really out there”. Now, I’ll finish with a question for all of my readers (which are most likely monist, as the vast majority of the denizens of these enlightened times are wont to be). If (hopefully many, many years from now) you find yourself in your last throes and remember this crusty old post, and discover much to your surprise and unlikely as you thought that was, that all my four predictions are still standing… will you reconsider your materialist monism then? If you answer in the affirmative, all the friggin’ time I’ve devoted to writing this series will have been well spent.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sketch of a dualist metaphysics for the XXIst Century – Part II

If instead of trying to organize an engineering firm I wrote scripts for TV shows for a living, after my last post I would let a week or two pass without mentioning it, dealing with more mundane matters (the prospects of a Grexit, which is keeping me busy lately, or the adjustments in my training routine derived from the fact that I spend too much friggin’ time writing blog posts and too little actually training) to build my readers’ (all two of them) expectations… but I’m not, and I really like the subject, and I’m of the opinion that in most of life’s endeavors, you gotta hammer the iron while it’s still hot, so in this post I’ll complete the sketch of the title, presenting an alternative to the dominant ontology of our modern world. As unfashionable and outside the mainstream as it may sound, I am going to defend that it makes more sense, even for a scientific point of view, to consider that there are two kinds of “substance” out there, and that both make equally part of the fabric of reality: a material one and a “cognizant” one, which is decidedly immaterial (more about it later on).

Now such a contrarian position, to have a minimum of credibility, should not just counter the four arguments against dualism I advanced in my previous post, namely:

·         M.1 – The explanation of more and more aspects of reality in entirely material terms

·         M.2 – The explanation of more and more aspects of our mental life in similarly material terms

·         M.3 – The positing of a plausible explanation of how those same aspects of our mental life came to be that excludes any non material entity (that is, through the theory of evolution)

·         M.4 – The influence on physical and chemical conditions surrounding the brain in purely mental states (from drugs to illness and injury directly affecting how we feel, how we think and how we act)

But it should also be able to defend itself against the five arguments against monism (as if it succumbs to some or all of them it is not really helping us much, is it?):

·         D.1 – Why the Universe seems so precisely fine-tuned

·         D.2 – How life originated (so fast)

·         D.3 – Why we have qualia (why we are conscious)

·         D.4 – The nature of mathematical truths

·         D.5 – Why reality is rational (or why we can understand it to such a deep level)

We can dispose of those five right away and without great effort: the universe is fine-tuned because it was actually designed by a mind with the ability to translate its design into something actually existing. A pretty clever one, by the way. Quoting from Hume (somebody you wouldn’t expect to see invoked for such an argument) “a purpose, a design, an intent is evident everywhere you look” (a pity Natural Theologians like William Paley got too hung up on the biological world towards the end of the XVIII and the beginning of the XIX centuries, so when an alternative was found for that particular kind of apparent design –the Theory of Evolution- all the rest of Nature’s “designish” features, from the movement of Earth at precisely the right distance of the Sun to its light tilt to allow for recurring seasons and a plus on adaptability to a changing environment, were hastily forgotten). The designer that conceived and put into place the ordered cosmos we live in included in its blueprint the material conditions for organic life to develop, in such a way as to be able to evolve in all its wondrous complexity from the simplest origins. Such life, after millions of years of evolution refined complex structures (central nervous systems with enough possible configurations) as to somehow –in a process we barely comprehend, and more about that later- bind with a totally different aspect of reality that until the appearance of those nervous systems had laid unused, or uninstantiated, namely conscience, or in Cartesian terms, res cogitans. One of the features of those consciences is that they can, through a non sensory based capability (let us call it for now intuition) identify and experiment a kind of non material truth, aka mathematics (which of course are “discovered”, as they are independently “out there”, and would be even if there were no conscious beings to perceive them; I have always found the idea that mathematical concepts are “constructed” or “built”, and that different intelligent beings could construct a set of mathematics entirely different from ours’ utterly preposterous). There is only one kind of “cognizing substance”, as there is only one logic, one way of (correctly) identify mathematical truth and one Reason. It may be that, finite beings as we are, we can not know it fully, but our cognizant part participates in the nature of the “mind” that designed and created everything (I could spend a little time explaining why it could only be One, and not Many, but I trust my readers to be able to achieve such simple feat of logic all by themselves), so we can reason (partially, and more slowly, and clouded with uncertainty, and sometimes befuddled by doubt, but the essential way of working necessarily has to be the same) as the Designer reasoned (damn, that is exactly what “reasoning” consists in, sharing in the universal and only valid Reason), so there is no surprise in the fact that we can deeply understand reality. As Stephen Hawking famously said (when he was a clearer thinker, well within his domain of Physics, and was not bamboozled by a hack like Mlodinow in writing bad Metaphysics like the whole sorry mess that is The Grand Design): when we finally devise a “Grand (unified or not) Theory of Everything” we will understand the mind of God, as that is exactly what revealing the functioning of Nature consists in: in gaining a deeper insight of what He was thinking when he did the Original Design, in getting at a clearer picture of the Simple and Elegant rules he put in place. That is why the rules are simple and elegant in the first place, because they are the product of a mind, and not a haphazard collection of regularities that just happened to materialize from nowhere. A simplicity and elegance, by the way, that are entirely impossible to substantiate within the domain of Science…

It may be argued that by positing a mind with the ability to create the whole Universe I’m not explaining anything, but rather putting it beyond any possible explanation, as that almighty designer could have chosen to design things in an entirely different way, and the argument would serve equally well as a justification for that (those statements that are valid not matter what things turn out to be can be safely considered to lack any explanatory power or, in Popperian terms, being unfalsifiable, not to belong to the domain of Science). I do not intend for a moment to present this thinkings as scientific (hell, that’s why it is called “metaphysics” in the first place: “beyond physics”, for those of you Greek illiterate). I will only note that postulating a single substance and declaring that is all that there is and every possible alternative is “magical thinking”, “appealing to the big fairy in the sky”, “conjuring the patriarchal, vengeful and archaic image of an authoritarian father on steroids” and any such nonsense we hear every time the monist consensus is challenged is just as metaphysical as everything I’ve been speaking so far. There is no way to identify Science “from within” with how it should discourse, and what is a valid concern and what not. Science can not dictate to itself that it has to prefer the most parsimonious explanation (aka Occam Razor, as much as I agree with it), or that the simplest, most elegant formulation is to be preferred. So all I’m saying is Science itself has given us very reasonable grounds to doubt a thoroughly materialistic explanation of reality can ever be complete or convincing, and the reason it looks so (in the eyes of certain very specific “public intellectuals” with very specific agendas that push them to be specially biased in this regard) is because the dominant reason (empathically not with capital “R”) has blinded us towards the implications of some discoveries, and favored the emphasis on other ones, as those enabled the whole of society to focus more single mindedly their energies towards the production and (increasingly unequal) distribution of strictly material goods. Hell, I do not even claim to be original in that statement, as somebody as free from any doubt of secret theist sympathies as Tom Nagel has argued pretty much the same in his recent Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong (which has been greeted with a fascinating mixture of horror, dismay and panic from the ivory tower of most academic philosophers, convinced as they are almost to a man that any question of the basest materialism could only come from unenlightened bigots, fundamentalist snake oil salesmen and new age besotted potheads)…

So I hope I have convinced the skeptical reader there is a case to be made for an alternative to monism without belonging to any of the previous categories, and without loosing one’s scientific bona fides. But after confirming that the objections to monism (D.1 to D.5) do not affect dualism (indeed, that dualism is the only possible answer to those objections, raised in the first place by the deep understanding of reality that Science has enabled) we still have to answer the four original  arguments against dualism (M.1 to M.4), if we do not want to retreat into an unbridled skepticism and conclude that we can not know anything for sure about ultimate realities, and that at the end of the day every statement we advance on that field may be equally proved false. The first one (M.1) we can dispatch without much effort: we have gotten better in the last four centuries explaining the evolution of the natural world in purely material terms. Or rather of parts of the material world (what comes under the label “classical view”), as other critics have noted how some interpretations of the most advanced physics challenge some basic assumptions of that explanation that would allow for a much enhanced role on it of “non materially caused” agencies. At the most fundamental level we still do not know how to explain the collapse of the wave function of any phenomena under observation, or can tell much of the nature of matter (that ultimate bastion of materialism!) below the Planck scale, or even decide if time is real and space is an illusion (as the phenomena of quantum nonlocality would suggest) or the other way around. Not to get too technical here, let us leave it at this: even if we reached a complete and coherent explanation of every and all physical events (something that is in no way guaranteed, but which gives rise to some pretty interesting speculations), that would not preclude the existence of realities beyond the physical.

A similar argument can be applied to the second group of arguments: we know how some parts of our mental lives depend on their physical substrate, and we even have some (just so) stories about how they came to be. They by no means exhaust the totality of the realm of the mental; just to name a few, we are pretty clueless about how memories are formed, manipulated and retrieved, and every time I read a piece of news in the paper about how “scientists (they are always termed so, although by the content of the experiments sometimes they deserve more to be called “quacks”) implant memories/ read memories/ improve our understanding of how memories are formed in mice/ worms/ men/ bacteria” I feel like suing them for duplicitous advertising, as nothing of the sort has happened. Likewise, we have not advanced much beyond Hume’s ideas on what makes us consider something worthy, or attach value to it (for him it has to do with the amount of pleasure or pain we expected to derive from it, which he in turn inherited from Locke and Hobbes), which seems to be a huge part of what makes us both conscious and intelligent, and we have not yet even started to fathom how to replicate such fueature in an artificial substrate (I would dare to guess that it explains much why AI has advanced so little after a few promising starts: it has much more to do with “minding” about things that with recognizing patterns, the only reason we are so besotted with the latter is because we seem to have finally learned how to algorithmize it). So we tend to publicize a lot the (comparatively few) aspects of the mind we understand enough as to replicate them (or what we understand to be their main features, we may be even getting that little entirely wrong) whilst we conveniently paper over the myriad things we are clueless about. It may be argued that that’s how science works, and we will be knowing more and more about the “mind”, as we have been knowing more and more about atoms, stars, heat, electromagnetic waves and living organisms in general. Maybe, maybe not, I’ll just say that I’m so far utterly unimpressed with the much vaunted advances of “neuroscience” (I tend to see 99% of it, stealing a term from Raymond Tallis, rather as “neurobabble”) and that I not see further advances as making any significant dent in my opinion on the whole field.

Of course, thinking we haven’t got any good explanation of mental phenomena I could hardly concede I am satisfied with the origin of such explanations. But even if 100% of our conscious experiences were fully accounted for by the measurable changes experimented by our neurons (a pretty odd idea if you come to think about it, but one that has undoubtedly come to be the overwhelming consensus in today’s world) I do not feel that finding a plausible story on how that state of events came to be would add to it a iota of force. I’m perfectly fine with the Theory of evolution as a catchall explanation for all the biological phenomena of the world (that already points to a troubling feature of such theory: it has a peculiar epistemic status all of its own, as it makes precious few quantifiably falsifiable predictions that would allow its refinement, or the choice between its competing alternatives), I just do not see how having an explanation for the complexity of the material aspects of life has anything to do with the possibility of it having some additional (nonmaterial) aspect attached, other than we have to accept such “additional aspect” could not have evolved. Which would be perfectly fine, unless we reject the possibility of anything that has anything at all to do with living beings not to be the product of evolution. That is indeed the default position of most philosophers that talk of such issues, but come to think about it, it is a totally unwarranted belief. To begin with, the plante we live in, which has more than a little to do with us, is not the product of (biological) evolution. Neither is the Sun, or the Moon. If we need an example closer to home, entirely in the mental realm, we can think about the number pi, which is a definitely nonmaterial entity which I would defend is not the product of evolution either. The philosophers I’ve mentioned would have you believe pi is just a byproduct of certain neuronal configuration that you happen to have, and as such it is a product of evolution as much as your opposable thumb, but as I’ve already mentioned, that is pretty odd: “your” pi happens to be exactly the same pi as your neighbour’s (or, for what it’s worth, mine). I firmly believe that if an advanced civilization were to evolve in a planet around Rigel-9 (of which we may never have any notice) they would sooner or later develop the concepts of circumference, radius, and ratio between both that would end up being “our” very same pi, how could it be otherwise? That’s why I said that mathematical concepts are “discovered”, not “constructed”, or “created”, and why by the end of the day I do not have a problem assuming that the biological forms we call human bodies, product of evolution from much lowlier forms of life, do not exhaust what human beings are, as for that you need to add to the evolved body a (possibly non evolved, or at least partly non evolved, although more about that later) mind, capable of conscience, of self awareness, and of free choice (not uninfluenced, choice, mind you, so it is a partial freedom we are talking about here, again more on that later on).

Now I will admit that the fourth group of arguments is the toughest nut to crack, as I myself have struggled with the devastating reality of the mind decaying in parallel with the body of a loved one, and have to admit that when the body ceases to function, the mind for all we know ceases to manifest itself (and when the body is either impaired or enhanced, the mind is similarly affected). So, given how far we’ve come, I’ll leave the answer to that argument (and a bit more on the features of that nondescript, generic mind I’ve been talking about so far) for the next post!