Truth in the Court Jester’s Barbs — (plus a positive interview with Noam Chomsky)

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by Neil Godfrey

Probably most readers here long before now have seen the video below (Piers Morgan interviewing Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef on the current Israeli response in Gaza to the Hasbut I love it so much I want to display it here, too.

I confess to being a little taken aback by Ben Shapiro’s justification of the mass bombing of civilians (Dresden, Tokyo, Nagasaki …) by the Allies. I had long thought (after talking with some from that generation, including one who belonged to a bomber crew over Dresden) that “we” looked back on that kind of vengeful barbarism with some guilt and shame. Certainly not some kind of “tragic necessity”. Still naive after all these years.

As for Piers Morgan insisting in the above show that he had never spoken of “decapitated babies”, the following demonstrate that his memory failed him at that moment: Continue reading “Truth in the Court Jester’s Barbs — (plus a positive interview with Noam Chomsky)”

Knowledge, Belief — and How Humans Work

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by Neil Godfrey

The third post on Black Box Site addresses the difference between Knowledge and Belief. That’s a question I have sprinkled across various posts here so again I read Blackmun’s thoughts with particular interest.

Some key takeaways (at least for me):

. . . those who held their beliefs with greater persistence also tended to have more activity in the brain’s amygdala, which is involved in threat perception and anxiety, as well as in the insular cortex, which deals with emotions. In other words, a threat to belief tended to be perceived as an emotionally charged personal threat. As one of the researchers involved, Jonas Kaplan, put it in a press release for the experiment: “Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong. To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.

. . . .

Further, unlike knowledge, a belief can be held with what seems to be absolute certainty, though that certainty is in itself a belief.

. . . .

However, knowledge is also adaptive, with mistaken conclusions (which must be tentative in any case) always subject to correction by new evidence or better understanding; while a particular belief, whether true or false, is essentially static, a thing that is assumed to be true, but never truly examined (though it might eventually be replaced by another belief – also unexamined). In other words, knowledge can steadily advance and improve, while belief, due its very nature, cannot.

I think back to the time I was moving out of mainstream religion into the thought-world of what at the time I was beginning to “believe” was a “true church” that held “the truth”. There was one moment when I innocently asked the question: “To what extent does God expect me, a student with a heavy work load, to keep Sunday holy?” I opened the package they sent me by way of an answer. I read the title of the main booklet: Which Day is the Christian Sabbath? Why was the cover title alone enough to make my heart sink? I “knew” that if I opened the booklet and read it that I would find “incontrovertible arguments” that the seventh day, Saturday (not Sunday), was the “true sabbath”. I “believed” before I even turned to the first page that what was contained in it “was true”. I felt ill because I did not want to be joining some sect or cult, and that’s what keeping Saturday would look like to others. In retrospect I can see something that I surely rationalized at the time — that I believed before I even read the arguments. The notion that I ought to step back and genuinely, objectively be open to opposing arguments or an analysis of the booklet’s rhetoric that demonstrated its psychological manipulations was simply non-existent. By the time I did read opposing arguments I was already more than capable of “shooting them down in flames”.

Even less did I think to seriously reflect on the emotional and mental processes that had led me to that point where I “believed” this particular church was “true”.

There were times when I did struggle to find the evidence I was looking for. So when I read from the same source “A True History of the True Church” I was a little disappointed that it lacked the detailed evidence I would have liked. But I was a history student and had a vast library at hand so I did my own research to complement what I had read. That led to more frustration, sadly. It looked to me like the Waldensians were not really the same sort of sabbath-keepers as we were, and I found no evidence for the Cathars keeping the sabbath but I did find details that they observed teachings we opposed. But my fundamental beliefs were not thrown overboard. I was not at a church-run college so I did not have all the resources that they stocked in their library.

I could not deny that some details of the church’s teachings were wrong, and some forms of practice and behaviour were not what I would have expected in a “biblical church”. But I convinced myself that those details were not fundamental, or would change in time, and I maintained my respectable standing by embracing a “good attitude”. A “good attitude”, I learned not so many years ago, was the same expression used in the 1930s and 40s by Nazi youth and party members who questioned aspects of Nazi practice and doctrines: as long as they asked their questions with a “good attitude” they remained lovingly embraced by the party. A “good attitude” meant that one submits to the authorities and does not cause dissension among one’s peers. In other words, one learns to be very discreet about sharing one’s doubts and questions.

I see now how I was immersed in a pattern common to so many who enter counter-culture type groups:

and many more.

The problem with belief is that a believer just “KNOWS” that one’s beliefs are true. Belief thereby binds a mind more tightly than knowledge. Enter the arrogance of belief. Or if one is so totally confident then it follows that there is no need for arrogance: one can be humble about “knowing” the truth. The arrogance of humility.

That last listed post above, The Brainwashing Myth, concludes with this line:

I reject the idea of brainwashing for three reasons: It is pseudoscientific, ignores research-based explanations for human behavior and dehumanizes people by denying their free will.

Given that this post comes on the heels of a post expressing openness to the possibility that free will is an illusion, that last reason should be modified in some way. The first two reasons draw upon “knowledge” — which is necessarily tentative pending new evidence. The third reason rests on a “belief”, even if a necessary one to maintain our dignity and humanity. And if it’s a false belief, then we have no choice but to call on our reserves of compassion and understanding to uphold our humanity.


Consciousness, Free Will and Artificial Intelligence

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

ChatGPT (or any Artificial Intelligence) lacks consciousness of what it is doing and hence cannot be said to have the “free will” or “subjective impulses” to determine what direction its “thoughts” will take. (See critical comments on an earlier ChatGPT post).

A nagging question persists in the back of my mind, however. Do even humans have “free will” to guide the directions of their thoughts and conclusions? Every time I read a relatively recent work on human consciousness (e.g. Greenfield, Churchland) I am left with the disturbing notion that there may be a possibility that our consciousness of ourselves and what we are doing is an illusion. Although my inner gut resists that idea I do know that my inner gut does not have an infallible record of guiding me in the way of Truth. Ditto for my notion of “common sense”.

So it was with much appreciation and interest that I read posts on a new blog, Black Box Site, especially the second item, The Color of Your Consciousness or, Getting in Front of a Mob and Calling it a Parade. The author, Blackmun, has been keeping abreast of many more publications on consciousness than I have  so it was an immense pleasure to read his survey of some research findings. His overview draws upon…

  • Aitchison, Laurence, and Máté Lengyel. “With or without You: Predictive Coding and Bayesian Inference in the Brain.” Current Opinion in Neurobiology 46 (October 2017): 219–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conb.2017.08.010.
  • Dehaene, Stanislas. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. 2014.
  • Nørretranders, Tor. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. 1998.
  • Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. 1995.
  • ———. Awakenings. 1987.
  • ———. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales. 1985.
  • Schurger, Aaron, Jacobo Sitt, and Stanislas Dehaene. “An Accumulator Model for Spontaneous Neural Activity Prior to Self-Initiated Movement.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (August 6, 2012): E2904-13. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1210467109.
  • Wegner, Daniel M. The Illusion of Conscious Will. 2018, 2002
  • Wilson, Timothy D. Strangers to Ourselves. 2004.

Some concluding gems:

CARTESIAN, adj. Relating to Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum – whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum – “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;” as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made. (The Devil’s Dictionary of Ambrose Bierce)

. . . .

And as Isaac Bashevis Singer liked to quip: “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.

. . . .

. . . exactly what am I?

A rational maximizer? A child of God? A lizard that thinks it knows what it’s doing?

Does the main difference between our thinking and that of AI come down to AI having fewer hidden biases and parameters than the human brain?

It’s a fearful notion. That lizard would have no option but to resist it.