Broke Down On The Road From Albuquerque To Seattle–I Need A Quantum Mechanic

More action from the Dennett thread, and more of me beating the anti-reductionist drum. Reducing isn’t explaining.

Although it’s true, the quirks of quarks
Are what we find when we reduce
The laws of rocks, of tuning forks,
Of cats, of cars, of orange juice,
The truth is, if I know the quirks
Of quarks, and qualms of quantum states
They don’t tell how my pencil works
Or what to do with roller skates.
If (knock on wood) my car should stall
And leave me stranded in a panic
There’s many folks whom I could call,
But none of them a quantum mechanic.
Explosive oxidation of
The hydrocarbon molecules
Is many many leaps above
The quantum tale of fossil fuels;
If, at my car, some stranger spoke
Of many-worlds hypotheses
Instead of just: “your fuel pump’s broke”
He might as well speak Japanese.
Indeed, if one is told a tale
Of how an engine burns its gas,
Of how exhaust comes out the tail,
Of how they make the windshield glass,
Of shock absorbers, front disc brakes,
All sorts of automotive prattle
It would not tell which road one takes
From Albuquerque to Seattle—
Which, if that was what one needs,
Is how the answer should be phrased;
Reductionism here impedes,
And only leaves ones eyeballs glazed.

The actions of a single nerve
Or even of a given piece
Of one, we clearly may observe—
Say, neurotransmitter release—
Where ACH or dopamine
Released in the synaptic cleft
By vesicles, which we have seen,
A process at which cells are deft;
The process may be understood
At many different levels, such
As cell, or body, or a good
Example of a chemist’s touch;
An organ’s function, or perhaps
A function in some social act—
Each level different, each one maps
A different view of one same truth.
The quantum level cannot say
The others now do not exist;
Reducing won’t explain away
A higher explanation’s gist.
Your quantum invocation means
You simply wish our current views
Left something there behind the scenes—
Some agent, with the power to choose.
Alas, there’s nothing there to find;
This entity does not exist—
No moral agent, causal mind
That all of science must have missed.
The science shows no secret curse,
No need to travel back in time
To save Cartesian minds—and worse,
We’ve done it, once again, in rhyme.

The Digital Pack-Rat, Vol. 14

Ok, back to the list… On a pharyngula thread about a scandalously titled recent discovery about the evolution of sex. Well, not sex, per se, but having sex. Sorta. What we really need is a clearer fossil of the action… in action.

To see if fishies copulate, thus little fishies born,
We need some “more revealing fossils” (i.e., fossil porn)

A clear fossil pic o’ flagrante delicto
would really be reason for bragging–
A stone preservation of fish copulation,
A petrification of shagging!

A fossil find of such an act would surely take some luck
But think… for all eternity, preserved in stone, mid-fuck!

“I never drink water. Fish fuck in it.” W. C. Fields

Next, we have a complaint–we’ve driven God out of our schools! Won’t somebody think of the children?! Well, somebody is thinking of the children. They even made a little video, showing all the places where God was too weak to overcome the actions of evil school boards…

It opens with a spotting scope–
God’s rifle, from above–
That seeks to find His victims
Then he’ll pump them full of love.
If God in his omnipotence
Is weak against O’Hair,
Don’t tell the little children;
They might think he isn’t there!
Almighty God is weak, compared
To school boards, so it feels.
Don’t blame him; after all, the buses
All have iron wheels.
I wouldn’t mind the petulance
Of God the Petty Whiner
If only those who followed Him
Could be a bit benigner.

Next… I couldn’t bring myself to write about the actual topic of PZ’s post–the rape of a little girl. The headline spoke of the “alleged” rape. Wow. What sort of … never mind.

Make certain that your bets are hedged
And always use the word “alleged”–
It shows your head is firmly wedged
Where sun will never shine.
That word aside, we can’t escape
The facts: this case is clearly rape
Made even worse because of Pap-
al reasoning divine.

Almost done… a delightful webcomic poked a bit of well-deserved fun at hard scientists, and happened to mention pharyngula. The main characters are furries, which I can’t very well have a problem with while I self-identify as a cuttlefish.

I call myself a cuttlefish, but now I have to worry–
Can one be an invertebrate, but still be called a furry?
I would have thought it simple, but the line seems rather blurry;
If someone here could clue me in, I truly hope they’d hurry!

Now, thanks to Dr. Seuss and Ray Comfort…

In the World Nut Daily, or so the tale goes,
There wrote a strange man that most everyone knows
His name, it was Ray C.; he was dumb as could be
And he never seemed sane—frankly, out of his tree!

Sighed Ray C., this crazy man hatching his plot
“I’m a great many things, but a genius I’m not;
I don’t like to think, cos it makes my brain hurt,
So I’d rather say God made us all out of dirt.”
The evidence, though, left him caught in a bind,
Till Horton the elephant passed through his mind!

“I wonder” thought Comfort, “how elephants bred,
When it takes two to tango—or so it is said”
A thought that showed Ray was clean out of his head.

See, Ray thinks selection gives animals things
Like backbones and fingers, like tusks and like wings
Before they were both male and female of sex—
A notion that’s clearly designed to perplex!

While Ray could not see what was wrong with his view
A smart second-grader could—how about you?

He meant what he said, and he said what he meant;
Ray Comfort’s a pinhead, one hundred percent.

And lastly, PZ tells us that his Trophy Wife does not share his squid kink…

Oh, trouble and strife! The Trophy Wife
Doesn’t quite get the cephalofetish?
But think, if she did, and dressed up like a squid
To entice you to someplace that’s wettish–
She would use both her charms and her tentacle arms
To entrap you in utter delight–
We’d just stare at the walls, while Pharyngula stalls
Cos you’re too effing busy to write!

The Digital Pack-Rat, Vol. 13

Lucky thirteen! A fairly large one today, too–I have let this get away from me.

I’ll start with one posted on Evolving Thoughts, (and later posted as a comment in the Dennett thread), commenting on the arguments regarding consciousness. Worth reading the original, BTW, and the comments.

It seems to me philosophers have somewhat been seduced
By the metaphor of storage, and conclusions it implies.
The self, itself, it promises, is something that’s produced
Via information transfer in that blob behind our eyes.
All too often this assumption underlies their exploration;
The conclusions that it leads to seem a normal path to follow
But inherent in the metaphor is one sort of explanation;
By removing those assumptions, it’s a tougher bite to swallow.
If the structure of the person helps to form what’s introspected
(And the social and environmental atmosphere as well)
Then feelings, thoughts, or memories just cannot be dissected
From the person as a whole, as information one could tell.
“Ah, but that’s just further information”, I have seen in practice,
When I try this explanation—and I want to pull my hair—
You could stuff it in, of course, but it’s like sitting on a cactus:
Just because it can be sat on, doesn’t mean the thing’s a chair.

Next, a short little verse inspired by George Will’s habit of making shit up:

Republicans observe the news
And don’t like what they’re seeing;
They dream up facts to fit their views,
Then Will them into being.

A poll gets pharyngulated, and all the votes coming from PZ’s link get deleted. Too bad, because I know more on the topic than the author of the poll does. Guaranteed.

I’d wager I’ve read much much more on such topics
Than he has, and yet he deleted my vote!
With evidence rarer than snow in the tropics
The chances of life after death are … remote.
But out with the bath-water, there goes the baby,
Throw out the bad votes and good votes as one:
The lesson that’s there to be learned is that maybe
An internet poll should be nothing but fun.

A little musing on the topic of spirituality–all the benefits of religion, without the actual social part of getting together with your fellow humans:

I’m spiritual, but not religious;
egotistical, not prestigious;
belligerent, but not litigious;
deviant, but not prodigious.

Take the extreme, remove the part
that shows I have a working heart;
Whatever’s left is what I am,
Because I do not give a damn.

The benefit, but not the cost
Is mine–if something might be lost,
It’s paid by others, not by me–
Three cheers for sociopathy!

Ack! The real world beckons! I guess there will be a volume 14 up very soon, but this one gets cut off prematurely.

Truman The Octopus!

Ok, first go read the actual story.

I’ll wait. It’s worth it. Come back when you are done, and you can read the verse. Teaser–it’s about an octopus, doing something really really cool. Oh, and… Truman is especially cool. I have pics of him on my camera–the dude is amazing.

Truman the octopus saw the locks
That closed the outer, bigger, box,
Inside of which, he had a hunch,
Was one more box, which held his lunch.

Truman the octopus could have tried
To break the locks and reach inside
Or else, he could have set the goal
Of fitting through a two-inch hole

Truman the octopus, big and strong,
Some 30 pounds, and 7 feet long,
Saw lunch, and would not be denied;
The tiny hole? He crawled inside!

Truman the octopus filled the box,
But never did release the locks;
He tried for nearly half an hour,
But found no crabs he could devour.

Truman the octopus slithered out
(To plot some more, I have no doubt)
The truth? I’d give fantastic odds:
The next world leaders? Cephalopods.

(Edited to add: There are some additional pics of the event here, where you can get a feel for the real size of Truman.)

Oh, yeah, buy the Open Laboratory book and my own book. Check the earlier posts, and you will find the links.

Open Laboratory 2008!

Over at Bora’s, the announcement has been made–the 2008 Open Laboratory (the best science writing on blogs) is now available at Lulu, and people (or cuttlefish) like yours truly can proudly put up a nice clickable link like this:

Which you can use to go and purchase your own copy. (It will be available from Amazon later, but buying it from Lulu means that the proceeds go to organizing ScienceOnline ’10 next January.)

Of course, this much more generic button
Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.
would lead you to where you may buy my own book at Lulu. If you buy both, of course, you guarantee that you will be the coolest kid on your block.

The Introspection Fish

Another comment from the Dennett post.

I have no eyes to look behind
And view my brain, much less my mind;
I cannot know your thoughts, and you
Are blind to what I’m thinking, too.
These are the facts; we can’t deny
We have no working “inner eye”
Nor any form of ESP;
Your thoughts cannot be seen by me.

Your claim—that we can know ourselves—
Is countered by the miles of shelves
Of self-help books. Our knowledge hides
From where you tell us it resides!
If we could simply take a look
Inside our minds, why need a book?
We’d never ask “How do I feel?
Could this be love? Could it be real?”

If God or Science offered me
Some cranial transparency
So you could see my every thought—
The change of mind; the urge I fought,
The censored comment never spoken,
Secret kept and promise broken—
What fabled treasures! Wondrous finds,
If we could read each other’s minds!

But we cannot. Make no mistake,
Our skulls and minds are both opaque
We do, instead, what we can do;
We read the things in public view
We see the song, the poem, the kiss;
Infer from these that love is this.
In turn, each element we find
We sum, and call the total “mind”.

If I could see inside my head,
(A place where angels fear to tread)
And see how thinking really works,
The jumble of selected quirks
And if (what wonders “if” can do!)
I saw inside your thinking too
I think that I should never see
What now makes up philosophy.

Reductionism? Never Mind…

Another comment from the Dennett thread–those of you who have read my evolutionary biology valentine’s day poem will know that I am not a fan of reductionist explanations.

It frustrates me a bit, to find
This parsing out of “what is mind”
Seems always, always to have missed
That I am no reductionist!
I am no fool; I won’t deny
The brain’s importance. Ah, but I
Would argue that is just one part,
But so’s the gut, and so’s the heart.
There is no brain that acts alone—
At least, not any I have known.
The consciousness phenomena
Are everyday and common—a
Description of one’s life, it seems,
Both wide awake and in our dreams.
The consciousness we must explain
Is product of much more than brain!
A wider scope, and not more narrow,
Serves as target for our arrow.

(Explanations claiming “quantum”?
We don’t need, and much less want ‘em;
The level that we need—behavior—
Is not quantum; it can’t save yer
Theory, just because it’s hard
To fathom. We can disregard
The quantum stuff as misconstrued
By several leaps of magnitude.)

The consciousness vocabulary
Isn’t technical or scary;
Rather, it’s the common tongue
We learned while we were very young;
We’re taught our anger, love, and pride
By people with no view inside.
To their thoughts we were likewise blind,
And yet we learned to label “mind”.
But how to learn what makes up “red”
Without a view from head to head?
Or hunger, sadness, even pain
Without a window to the brain?
We learn the things that make us us
Through public, common stimulus;
There is no disembodied “blue”,
But things we learned to call that hue;
When looking at your “mind” today,
Reflect on how it got that way;
The learning that took many years,
Not mere arrangement of the gears.

So much of mental mystery
Reveals itself in history,
Which, if we choose to disregard,
Makes consciousness appear the “Hard
Problem”, as Chalmers so labeled,
A lofty problem, nearly fabled.
It’s “hard” because it asks to find
Physical cause for mental mind.
(The answer I would give—surprise!—
Is one the question plain denies,
As if rotation of the earth
Could not explain the eastern birth
And western death of each day’s sun
As well as Phoebus’s chariot run.)
Our language speaks of mental stuff;
For many, that would seem enough,
And “images” and “memories”
And reified ideas like these
Are what we’re challenged to explain
A task which we’d pursue in vain
Like capturing a unicorn
Or finding where a gryphon’s born.

Reductionist neurologists
By now have plenty on their lists
Explaining this or that or these
In all the detail that you please
Reducing Y to lots of X
Can simplify or make complex,
But if you’re simply changing levels,
Such “explanation” just bedevils.
The problem, if it’s there to find
Is solved in how we learn our mind.
It won’t be found in EEG’s
Or PET scans, CAT scans, none of these—
Oh, yes, we’ll learn some awesome stuff,
But, at that level? Not enough.
“Physical mind” is not just contradiction—
It’s sending us all on a chase for a fiction!

To The Senator’s Health!

PZ reports that Senator Tom Harkin regrets that his National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine has done what I, for one, would have bet against: it has disproven “too many” alternative therapies.

I wonder if we can get something to make the Senator feel better…

The Senator is needing
A colonic or a bleeding
Or perhaps a dose of radium to give a healthy glow.
My alt-med guru teaches
That the use of sterile leeches
Would give balance to his humours, and would help his chi to grow.
Hydrotherapy and spinning
Would be only the beginning;
An emetic or a purgative would do his body good
Ground-up rhino horn or penis
And a sacrifice to Venus
Will do more to swell his thinking than viagra ever could!
A double dose of calomel
Would do his tired body well
Or drink colloidal silver till his skin is vivid blue
Elective psychosurgery,
As anyone can plainly see,
Is something that could keep his thinking on the straight and true
We can mix some herbs and spices
Bought at legislators’ prices
With the urine of donkey, for the Senator to drink–
But despite our urgent praying
We recall the ancient saying:
You can vote a man to Senate, but you cannot make him think.

Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.

It’s Getting Verse And Verse!

The discussion in the Dennett thread continues–Phunicular is a phenom, and Thoughts is thoughtful (if wrong).

Phinicular is archiving his own comments, or I would post several here; they are wonderful. I’ll just post my latest comment as an appetizer here:

The nature of your question presupposes your position;
The “phenomenal” you’re after is an artifact of word;
Descartes approached the problem in a dualist tradition—
With the progress of neurology, that view is now absurd.
A photon is reflected from a stimulus that’s distal;
Through the pupil, lens, and humors to the retina it goes,
Where a rod or cone transduces it, to fire like a pistol
To bipolar cells and ganglia, as everybody knows.
At the level of the retina, already there are features
Which are processed by the structures that we call the visual fields;
Light is processed very differently by different sorts of creatures
So that information useful to their situation yields.
Now a signal (or “potential”) shoots along the optic neuron
Then through processing in parallel in many different ways
Such as color, edges, faces, on and on and more obscure on—
Read some Sacks or Ramachandran if you can, one of these days.
From occipital to temporal, and on up to the frontal
Back and forth, with constant feedback, now the signal makes its way
With perhaps a verbal output, though the answer that you want’ll
Still elude you, cos you’re looking for a view that’s had its day.
The majority of processing is out of our awareness
(And “the feeling of awareness” has its processing as well!)
We cannot feel the process, just results, and so in fairness
Introspection as a method simply doesn’t work that well.
At no point in the process is “an image” there for viewing,
Nor a “self” to view the image, which is really no surprise;
To demand an explanation for what you think we are doing
Is equivalent to asking how the sun can truly rise!
A perceptual illusion doesn’t mean that something’s missing—
What it means is merely something isn’t what it seemed at first
There’s no need to be Cartesian now, unless we’re reminiscing,
And there’s nothing there but trouble in the bubble we have burst.


The department of oddities proudly announces
The latest official new species of fish!
It isn’t a swimmer—it more or less bounces—
With features that Timothy Leary might wish.

A species of frogfish, its fabulous features
Make H. psychadelica second to none—
Unique locomotion is one of this creature’s
Exciting behaviors—this fish is just fun!

(A bit depressing–if you pay close attention, you will note that the ocean floor in the clip is littered with trash, some of it camouflaged by seaweeds.)