Reason as the Leading Motive

Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Human and Animal Cognition

Posted by Jerry on February 19, 2008

This Harvard University study seems to suggest that scientists are finally catching up to the insights of the Objectivist epistemology.

Professor Marc Hauser recently presented his new theory, which postulates four key elements differentiating human cognition from animal cognition. Notably–as I have stressed in the past as well–Hauser regards human cognition as being not merely higher up on the same scale of cognitive complexity in comparison to that of animals, but as being of a fundamentally different nature in itself–in his words, a “great cognitive gap”:

“Animals share many of the building blocks that comprise human thought, but paradoxically, there is a great cognitive gap between humans and animals,” Hauser says. “By looking at key differences in cognitive abilities, we find the elements of human cognition that are uniquely human.”

The four key differences between human and animal cognition that Hauser identifies neatly aligns with the core elements of Objectivist epistemology. In the following, first is the element that Hauser identifies, which is then followed by the Objectivist concept that is its equivalent:

1. “the ability to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding”

Integration–a cardinal function of man’s consciousness on all the levels of his cognitive development. First, his brain brings order into his sensory chaos by integrating sense data into percepts; this integration is performed automatically; it requires effort, but no conscious volition. His next step is the integration of percepts into concepts, as he learns to speak. Thereafter, his cognitive development consists in integrating concepts into wider and ever wider concepts, expanding the range of his mind. 

2. “to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation”

Principles–an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one’s long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Concrete problems cannot even be grasped, let alone judged or solved, without reference to abstract principles.

3. “to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input”

Concepts and Words–Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition—not of communication. The primary purpose of concepts and of language is to provide man with a system of cognitive classification and organization, which enables him to acquire knowledge on an unlimited scale. Concepts represent condensations of knowledge, which make further study and the division of cognitive labor possible.

In order to be used as a single unit, the enormous sum integrated by a concept has to be given the form of a single, specific, perceptual concrete, which will differentiate it from all other concretes and from all other concepts. This is the function performed by language. Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Language is the exclusive domain and tool of concepts. Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e., that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind.

4. “to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.”

Focus–The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make. When man unfocuses his mind, he may be said to be conscious in a subhuman sense of the word, since he experiences sensations and perceptions.


There are, of course, many more insights into human cognition that Ayn Rand identified in her Objectivist epistemology that in my opinion are not exhausted by Hauser four identifications: for example, Ayn Rand’s theory of measurement-ommission and its role in concept-formation.

However, all of the above–and the entire corpus of the Objectivist theory of epistemology–indicates a simple and self-evident fact about human cognition that is denoted by single concept: the conceptual faculty; that is, man’s consciousness is uniquely conceptual in nature.

[I learned of Professor Hauser’s study from the Objectivism Online forum. Note: All four hyperlinked Objectivists concepts and their brief descriptions are quoted directly from The Ayn Rand Lexicon.]

Posted in Animal Rights, Ayn Rand, Objectivism, Philosophy, science, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Cutting The String

Posted by Jerry on November 21, 2007

Paul Hsieh, over at Noodlefood, posts about the formulation of a new theory in physics that may well be *the* Theory of Everything:

Physicist/surfer Garrett Lisi may have come up with a physics theory that unites all the fundamental particles and forces of nature, including gravity, without relying on dubious multidimensional string theory. According to this related article:

…[H]is proposal is remarkable because, by the arcane standards of particle physics, it does not require highly complex mathematics.

Even better, it does not require more than one dimension of time and three of space, when some rival theories need ten or even more spatial dimensions and other bizarre concepts.

In other words, it doesn’t require invoking arbitrary new dimensions for which we have no evidence. Plus it makes testable predictions that are at variance with the so-called Standard Model. The New Scientist article states that his theory predicts:

…[M]ore than 20 new particles not envisaged by the standard model. Lisi is now calculating the masses that these particles should have, in the hope that they may be spotted when the Large Hadron Collider – being built at CERN, near Geneva in Switzerland – starts up next year.

“This is an all-or-nothing kind of theory – it’s either going to be exactly right, or spectacularly wrong,” says Lisi. “I’m the first to admit this is a long shot. But it ain’t over till the LHC sings.”

David Harriman [Objectivist physicist and philosopher] mentioned in his lecture to our Front Range Objectivism group last year that any physicist who wants to challenge the dominance of string theory will have a very hard time, since nearly all the grant funding in academia for such foundational issues is controlled by people who believe in string theory. It seems that this is borne out by Lisi’s experience, as reported by New Scientist:

Most attempts to bring gravity into the picture have been based on string theory, which proposes that particles are ultimately composed of minuscule strings. Lisi has never been a fan of string theory and says that it’s because of pressure to step into line that he abandoned academia after his PhD. “I’ve never been much of a follower, so I walked off to search for my own theory,” he says. Last year, he won a research grant from the charitably funded Foundational Questions Institute to pursue his ideas.

For those who are interested in the details of his theory, here’s the link to his paper (click on “PDF” on the upper right). The abstract reads as follows:

An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything

A. Garrett Lisi (Submitted on 6 Nov 2007)

Abstract: All fields of the standard model and gravity are unified as an E8 principal bundle connection. A non-compact real form of the E8 Lie algebra has G2 and F4 subalgebras which break down to strong su(3), electroweak su(2) x u(1), gravitational so(3,1), the frame-Higgs, and three generations of fermions related by triality. The interactions and dynamics of these 1-form and Grassmann valued parts of an E8 superconnection are described by the curvature and action over a four dimensional base manifold.

Those who want a semi-technical explanation (with video) can find one here. My own mathematics background is not strong enough to make an assessment of the merits of his theory. Nor do I know any more about the Foundational Questions Institute besides what’s on their webpage. But for what it’s worth, I did meet Garrett Lisi at a dinner party several years ago as a friend-of-a-friend, back when Diana and I lived in San Diego and he was still a graduate student in physics at UCSD. At the time, he struck me as an extremely intelligent man, so he would be a plausible candidate for someone who could have come up with a revolutionary new theory in physics.

I had two thoughts after reading Paul’s post:

1) A consensus among scientists about any theory–a la AGW–does not make it right. Indeed, there have been spectacular cases of the majority of scientists being proven wrong about their acceptance of a theory by some individual or minority who usher in a paradigmatic revolution.

2) I need to start reading my book “Not Even Wrong” by Peter Woit that talks about how the dominance of string theorists have practically stunted the exploration of new ideas in this field, and goes on to point out the flaws in string theory.

P.S. I’m making no judgements about the merit or validity of Lisi’s new formulation: it would be absurd for me to do so, I have neither the background nor any competence in this field. This post is just to make a note of something newsworthy.

Posted in Philosophy, science, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

This Girl Won’t Stop Dancing in My Brain

Posted by Jerry on October 31, 2007

This is the best illusion I have seen so far: the best because I still haven’t figured out how to be “disillusioned” of the illusion. Okay, too cryptic?

The illusion is of a girl twirling around in a circular motion. People who use more of the right side of their brain will see the girl turning clockwise, and those who use more of their left side of the brain will see the girl twirling counter-clockwise. Apparently, if you focus hard enough, you can switch the direction of her twirl.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been staring it at for far too long than is healthy for a gay man to be staring at a dancing woman, and I can’t get her to flip the direction of her twirl in my brain! What is particularly distracting to me–believe it or not–are her breasts! I keep taking my cues of her spatio-temporal position by focusing on her breasts to get a sense of the direction in which her body is turning. Her breasts also serve as the indicator of when she is directly “facing” me or when her back is turned toward me.

I want to specifically hear from the left-brained people: did you really see the girl twirling counter-clockwise when you first saw her?

Next, I want to know if anyone was able to actually switch her direction: Was it effortless? Easy? How did you manage it? Can you sustain any one direction for a while by sheer will? I know that once the brain “knows” the trick of an illusion, it’s hard to get it fooled again for too long.

According to the site, here are the left and right brain functions:

uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies

uses feeling
“big picture” oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can “get it” (i.e. meaning)
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
risk taking

[h/t: Rational Jenn]

Posted in General Work/Life, Personal, science, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 28 Comments »

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