Friday, May 16, 2014

Alive < Conscious < Sentient < Awake

I created and administered a Facebook Poll, and the title of this post is the "theoretically" correct answer--but NOT the consensus result! Let me explain...

50 people were invited to take the poll, and 6 participated within 4 hours for a 12% early response rate. More responses continue to trickle in and I am grateful for all who have or will yet engage. I wanted to get some comments out sooner rather than later. The poll is still open and available here (although, if you are reading this post, your subsequent participation in the poll might be OBE* since you are about to learn the school solution!).

The question 

Place these words in order of increasing significance

I presented four (of 4! = 24 possible) permutations of four related words in the order shown below

  • alive < conscious < sentient < awake 
  • alive < awake < conscious < sentient 
  • conscious < awake < sentient < alive
  • conscious < sentient < awake < alive 

The premise

Here is how I set the stage: "Words draw meaning from social constructs. I would like to know your opinion about the relative significance of these related words. Please vote!"

Actual results (in rank order)

  • alive < awake < conscious < sentient       3 votes
  • alive < conscious < sentient < awake       2 votes
  • conscious < awake < sentient < alive       1 vote
  • conscious < sentient < awake < alive       0 votes

3 (50%) indicate that Sentience is of the highest significance
2 (33%) indicate that Awakeness is of the highest significance
1 (18%) indicate that Aliveness is of the highest significance

Why only 4 permutations? And why these particular 4?

I am interested in the functional definitions people have of the words Alive and Awake in the context of human existence. I added other related words to make the question less obvious and thus remove bias from the answers. I did not want to list all 24 possible permutations, because such an intimidatingly long list would surely reduce participation. I thought that I could learn something interesting from just 4 sequence choices.

I picked two permutations where "Alive" was the least significant, and 2 where "Alive" was the most significant. "Awake" bounced around in positions 2, 3, and 4. Placements of conscious and sentient were random even though I do also have a theory about the relative significance of those terms as well.

Many people think that there exists a sliding scale for Alive that ranges from barely alive to fully alive. I can agree with that. The mixed results indicate a wide range of valid interpretations for the term. As one respondent eloquently stated in comments:

"Perceiving "alive" as a physical state, for me, puts it at the beginning. But feeling the spiritual state of "alive" puts it at the other end."

Most people think that Awake is binary: one is either asleep or awake. I believe that is the prevalent view. The fact that 67% of voters did not choose Awakeness as the highest significance bears that out. My own contextual understanding may be a bit different from the majority.

Being a devotee of Mark Nepo, I have come to understand "awake" on a sliding scale, too, just like "alive." In Nepo's world, to be awake is much more than merely to be not asleep. To awaken is to become fully aware and fully present. Nepo's The Book of Awakening is about having the life you want by being present to the life you have. Just as there are degrees of aliveness, there are degrees of awakeness. I suppose there are degrees of sentience and consciousness, too.

Of course, Nepo did not invent the concept of Awakening. He popularized an existing notion rooted in ancient wisdom traditions. By accepting Nepo's sense of Awakening, I tend to think of aliveness being exhibited in the physical world, whereas Awakeness is manifest in a metaphysical or spiritiual domain. Awake and awakening are magical, mystical terms for me.

What have we learned?

It's hard to say for sure from such a small convenience sample that we have learned anything definitive. However I feel safe in pointing out that words like Alive and Awake mean different things to different people.

Where do we go from here?

Before we can talk about these concepts in further posts, we need to develop a shared understanding of the key terms. The resulting functional definitions of the four original words are shown below. I added "sapient" after I constructed the poll, since sentient and sapient sound so similar, and well, because homo sapiens. Once we are using the same functional definitions for terms pertaining to human existence, we can begin exploring other questions.  So please take a moment, read the definitions, and see whether you agree. If not, please let me know.

Functional definitions
  • alive: having a heartbeat and emitting brainwaves, i.e., neither dead nor unfeeling. In human existence, there are degrees of aliveness ranging from barely to fully alive. Aliveness is manifest in the physical world, in the body.
  • conscious: aware of one's surroundings; responsive, i.e., neither asleep nor comatose. In human existence, there are degrees of consciousness ranging from barely to fully conscious. Consciousness is manifest in the physical and mental world, in the body and all the sensory organs, especially in the brain. 
  • sentient: alert; having the power of perception by the senses; aware of one's place in the Universe, i.e., neither lost nor confused. In human existence, there are degrees of sentience ranging from barely to fully sentient. Sentience is manifest in the physical, material, and cosmic domains, and as a construct in the brain of the observer. Sentience requires an awareness of self that is not required in previous states, i.e., one may be conscious yet not self-aware.
  • sapient: having or showing great wisdom or sound judgment; i.e., neither ignorant nor incompetent.  the actions of the hands align with the plans of the head and the values of the heart. Sapience manifests in the social world. Sapience is in the eye of the beholder. External observation validates one's degree of sapience. 
  • awake: a fully functioning body, mind, and spirit; clear; at One with the Universe, i.e., neither conflicted nor distracted. In human existence, there are degrees of awakeness ranging from barely to fully awake. Awakeness is manifest in the metaphysical world, when hands, heads, and hearts align in harmony.

Once we have a common, agreed-upon vocabulary, then we can really have some fun with these ideas! Watch this space for more posts on this theme. And as always, thanks for reading, sharing, and commenting.

*OBE is Overcome By Events

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Johnny Depp as Will Caster in Alcon Entertainment’s sci-fi thriller Transcendence, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Image by Peter Mountain

This is one movie I really want to see! 

Quite often of late, I have posted about my interest in brains. No, I am not a zombie! Neither am I a neuro-scientist nor a computer scientist. I am just a curious layperson fascinated by what it means to be awake and alive, and the role our brains play in achieving a fulfilling life and developing a notable character.

Cognitive and Emotional Intelligences are two ways we measure types of intelligence in human brains. As I understand it, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) is about emulating human cognitive and emotional intelligence in man-made brains. Machine learning and the Turing Test are related endeavors on the quest to make a computer "brain" that is indistinguishable from a human brain in terms of responses to circumstances. But my interest goes beyond making smarter computers and hastening (or forestalling!) the Singularity.

I want to know how a brain works, yes, but I also want to know if memories can be transplanted. I want to have a better understanding of consciousness. I want to know what happens to memories when a person dies. Sure, there are the electronic touches left in blog posts and Facebook pages, but I am not referring to visiting evidence left behind to revive our memories of a departed loved one. I am referring to the dead person's actual memories. How long are memories stored in the brain? Can the memories of a person be stored, accessed, and recovered? Are people just like other animals but with better brains? Or is there something more, something beyond biology, that distinguishes mankind from monkeys and machines?

"Transcendence" is a movie that promises to explore both the technical and moral implications of technology's advance to the melding of biological and material intelligence.

Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Science Friday, recently discussed this film on his Science Goes to the Movies
segment. Read the full transcript, or listen to a podcast HERE.

"In Wally Pfister’s new thriller "Transcendence,' Johnny Depp plays an A.I. researcher whose consciousness is uploaded to the Internet…with disastrous consequences. This week in 'Science Goes to the Movies,' our scientist-film critics Stuart Russell and Christof Koch explain what it would take to 'upload' a mind, and what really worries them about strong A.I."

Wikipedia and IMDb have these sorts of pertinent facts to add about the movie

"'Transcendence' is a 2014 English-language U.S.-Chinese co-production science fiction film directed by cinematographer Wally Pfister in his directorial debut, and written by Jack Paglan. The film stars Johnny DeppRebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Paul Bettany, and Morgan Freeman. Pfister's usual collaborator, Christopher Nolan, served as executive producer on the project. At one time, Paglan's screenplay was part of what is known as the Black List, a list of popular but unproduced screenplays in Hollywood."

And of course, fans of the Dark Knight trilogy will recognize Christopher Nolan's name. Just as a refresher, and by way of heightening the anticipation for seeing 'Transcendence,' here's a little Christopher Nolan recap for you:

And as if that were not enough to thoroughly whet your whistle, I am also captivated by this quote from Nolan's Wiki page:
"Nolan's films are rooted in philosophical and sociological concepts and ideas, exploring human morality, the construction of time, and the malleable nature of memory and personal identity. Experimentation with metafictive elements, temporal shifts, solipsistic perspectives, nonlinear storytelling and the analogous relationship between the visual language and narrative elements, permeate his entire body of work." 

Those two sentences capture the essence of Christopher Nolan's work quite well, except the second sentence should read, "Experimentation ... permeates." I think I will log on as a Wiki-editor and fix that error, thus extending the frontier of human knowledge by an amount, epsilon. And as my First Year Advisor, Dr Ruth Maurer (Walden's own Dr Ruth), used to say, epsilon can be very small.

But I digress. Back to the movie! To summarize, in "Transcendence" we have:
  • Jack Paglan's intriguing and once Black-Listed screenplay
  • which is brought to life with 
  • Nolan's backing as Executive Producer and Director-Coach to long time collaborator Wally Pfister 
  • and Johnny frickin Depp in the lead role and 
  • Science is on Trial. 

Must see!

Related posts:

Ted Williams has been cryogenically frozen
Skier and surgical intern was revived--3 whole hours after her clinical death
If a brain can be uploaded, what is the meaning of death?
The Immortal Brain
The Legacy Brain Foundation
Meet Your Mind: A Users Guide to the Science of Consciousness
Connecting Brains with Machines
Thinking about Thinking
Ray Kurzweil: "How to Create a Mind"

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Know Thyself, and Seek Self Improvement

Lately I have been on a bit of a pseudo- para- popular psychology kick, as evidenced by posts about Graphology, my Tarot Reading, Astrology (Capricorn), Numerology (Destiny Code 4), and Jungian Personality Types / Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator-ology (ENTP). There is plenty more where these came from! Future posts may well include results from any or all of the following:

  • ACT / SAT / GRE Scores
  • ITBS / Mensa / IQ Scores
  • Play to Your Strengths / StrengthsFinder Profile 
  • Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation 
  • many, many more

One thing I have not done is explain why I am taking such tests in the first place. Neither have I yet shared my motives for posting such personal information here on PhilosFX. Honestly, I am not exactly sure why I am doing this. I don't know the answer. Part of this exercise in openness makes no sense! Therefore, in true Extrovert fashion, allow me to write about these questions so that I may learn the answers for myself and at the same time, share the answers with others.

Is that what "living out loud" is really all about? Asking and sharing in the open? Writing into the answers together? I mean, we could either be hermits and read old books, or we could ask our own questions and seek our own answers and leave books for others to read.

Or perhaps, a bit of both...

IN THE BEGINNING, I used to draw a lot of self-portraits. I learned about basic proportions. As I got more observant and more skilled at recording my observations with a pencil, I notices subtle muscle movements that define an entire mood. In turn, this made me much more observant about the proportions of other people's faces, and more aware of subtle changes in mood conveyed by muscles around the mouth, nose and eyes.

The inward-looking insights translated to outward-looking insights with proportional intensity, The better I knew myself, the more clearly I saw similarities and differences between myself and others.

I have learned a lot about myself from taking many personality (MBTI) and proficiency (ACT / SAT / GRE) tests. As I learn more about my strengths and weaknesses, I begin to appreciate more the similarities and differences I have with others and others have with each other. I have found that the things that attract me to or repel me from other people can often be traced back to my own preferences.  I might dislike something someone does because I see the same thing in myself and I don't like it. I may see something in you that I lack, and so yearn to he more like you in that regard. I might seek peace by increasing diversity, or in another situation I might crave similarity for the same reason.

Plato said, "We are all born whole, but we need each other to be complete."

We are already whole, sufficient, and enough. But we need the challenges and rewards of interaction to prove our uniqueness and true worth, Therefore, it is helpful and good to be awake and self aware. Give me more personality tests! I'll take 'em! And I'll share the results! Moreover, I would encourage everyone to do the same--knowing in advance that many people will be disinclined to do so and accepting that as just fine.

Why share this information? Well, let me flip the question: why not share it? What good is a bit of knowledge if its never used? I have benefited from a great deal of introspection, and in my opinion, the world would be a much safer, saner place of more (if not all) people did the same! This post and similar posts are not offered because I truly believe anyone else in the Universe gives a crap about my scores. Rather, I believe that knowing oneself and seeking self improvement is an important part of a life well-lived.

I think everyone should operate with the humility that comes from realizing that there may be more than one right way to do things, that we are all in this game called life together, that some differences are normal, that tolerance of differences is the aim and evidence of education. I am willing to lead by example.

Leading by example is a principle of Army leadership. As I learned in the Army, the first principle of leadership: Know thyself, and seek self-improvement! Leading by setting the example is #5.

The PhilosFX tagline is, "If your life were a movie, would anyone watch?" By the way, don't worry overmuch about this rhetorical question. Remember: people watch Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo, and My Big Redneck Wedding. The bar is not all that high. Your personal "Reality TV" script does not have to be elaborately produced or expertly choreographed to be interesting. If you are grateful to be alive, act like it, and people will tune in.

"Real life can be almost as good as TV, if you let it."

Let's go!

An Individual Doesn't Get Cancer... A Family Does

Each week, two anonymous students named Dangerdust create amazing chalkboard Art. One example is shown below. I selected this one for reasons which will be obvious to PhilosFX regulars.

You can see the rest of the article and many more examples HERE.

A skeptic wonders...
  • If they are anonymous, how do we know there are two of them? 
  • How do we know that the art works take up to 11 hours to complete? 
  • If the art works appear every Monday morning, isn't it pretty obvious that the rogue student artists are up to their mischief Sunday nights? 
  • Quick show of hands: who has heard of Banksy? 
  • OK, keep your hands up if you ever heard of the Columbus College of Art and Design?
  • I think I see a publicity stunt...
Enjoy the art and don't ask too many questions! 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Hong Kong, Slovakia, or Peru?

Hong Kong, Slovakia, or Peru? 
Which one of these countries will break the deadlock?

My flag counter has been stuck on 22 for months, and it is driving me NUTS. All I need is for some new visitor to be the 23rd person stumble upon PhilosFX from either Hong Kong, Slovakia, or Peru. That lucky person will break the tie and win


Hong Kong



Hong Kong, Slovakia, or Peru? 
All stuck at twenty-two
Which country will it be
That launches us to twenty-three?
Hong Kong, Slovakia, or Peru?

Update: We have a winner! On May 26th, Hong Kong became the 48th country to have 23 unique visitors. Hong Kong WINS! And Slovakia followed, tipping 23 unique visitors on 29 May! On 30 May, Croatia bypassed Peru to occupy the 50th spot on the rankings. Now, how soon to 24? And who will come to claim Hong Kong's prize?

Update #2: on June 9th, Hong Kong became the 48th country to boast 24 unique visitors. On to 25? 

The Immortal Brain

I just learned of the untimely passing of one of my classmates. Rhonda and I were neighbors, living about a half mile apart in rural Iowa in the early 70s. We attended a small consolidated county school in the town of Minburn, and in the summer we made spending money walking beans (note 1) for farmers, along with other stuff that 5th grade farm kids do. After a couple short years, my family moved, time went by, and then one day decades later Rhonda and I reconnected through email and ultimately, Facebook.

And it was through Facebook that I learned of Rhonda's passing--after the fact. Friends and family have been writing tributes to Rhonda on her Facebook wall. I joined in, tagging Rhonda in my comments. I do not expect her to see my comments, but I do want to be a source of comfort for Rhonda's closest family and friends. She leaves behind a grandmother, parents, siblings, a son, and a grandson.

All of Rhonda's posts, including her last one about the joys of grandmotherhood, still exist. It's somewhat chilling to think about the fact that a collection of personal expressions shared in discrete moments of time are now preserved and accessible--just like the memories in my brain.

The question I am pondering now is whether our memories are accessible after our death. I am not referring the the stuff we wrote when we were alive. I am talking about the stuff stored in our brains that enables us to remember childhood friends and experiences years later.

Related questions:

  • If memories are accessible after clinical death, under what conditions, and for how long? 
  • Can a human be frozen and brought back to life? Or is this just a fantasy?
  • If so, would that person's memories still reside and be accessible in his or her thawed-out brain?
  • If not, what happens to the memories once implanted in those brain cells? Where do they go?

"Despite the fact that no human placed in a cryonic suspension has yet been revived, some living organisms can be, and have been, brought back from a dead or near-dead state. CPR and Defibrillators can bring accident and heart attack victims back from the dead daily.  
"Neurosurgeons often cool patients’ bodies so they can operate on aneurysms without damaging or rupturing the nearby blood vessels. Human embryos that are frozen in fertility clinics, defrosted and implanted in a mother’s uterus grow into perfectly normal human beings. Some frogs and other amphibians have a protein manufactured by their cells that act as a natural antifreeze which can protect them if they’re frozen completely solid. 
"Cryobiologists are hopeful that nanotechnology will make revival possible someday. Nanotechnology can use microscopic machines to manipulate single atoms to build or repair virtually anything, including human cells and tissues. They hope one day, nanotechnology will repair not only the cellular damage caused by the freezing process, but also the damage caused by aging and disease. 
"Some cryobiologists have predicted that the first cryonic revival might occur as early as year 2045."

I heard an extraordinary story on NPR (note 2) about Anna Bågenholm, a woman who cheated death after a skiing accident in Norway. The 29-year-old was clinically dead for three hours until doctors thawed out her frozen body and brought her back to life. Anna had been skiing in Norway when she crashed head-first into a river. She became wedged under the ice and struggled to breathe through an air pocket for 40 minutes. It was another 40 minutes before she was pulled out. By then she was clinically dead, completely without consciousness, no pulse, no breathing, and she had a core temperature which went down to 13.7 C (56.7 F). They performed CPR and flew her to Tromso Hospital. There, they immediately connected her to a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, which is the same machine that you use for open heart surgery where you take the blood out of the body, you warm it up and you put it back into the body. So actually what they did was simply to slowly warm her back up. Her heart started beating again, and she was revived. After weeks of intensive care and months of rehabilitation, the only reminder of Anna Bågenholm's ordeal is a tingling in her hands. All of her memories survived.

Speaking of NPR, I heard a story on NPR's Fresh Air about Ted Williams (note 3), and learned that The Kid's body has been frozen. Actually, his head was frozen, and then they decided to go on ahead and freeze the rest, because, if future scientists can figure out the technical details of thawing out a head, then hooking that head back onto its original body should be a relative cakewalk, right? And in a show of unity, Ted's son took the big sleep, too, opting to be cryogenically frozen just before death, in hopes of being revived and reunited with his Dad at some future time.

We humans are biologically pre-disposed to fight for life, and yet morbidly aware of our mortality. It may well be that our DNA governs WHY we remember, while the cells of our brain handle the HOW. This leads me back to my original and unanswered question: are memories accessible after death? If so, under what conditions, and for how long? And perhaps a more troubling extension of that question is this:

What is the meaning of death if the contents of a brain can be preserved and accessed indefinitely?


(1) What the heck is "walking beans"? That is when you stroll through the rows of a 80-acre soy bean field with a hoe, removing all the volunteer corn from last year's crop, as well as all the weeds that might choke a bean.

(2) What's the story about the skiing surgeon's miraculous recovery? It's all HERE

(3) Ted Williams' body is frozen? Read more in the new book, The Kid : The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, by Ben Bradlee, Jr.

At long last, the epic biography Ted Williams deserves--and that his fans have been waiting for. 

Williams was the best hitter in baseball history. His batting average of .406 in 1941 has not been topped since, and no player who has hit more than 500 home runs has a higher career batting average. Those totals would have been even higher if Williams had not left baseball for nearly five years in the prime of his career to serve as a Marine pilot in WWII and Korea. He hit home runs farther than any player before him--and traveled a long way himself, as Ben Bradlee, Jr.'s grand biography reveals. Born in 1918 in San Diego, Ted would spend most of his life disguising his Mexican heritage. During his 22 years with the Boston Red Sox, Williams electrified crowds across America--and shocked them, too: His notorious clashes with the press and fans threatened his reputation. Yet while he was a God in the batter's box, he was profoundly human once he stepped away from the plate. His ferocity came to define his troubled domestic life. While baseball might have been straightforward for Ted Williams, life was not. 

THE KID is biography of the highest literary order, a thrilling and honest account of a legend in all his glory and human complexity. In his final at-bat, Williams hit a home run. Bradlee's marvelous book clears the fences, too.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit

NOTE: Brain Pickings is the brain child of Maria Popova, an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large, who has also written for Wired UK, The New York Times, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, and The Atlantic, among others, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.  Today I'd like to put in a plug for Maria and her Brain Pickings site by publishing an adapted version of her post from January 3, 2014.

Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit

Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan called a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods:

The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you’re so inclined, if you don’t want to buy baloney even when it’s reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there’s a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.

But the kit, Sagan argues, isn't merely a tool of science — rather, it contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as elegantly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation.

Sagan shares nine of these tools:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Just as important as learning these helpful tools, however, is unlearning and avoiding the most common pitfalls of common sense. Reminding us of where society is most vulnerable to those, Sagan writes:
In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.
He admonishes against the twenty most common and perilous ones — many rooted in our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — with examples of each in action:
  1. ad hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously)
  2. argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out)
  3. argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives)
  4. appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
  5. special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
  6. begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?)
  7. observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers)
  8. statistics of small numbers — a close relative of observational selection (e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or: “I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”)
  9. misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g.,President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
  10. inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.” Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
  11. non sequitur — Latin for “It doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
  12. post hoc, ergo propter hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills.” Or:Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons)
  13. meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)
  14. excluded middle, or false dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”)
  15. short-term vs. long-term — a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
  16. slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
  17. confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former)
  18. straw man — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)
  19. suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an important detail — was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)
  20. weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safeguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”)
I commend this post to all free-thinking philosophers, skeptics, and critics.

  • Learn Sagan's Nine Helpful Hints of Baloney Detection
  • If need be, unlearn the 20 Perilous Pitfalls of Common Sense.
  • And for Heaven's Sake use pitfall #6, "Begging the Question," in the intended sense of "Assuming the Answer." Many people say begging the question when what they mean raising or dodging a question. Ironically, misusing Begging the Question raises questions about the questioner's questioning competence.
  • Did you see what I did there? For "Heaven's Sake?" Which of the 20 pitfalls covers special pleading? Does reference to Heaven beg the question?   
  • Visit Brain Pickings and support Maria as you see fit.
  • Come back to PhilosFX often and sit a spell...

Criticize with Kindness

How to Criticize with Kindness: 
Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

Dennett synthesizes the steps:
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments from anonymous hoi polloi.

Daniel C. Dennett, b. 1942

L.I.N.K.S. (9): NaPoMo 2014 Recap

L.I.N.K.S. that Lure, Intrigue, Nurture, Kindle, or Stimulate, Part 9

I set out to participate in National Poetry Month by writing or sharing something of a poetic nature each day in the month of April. I hope readers, friends, and family enjoyed the journey as much as I did. For your convenience (and to satisfy my desire to recapitulate) here is a summary of NaPoMo 2014 on PhilosFX:

  1. National Poetry Month
  2. hallelujah-redux
  3. Courage
  4. happy-86th-maya-day
  5. would-anyone-watch?
  6. uncage-your-mind
  7. our-origin-in-stars
  8. Vonnegut's Letter to Students
  9. versions-of-vision
  10. 50 Miles of Haiku
  11. dont-close-door
  12. Gettysburg
  13. write-just-write
  14. of-lying-liars-laying-in-layers
  15. this-mood-is-not-your-fault
  16. Conflicted
  17. condemned-or-redeemed
  18. Rock Me Gently
  19. talon-pierced-carp
  20. Budding Young Poet
  21. the-tao-of-deve
  22. earth-day
  23. in-honor-of-william-shakespeares-450th
  24. 50-reasons-not-to-date-poet
  25. how-wonderful-life-is-with-you-in-my-world
  26. love-is-inverted-fear
  27. What do I know about Love?
  28. a-haiku-about-getting-out-of-bed
  29. Baby Got Brew
  30. we-all-have-cancer

I studied architecture because I loved art and science both, and no profession I could think of aside from philosophy prized both equally. The point is that I am sure my poetry reveals certain clues about my poor fitness as a poet. I share anyway.

Follow your heart.

The Forer Effect and the Flaw of Subjective Validation

I have been on a bit of a "What Star Wars / Harry Potter / Lord of the Rings / Character Are You?" jag lately. And I have attempted to justify this under the "Know Thyself" leadership imperative.

In a spirit of fairness and objectivity, I want to balance my recent foray into popular psychology with a look into the cognitive biases that make clinical psychologists look askew at astrology, numerology, tarot, graphology, feng shui, I Ching, psychics, hypnosis, faith healers, and even the "What color are you?" versions of the good old MBTI.

The term, "cognitive bias" refers to the inherent thinking errors that humans make in processing information. There are many, many forms of cognitive bias. Just kidding, there are exactly 88 named types of cognitive bias, What? You don't believe me? Look it up HERE. The one type of cognitive bias we are going to focus on is called Subjective Validation bias, which is--whoops! Not on the list. OK, there are 89 named types if cognitive bias....

I will explore this theme with the help of selected guest authors. Citations are provided in the references below.

Subjective Validation

Subjective validation, sometimes called personal validation effect, is a cognitive bias by which a person will consider a statement or another piece of information to be correct if it has any personal meaning or significance to them. In other words, a person whose opinion is affected by subjective validation will perceive two unrelated events (i.e., a coincidence) to be related because their personal belief demands that they be related.

Subjective Validation refers to a process by which people accept some claim or phenomenon as valid based solely upon a few personal experiences or subjective perceptions. In practice, this error is cited when a person perceives two independent events as having some sort of deeper, hidden relationship because of that person’s prior beliefs, expectations or hypotheses about the world.

In other words, this is why people so readily believe their horoscope.

The Forer Effect

The Forer effect (also called the Barnum effect after P. T. Barnum's observation that "we've got something for everyone") is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, and some types of personality test.

In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students. He told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis that was based on the test's results and to rate their analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) on how well it applied to themselves. In reality, each received the same analysis:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

On average, the rating was 4.26 of 5--over 85%. Only after the ratings were turned in was it revealed that each student had received identical copies assembled by Forer from various horoscopes. As can be seen from the profile, there are a number of statements that could apply equally to anyone.

In another study examining the Forer effect, students took the MMPI personality assessment and researchers evaluated their responses. The researchers wrote accurate evaluations of the students’ personalities, but gave the students both the accurate assessment and a fake assessment using vague generalities. Students were then asked to choose which personality assessment they believe was their own, actual assessment. More than half of the students (59%) chose the fake assessment as opposed to the real one.

The Barnum Effect
by Prof M. Birnbaum, Fullerton College

The Forer effect is also known as the "Barnum effect." This term was coined in 1956 by American psychologist Paul Meehl in his essay "Wanted – A Good Cookbook." He relates the vague personality descriptions used in certain "pseudo-successful" psychological tests to those given by entertainer and businessman P. T. Barnum, who was a notorious hoaxer.

The Barnum effect is named after P.T. Barnum, the showman who declared "there¹s a sucker born every minute." He found many ways to separate "suckers," as he called gullible people, from their money.

The Barnum effect in psychology refers to the gullibility of people when reading descriptions of themselves. By personality, we mean the ways in which people are different and unique. However, it is possible to give everyone the same description and people nevertheless rate the description as very very accurate.

Whenever I ran this in class, one student would invariably raise his or her hand and declare: "Well, I was right to rate it as very very accurate because you gave everyone MY description!" And the rest of the class would laugh because they all felt the same way.

This shows how easy it is to be fooled by psychics, quack psychotherapists, fake faith healers, and others who use this technique to make people think that they really know and understand them when in fact it is just a "Spiel" or "game, played as a prank." Magicians use a method called, "The Art of Cold Reading" to give people the impression of a very accurate psychic reading. This same method is used by quack psychics and others to separate the gullible from their money.

This same Barnum demonstration has been played on introductory psychology students for over 50 years (Forer, 1949), and for some reason, it never ends up in the public conscience, thanks to the systematic misrepresentation of psychology in the popular media. It even works with personnel managers, who should know this effect by training (Stagner, 1958). It is in our textbook by Kalat, and it should be described in all other Introductory Psychology books.

You might occasionally find a TV program featuring magicians who are exposing fakes, but you will rarely see a psychologist attacking the phony "radio and TV" psychologists who listen to a person for 30 seconds and then proceed to give them a phony diagnosis followed by a public dressing down on the air. Real psychologists are horrified by this practice, but there is money to be made by radio personalities, so that game goes on and on.

Now I run the test by a computerized personality test, and even have it programmed so that the skeptical person can take the test over and over, trying different answers to see what happens. Some of my students have learned to be skeptical and check it, but an amazing number continue to rate the description as very very accurate.

There are two kinds of magicians, the honorable kind and the unethical kind. The ethical magician admits that he or she uses tricks to create illusions. The unethical magicians use the same devices to claim to have magic powers. Magicians do not reveal how tricks performed by ethical magicians are done, in order to preserve the mystery. However magicians make an exception when unethical magicians use their methods to defraud and deceive. Harry Houdini, Amazing Randi, Penn and Teller, are examples of real magicians who reveal secrets to expose phonies, quacks and frauds who claim to have psychic powers, mind over matter, or to communicate with the dead.

The moral of the Barnum Demonstration: Self-validation is no validation. Do not be fooled by a psychic, quack psychotherapist, or a phony faith healer who uses this trick on you! Be skeptical and ask for proof. Keep your money in your wallet, your wallet in your pocket, and your hand on your wallet.

For me, the bottom line is this: I will still continue exploring my fascination with popular psychology. However, I will do so "with a grain of salt." Because we all know that

  • salt represents the value of skepticism, 
  • spilling the salt invites evil, and 
  • tossing a pinch of the spilled salt over the left shoulder temporarily blinds the evil spirit lurking there.

"A consciousness in which there lives the idea that spilling salt will be followed by some evil, obviously allied as it is to the consciousness of the savage, filled with beliefs in omens and charms, gives a home to other beliefs like those of the savage." --Herbert Spencer, 1875

"Know thyself, 
but believe thou not
everything thou readest!" 


Birnbaum, M., The Barnum Effect,

Forer, B. R. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44, 118-123.

Rational Wiki, List of Cognitive Biases,

SpencerHerbert The Study of Sociology (Appleton, 1875), ch. 1, "Our Need of it" , p. 5.

Stagner, R. (1958). The gullibility of personnel managers. Personnel Psychology, 11, 347-352.

Wikipedia, Subjective Validation,

Wikipedia, The Forer Effect,

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Force Comes to Edinburgh

The Force Comes to Edinburgh, via Innis & Gunn
May the Fourth Be with You! Today, Star Wars comes to Edinburgh, courtesy of Innis & Gunn!

"Happy Star Wars Day everyone! May the Fourth is one of our favourite days of the year here at Innis & Gunn HQ, so to celebrate we've recreated our famous Edinburgh skyline illustration, complete with hidden AT-ATs. Can you find them hidden amongst Edinburgh's famous buildings?"

This image is available as a background wallpaper for desktop computers and smart devices. Grab your download HERE