Thinking Meat?

If other intelligent life DID find us on this small blue-green planet, what would they think? After I posted the Morning Links about our material and deterministic minds, a friend sent me a link to this charming short story: “Sentient Meat“.

So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.

They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.

That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.

I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in this sector and they’re made out of meat.

My favorite part comes a bit later:

So… what does the thinking?

You’re not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat.

Thinking meat??? You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat???

Yes, thinking meat ! Conscious meat ! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal ! Are you getting the picture?

Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.

Of course, in a sense we ARE machines, just biological machines. As T-Rex described it in Dinosaur Comics, each of us is a “machine that turns FOOD into IDEAS!”

(slightly shrunk, click here for the full-size, less-fuzzy comic)

It’s All Causation

Until we come up with a coherent idea of what we mean by causation, I say teachers should accept this on tests (via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, one of my favorite webcomics):

It reminded me of the Simpsons episode “Much Apu About Nothing” in which Apu is finally taking the citizenship test. I couldn’t find a YouTube clip, but at least I found the quote I was looking for:

Proctor: All right, here’s your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–
Proctor: Wait, wait… just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir.

Or perhaps we could learn to phrase our questions better.


This is what happens when you fish for a pep talk from a mathematician

ME (whining at being unable to accomplish something): “Ugh, I feel so useless and pointless.”

MATHEMATICIAN: “Aw, you’re not pointless! You have lots of points. An infinite number, in fact.”

Morning Links: XKCD and Free Will

Checking my morning links, I saw two reactions to hearing that the mind is the result of physical matter in a deterministic world:


(Alt-text: “Socrates could’ve saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d just brought a flashlight, tranquilizer gun, and a bunch of rescue harnesses.”)

Or this article from the NYTimes finding that subjects who were reminded of deterministic arguments about free will were more likely to cheat on a test:

In a follow-up experiment, the psychologists gave another test in which people were promised $1 for every correct answer — and got to compile their own scores. Just as Dr. Vohs and Dr. Schooler feared, people were more likely to cheat after being exposed beforehand to arguments against free will. These people went home with more unearned cash than did the other people.

This behavior in the lab, the researchers noted, squares with studies in recent decades showing an increase in the number of college students who admit to cheating. During this same period, other studies have shown a weakening in the popular belief in free will (although it’s still widely held).

Or you could go with Daniel Dennett’s approach in Freedom Evolves – No need to panic; we still have the important types of free will even in a deterministic universe. Of course, I can’t exactly imagine Dennett panicking in any context.

Why Asking Why Isn’t Enough

The question “Why?” is an impressively vague word. Used without context, it can be almost useless. I got contacted by the makers of the documentary “The Nature of Existence” whose trailer starts with the filmmaker saying “We all have one thing in common: We exist. But why?” What a nebulous question. It’s met by a stream of responses on completely different topics. When it comes to provoking thought, it’s fine. If you actually want particular information… it’s terrible. (That said, if I can get over my frustration at the ambiguity they’re reveling in, it looks like the film has potential.)

You need to apply some context to the question of “Why?” before it’s even possible to think about as a question. It’s just a request for more information, some information, any information somehow related! “Why do we exist?” is a pretty vague question, so they got a huge range of responses. Let’s take one with a bit more context. When my mom used to ask me “Jesse, why are your dishes still on the living room floor?” sometimes I would answer “Because they lack the capacity to move for themselves.” (Yes, I was an annoying smart-ass. I like to think I’ve gotten over it. Mostly.) I could have also answered “Because gravity is exerting a downward force on them.” From the context of our previous conversations, however, I think the answer she REALLY wanted was “Because I forgot about them when I went upstairs. Sorry.”

But even when you know the context, “Why?” can be a frustrating question. Once you have the desired information, that information can be examined. There’s an excellent video of Richard Feynman explaining how tough it is to answer ‘why’ questions like “why do magnets repel?” I think I’ve posted that before, and Julia found a hilarious clip that makes the point. Enter Louis C.K. trying to answer his daughter’s questions (Language slightly NSFW – what did you expect; it’s Louis C.K.!)

Video below the fold:
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