Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

High Altitude Psychosis: A New Medical Entity?

Cross-posted at the MDK10Outside running and climbing blog.

A new paper breaks down cases of acute mountain sickness into several categories, including isolated psychosis with no evidence of cerebral edema (a quarter of cases!) Psychosis was more associated with accidents than the other subgroups, not surprising in retrospect. These cases were all taken from above 3500m/11,700'. It's always interesting that humans, and life on Earth generally, can tolerate some amazing extremes, but when the partial pressure of O2 drops a little bit, everything breaks.

Hüfner K, Brugger H, Kuster E, Dünsser F, Stawinoga AE, Turner R, Tomazin I, Sperner-Unterweger B. Isolated psychosis during exposure to very high and extreme altitude – characterisation of a new medical entity. Psychol Med. 2017 Dec 5:1-8. doi: 10.1017/S0033291717003397

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Whistled Languages are Not Distinct Languages

[Added later: the Bora in the Amazon use drums to communicate over long distances - interestingly, using a "compressed" pitch and rhythm system very similar to the whistled system of the Canaries. It's still not its own language, but it's indisputably an outstanding piece of human cultural innovation, and comparison to how Silbo compresses information would be very useful.]

An article in the New Yorker re-romanticizes the idea of "whistled languages", moving from the more famous Silbo of the Canary Islands to a whistled version of Turkish found in northern Turkey. I wrote about Silbo previously, a whistled version of (now) Spanish. (And that's what it should be called - whistled Spanish. In fact Silbo means "whistle.")

As before, I emphasize here that I'm not trying to diminish the significance of these innovations in human culture, just argue against the misconception that these whistled versions of languages are in fact languages in themselves. I'm thrilled that people have caught on to the cultural value and worked to preserve them, and furthermore whistled language provides fertile testing grounds for hypotheses about the comprehension of language, like the lateralization study in Current Biology conducted by Güntürkün, Güntürkün and Hahn cited in the New Yorker. And there are multiple places in the world where a whistled version of a language has developed, for obvious adaptive advantage (hard-to-cross mountains and/or thick forests.) But whistled languages are not distinct languages.

Why not?

1. Whistled communication is never used as the primary method. People use Silbo to call across canyons to each other (effective and clever) but there was no report of the ear-splitting sound of story-tellers around the campfire (because then they were speaking normally.) I place this claim first because reports of whistled Turkish state that it was used in non-work settings, which on its face would seem to undermine my argument. BUt this loses sight of why it matters whether people use whistled Turkish in more than a few restricted settings - because there is still no such thing as a first-language whistle-language speaker, and certainly there never has been a monolingual. At best, this makes it a pidgin, like Chinook Jargon or Russenorsk.

2. Whistled communication is a whistled version of a primary, "normal" spoken language. If a whistled language is distinct, then when we whisper in English next to each other, that would count as a separate language as well. And of course it doesn't - it's a restricted, rarely-used, context-specific form of communication which makes some phonetic sacrifices due to its usefulness in that setting.

3. Can you learn the Turkish whistled language without learning Turkish? No. Granted, a first-language Turkish speaker might not understand it at first, much like you didn't understand Pig Latinthe first time you heard it. But you can learn Pig Latin - only if you know English first.

No comment on how this bears on my (partly tongue-in-cheek and now mostly abandoned) cultural affinity argument about whistling in other Altaic languages.

Friday, October 27, 2017

If You Take Parfit Seriously, You Should Commit Yourself To Creating Superintelligence

Cross posted at Speculative Nonfiction and The Late Enlightenment.

Derek Parfit makes the argument that if utilitarianism as it is commonly understood is to be taken to its conclusion - the greatest good for the greatest number - that mathematically we should care not just about making individuals happy, but making more individuals, to be happy. If you can have a world of a billion people all just as happy as a world of a million people, then that that's a no brainer.

The problem is when you get to the math of it. The "repugnant conclusion" that if the total amount of happiness is what matters, then you should favor numbers over quality of life. That is, a world of a hundred billion people with lives just barely worth living is better than a world of a hundred people with great lives - because the great lives are probably not a billion times greater than those of the hundred billion in almost total misery.

The obvious objection is that you're talking about theoretical people when you talk about those hundred billion. The counterargument is that we do care about theoretical people - our descendants - and you might already make environmental decisions to preserve the environment for the happiness of your grandchildren; right now you avoid (hopefully) littering the street to avoid upsetting people you've never met and will probably never meet.

There are other objections of course; for instance, that experienced happiness in an individual is what matters; otherwise slave plantations could be (in fact, probably are) morally acceptable.

But following Parfit's repugnant conclusion to its end, if the total amount of utility is what matters, then increasing the amount of utility possible to be experienced also matters. That is to say, there is no reason to stop at considering theoretical people, but rather we should consider theoretical kinds of experience, and theoretical kinds of experiencers. And there is nothing in Parfit's thesis provincial to or chauvinistic about humans. (If there were, that might solve the problem, because you could say "the closer something is related to me, the more I should be concerned with its happiness" - me and my brother against my cousin, et cetera - which, at very close genetic distances, is in fact what most humans already do.)

Therefore, we should try to make a world of a hundred million bipolar (manic) people who can experience hedonic value far in excess of what most of us ever do (assuming we can keep them manic and not depressed.) Or, even better, created an artificial superintelligence capable of experiencing these states, and not devoting all our resources to creating as many copies of it as possible. But cast aside those constraints - if you believe it is possible for a self-modifying general artificial intelligence with consciousness (and pleasure) to exist, then by Parfit, the only moral act is to give up all your recreation and resources to live in misery and dedicate your life to the single-minded pursuit of getting us one second closer to the creation of this superintelligence. The total suffering and happiness of life on Earth up until the moment of the singularity would quickly shrink to a rounding error, compared to the higher states these replicating conscious superintelligences might experience. Therefore, if you are not already singlemindedly dedicating yourself to bringing such a superintelligence to life, you are forestalling seconds of these agents' pleasurable experiences (which far offset your own suffering and maybe those of all living things) and you are committing the most immoral act possible.

This problem is superficially similar to Roko's basilisk (in the sense of your actions being changed by knowledge of a possible superintelligence) but I think it should still be called Caton's basilisk.

As a result of these objections, I do not think we need to take the repugnant conclusion seriously, and I do not think not dedicating yourself to creating a super-hedonic superintelligence is immoral.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The People Afraid of Their IQs

[Cross-posted to The Late Enlightenment.]

There has been some gnawing of tongues on the topic of IQ. Here I'm not talking about its very existence, which isn't open to debate (it's very real - disagree? Then you, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump are equally smart. I thought so.) It's that some people - young people, mostly - seem to be scared to find out what their IQ is, because it might not be as good as they would like, and then their life would be ruined.

These people are assuming a high degree of determinism. Yes, IQ is important (go to the link above and follow the links.) But at the same time, Warren Buffet has said that if you could trade every IQ point above 120 for money, you should. The greatest chess player in history Magnus Carlsen has said that too-high intelligence has been a handicap to some of his predecessors, who got distracted by other endeavors. Jeff Bezos of Amazon studied undergraduate physics at Princeton, noted how much harder he had to work than some of his peers, and switched out. What are we to make of this?

Let's start off by assuming that IQ is completely determined by factors out of your control, and furthermore completely determines your future. That being the case, learning one's IQ has been likened to being handed an envelope with your date and manner of death inside.[1][2] Anxiety-provoking? Sure, just like getting the result of an important test back - which, by the way, is invariably the direction the discussion goes, and no, no one likes the day the envelope comes, but everyone would be very upset if one year the nice people at ETS decided to rip up all the tests and give everyone an average. And just like the day you get your test results back, the only possible rational answer to whether you would want to know your death date is YES, and when people actually have such a choice in real life, they almost invariably DO want to know it. Cryonics crowd aside, you already KNOW you're going to die. You even have a rough idea of about when it will happen, statistically. You don't know what from, but you can make some guesses. When someone receives a terminal diagnosis, now they DO know what they'll die from, and they have a much narrower statistical window on when. So put yourself in this position: your doctor has just told you that you have pancreatic cancer. What is your VERY NEXT THOUGHT? "How long do I have?" You'd be pretty angry, and justifiably so, if she told you "I typically don't tell people the life expectancy because they might not want to know that."

There are many other mostly genetically predetermined attributes that strongly affect our quality of life, but the difference is that the rest are all obvious and easy to compare, so we can't remain ignorant of them; e.g., height, physical attractiveness, and to some degree wealth. Readjusting expectations and recovering from narcissistic injuries is hard, but for people who don't want to know their IQ, what's causing them to suffer is much more likely to be their anxiety tolerance and ego strength (which you can improve), than it is their intelligence (which you basically can't.)[3] Jordan Peterson has made the interesting comment that people who are more intelligent than the median in their communities unsurprisingly tend to elevate this trait above all others, but (more insightfully) because of the nature of intelligence as something that we use to build a worldview, people become unidimensional about human value and take intelligence as an end in itself rather than one of many traits to be prized, along with, e.g. impulse control or emotional stability, which are certainly not the same thing even if they co-vary. This tendency leads to these people who define themselves as "intelligent" avoiding communities filled with people smarter than themselves, and in so doing, limiting their own progress in life and the amount they can contribute to the world at large. It also leads the ridiculous convention of clubs for smart people (Mensa.) Is there a club for tall people? No. Well actually yes. But it's not called a club for tall people, it's called the NBA, and they DO something with their tallness. And by golly, come to think of it, there ARE clubs for smart people (physics departments, Google engineering, medical schools, law firms, consulting agencies, etc.)[4]

Two specific reflections on this.

1) While genetics is the single greatest determinant of IQ, it is not the be-all end-all deterministic measure that many fear it is. In particular, "smart" may correlate with, but does certainly not equal, happy, moral, or successful, and furthermore there is an endless list of capacities, tendencies and talents that may correlate somewhat, but certainly not entirely, that determine the chances of success in various paths in life. I suspect that Peterson's unidimensionals get most upset in the U.S., where we most resent anyone telling us that any characteristic outside of our control has any influence over our future, despite the obvious reality.[5] Think of the trigger points in these discussions: race, socioeconomic class, upbringing, genes, the wiring in your brain - somehow the second we turn 18 we should be able to leave all the behind and emerge as an un-caused cause, right? (I wonder how much of the hostility to the very concept of IQ stems from this kind of thinking.) Below I've reproduced a figure in the Vox article (which in turn is reproduced from elsewhere) but what's interesting is how broad some of the bars are. What a broad bar should tell you is that there are more people in that profession (more outliers in absolute terms), and/or that IQ isn't as important. Case in point, protective service workers - intelligence appears to be less of a determinant there than for some of the others. I would expect ability to remain calm and vigilant and tolerate distress is at least as important.

2) As an aside, what Buffet was really saying is that there's an inflection point for the marginal value of IQ points around 120. We should grant that an additional IQ point in 2017 is more likely to benefit you than it was in 1917 - the world is hopefully a truer meritocracy, and a lot more value created by industries requiring intelligence rather than brawn or bravado. But there is still more likely to be an inflection point for the IQ vs wealth graph (as opposed to IQ vs overall utility - see #1 above.)

To the extent that IQ is a proxy for achievement, happiness, and self-worth, then just go try to do the things you're worried about and you will get rapid feedback - i.e., Scott Aaronson's recommendation that you just go try to do physics. "But what if I fail?" Think about it this way. How many people have actually said, "You know, if only I had an IQ test, I would've known better, and I wouldn't have made this massive career commitment that I now can't retreat from without massive damage to my finances, freedom, etc." But - interestingly - people certainly do say things like "If only I'd known X about myself, I would've chosen a different career," where X is something about your utility function, like the value you place on time vs. money vs. freedom, security vs. opportunity, ability to get along with certain personality types, etc. The key is to learn about your own many dimensions and find your selective advantage. How sad is Jeff Bezos that he couldn't keep up with the physics students at Princeton?

[1]If a genie told me I was going to die on a certain date and time from a certain thing, I would enjoy making life difficult for fate. Shark attack in 2022? I will move to the Mojave desert and not come out. Yes, I know, something will happen with a great white shark being transported by air between aquariums, and the plane will blow up and the shark will fall on me or something, but I'm really really going to make the universe work for it. I would grant my wife exclusive rights to my story in advance.

[2]While knowing your death date would help you plan, it would mess up the possibility of insurance, assuming everyone gets such an envelope and knows that everyone else does.

[3]If you're still not convinced that you shouldn't be crushed by your potentially low IQ, then consider that many people smarter than you and me both believe that by the end of this century, machines of far greater intelligence than any human who ever lived will exist, and none of the at-that-point meaningless differences in processing power between us flatworms will matter anymore.

[4]In a forum discussion I once referred to academia, medical schools, etc. as "clubs for smart people" and was immediately told "NO. Those are clubs for people with IQs 120-130." Yikes! I guess this particular Einstein had just cured cancer AND made a killing in the stock market that morning so they had time to police the forums for claims like this.

[5]Social media is not helping this, and I'm not the first to think there's a connection between prevalence of social media and the rise in social anxiety in Millennials. But I propose a specific mechanism which accounts for it, which is the failure of insulation between status hierarchies, or between layers of the same hierarchy. For example, growing up in an outer suburb of a rural state that doesn't touch saltwater, until the early 2000s it was easy to be blissfully unaware of the pecking order of academic, corporate and governmental hierarchies; you went to State U., got a good education, and worked in a nearby town without any sense that people in the Big City or at Corporate HQ were better or smarter. That's no longer the case, and at 15 there's no hiding from this reality. (I believe this is the hardest thing about growing up now as opposed to when I grew up.) I also think this explains part of the virulence of the culture wars, as each group, particular social conservative bloc in middle America, is suddenly aware that there are people who despise them, and that they're at the bottom of, and being relentlessly judged by, this status hierarchy they've suddenly noticed and which is ruled by exactly the wrong kind of people. (Contexts with overlapping status hierarchies would therefore be expected to improve happiness at least in the short term, and status hierarchy monoculture to make it worse; e.g. North Korea, professional training programs where you're at the bottom of the totem pole, spend all your time with people at the program, and have no social contacts outside the program.)]

Monday, September 4, 2017

In Favor of the Broad Altaic Hypothesis: Whistling and The Comparative Cultural Method

Languages generally break down into related groups that share a common ancestor; Indo-European is the best-known and -studied example, and yes, there was probably an actual proto-Indo-European language spoken about six thousand years ago in Southern Ukraine that ultimately gave rise to Bengali and Greek and English and Italian. Classically such groups are created by using a standard word list from each language and showing phonological correspondence between words, using a rigorous set of sound transformations applied consistent across the languages. Computational methods have more recently been added to the repertoire, which includes ways of looking at the grammar and morphology of the languages. These appeal to me because these elements are more conservative, allowing better resolution over greater times. It's pretty easy for individual words in languages to get replaced. But it's harder for elements of morphosyntax to change. They all have to work together in a much more rule-bound way, so it's like changing a single spark plug or belt in a car engine.

With respect to developing hypotheses about language descent and relatedness, linguistics are typically either lumpers or splitters. An argument for the lumper approach is that there's more value and more information in proposing a genetic taxon based on certain characteristics and investigating the hypothesis, than just putting every single language in its own category. The Altaic hypothesis is that there was a single language that gave rise to Turkish, Mongolian, Tungusic (northern China/southeastern Sibera), Korean, and Japanese languages. Including those last two has always been controversial. More recently even the reality of the Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic core grouping has come under attack. For technical reasons of morphosyntax I won't go into here, I have always been quite sympathetic to the broader Altaic grouping.

Are there other media for comparative methods? Genetic studies have been an additional tool for understanding prehistory, and of course genes and language don't always covary: these studies have demonstrated that populations interbreed and learn new languages. We can also look at cultural practices, which may be more prone to drift than genes or language, but still provide intriguing signals; for instance, similarities in religion or superstition, which may also be more conservative than other elements. For instance, regarding the broad Altaic hypothesis (including Japan and Korea) you might notice that the cultural practice of steam or communal baths exists in Japan, Korea, and across the Turkic countriess from Kazakhstan to Turkey, but not in intervening countries to nearly the same degree (China, Siberia, India, Iran.)

An even more curious similarity is the superstitions that all these places have about whistling, which is also not shared by intervening cultures. In Japan, there are shinto spirits from the native pre-Buddhist Japanese religion called tengu, which are wind spirits. Also in Japan, whistling inside a house is considered to produce bad fortune, in that it will draw snakes into the house, or cause tengu to kidnap you. In Korea, whistling at night will bring spirits and snakes. (No word on whether fan death is related to this.) In Mongolia, you're not supposed to whistle inside a ger (yurt) because it will bring a windstorm. Tengri is the Mongolian sky (and wind) god. And you'll find the following in the "Respect" section of the Wikitravel entry for Kazakhstan: "Whistling inside a house is unacceptable in almost all Kazakh homes. It is a very common superstition in Kazakhstan that whistling inside will make the owner of the house poor." I wrote about this before but I keep stumbling across whistling superstitions in Altaic countries without even looking for them. While not rigorously part of the linguistic comparative method, this cultural comparison should increase our confidence in the broad Altaic hypothesis, i.e. that Turkic, Mongolian, Korean and Japanese populations are descended from a common ancestral population.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

On Forgiveness

At, Sarah attempts to explain forgiveness. Although it wasn't exactly what her post was about, it prompted me to write down in a comment something I'd been pondering for a while.

There are non-mysterious, rational, game-theoretic reasons for forgiveness, and the post I linked to is more about those. For example, if someone makes a mistake or takes an action and then changes her mind about it when she sees the consequences, their past behavior is less likely to predict their future behavior in similar situations. If she apologizes in that situation, when you "forgive" her, you're really saying "I recognize your regret, and I'm not that worried that you'll do it again, so don't worry about it" and also "I'm not angry and therefore you don't have to worry about my trying to harm you right now or in the future." Imagine if someone backs into your car in a parking lot, then stops to look at what happened, is horrified at what happened and apologizes. Forgiving this person would be of this type.

Then there's another type of forgiveness which is more mysterious. This is the type where someone did something clearly wrong with full intent, and possibly has not even asked for forgiveness. Imagine someone harming or killing a loved one, and expressing zero remorse. In fact, we do see people publicly forgiving the aggressor in exactly such situations. This is another type of forgiveness. Given the chance, the aggressor might well harm even more loved ones. What function can this serve? My comment:
There's an internally, psychologically adaptive function to forgiveness as well, and it's the dirty little secret of this otherwise proud aspect of being human. When you say "I forgive you" to someone who's wronged you - perhaps in a way that harmed you irreparably - you're at least partly saying, "What you've done is insignificant enough that I can put it out of my mind." You're declaring dominance over the other person in a way, and this is why once accomplished, forgiveness makes you feel better. The strongly negative reaction I often receive when telling people this, is very similar to the reaction you get when you're pointing at other status-signalling behaviors that everyone would rather not think about as such.
Depression is related to lack of forgiveness, so this stranger kind of forgiving could be partly protective. If in fact forgiveness is just covert dominance display, then you could also explain depression related to not-forgiving partly as a result of lost social status associated with being the victim of a crime.

Interestingly, in legal proceedings, this expression of forgiveness occurs at sentencing - which is interesting for two reasons. First, it provides the maximal audience, and would therefore be the best place to announce something that is expected to change social status. Second, this is the concrete expression of the aggressor's material punishment. If the aggressor was really being forgiven, wouldn't the forgiver ask for the charges to be dismissed? (In fact I can't think of an occasion where someone has forgiven an at-large murderer of a family member; if they exist, certainly they're more rare.) Furthermore, the language accompanying such forgiveness, by the forgiver or their audience, is about "rising above" the situation or aggressor - showing superiority to them. Also supporting this idea, it's also notable that unrepentant wrongdoers who are forgiven in this manner often react poorly to the display of forgiveness.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why Silbo Is Not a Language

This originally appeared in my trip report from the Canary Islands. And another set of arguments against whistled versions of languages being considered separate languages, this one regarding "Bird Language", a whistled version of Turkish.

Why Silbo is Not a Language

Silbo, the whistled "language" of La Gomera, is clearly a remarkable part of the Canaries' unique heritage, one that I hope continues to exist far into the future. You can listen to examples here, here and here. I emphasize this because my argument that it is not a language is not an argument to diminish its significance in this regard. But language is a strong interst of mine - I almost went back to school to study linguistics - and Silbo is not a language, and I've carefully referred to it as a "communication system" for this reason. (If you run across this blog post and you have counterarguments or evidence to the contrary, I'm not a Silbo expert, so by all means educate me!) Canarians are of course proud of their heritage and it's difficult to receive criticism of a belief about something so central to cultural identity as language, and we've encountered this problem right here in the U.S. (see #2). Here is why Silbo is not a language.

1. Silbo dates to the days of the Guanches. Guanche was a distinct language, unrelated to Spanish. As a Berber language, Guanche likely had a very restricted set of vowels, uniquely suiting it to a whistled form which by some estimates has only two vowels (as linguist Ramon Trujillo argued in his 1978 book.) Yet the modern version of Silbo is clearly whistled Spanish. The ability to translate Spanish (or any language) into a whistle, and have someone understand any of it, is remarkable. But this shows that Silbo is a manner of intonation of an already-understood language, not its own language. (If you object: can someone from Germany learn Silbo, but not learn Spanish? If two German-speakers in Switzerland start whistling German to each other across the valleys, is that Silbo, and could someone from La Gomera understand them? The answers are no and no. It's not its own language.) I would like to see sets of "blinded" participants communicating to see what the lossiness of Silbo is - I predict much more than actual language. Normal spoken language is about 50% redundant.

2. Silbo is used in very limited circumstances - to call long distances across valleys (for which it's a brilliant innovation), and to discuss very limited topics of obvious immediate import (where are my sheep, is it going to rain, etc.) No ritual oration has ever been given in Silbo, no political discussion, no business deal (unless it was a very simple one across a valley involving something immediately present like sheep. Note that in one of the links above they're talking about red wine, etc.; this is a tourist performance, and no one is actually communicating.) True languages are used constantly, in every social setting. You have to work hard not to use them, and children exposed to them start developing language at a young age, without any special effort to teach them. I would be shocked to learn that children of four are whistling without being specifically taught, and I also have not read any traveler, ancient or otherwise, reporting the ear-splitting qualities of conversation in a village of La Gomera - because people speak. An example of a language-like entity that has become culturally important here in the U.S. is what people call Chinook, but is really Chinook Jargon. It's a trade pidgin, a mish-mash of true Chinook (a real language), English, and some Russian, Spanish and French. It has little to no morphosyntactic structure, is not learned by children, and is not spoken outside of trade settings. Nobody goes home and speaks Chinook Jargon to their wives or husbands, they speak Chinook, or English, etc. and that's what the children learn. The children may grow up and learn Chinook Jargon - as adolescents or adults, by deliberate effort. So as with Silbo, Chinook Jargon is a fascinating and important part of the Pacific Northwest's history and heritage, and I wish its enthusiasts well - but it's not a language.

3. Finally, "non-standard" phonemes (like whistles) can certainly be part of languages - but they're never the whole language. In fact, possibly the strongest argument here is that there are languages with clicks, and nasal vs oral or even whispered vowels, and (probably!) even whistled vowels, but no language uses entirely one or the other. So if Silbo is a language, then two prisoners whispering in English between their cells have invented a new language called "Whisper", as long as the other prisoners catch on and use it. (Silbo was successful because it carries over long distances; it's kind of the anti-whisper.)