Does Consciousness Come in Degrees?

William Lycan at the Institute of Art and Ideas:

A creature that does perceive the external world to any significant degree can be called a conscious being.  Could there be conscious beings other than those of earth’s animal kingdom?  Perhaps there are some outside our solar system. Could a robot be a conscious being, just in this modest sense of perceiving its environment?  I don’t see why not.  Despite appearances, a robot can amass information through its sensors and build a representation of the external world.  Granted, there are plenty of arguments purporting to show that no mere robot could be conscious in any much stronger sense.

Of course we can also ask whether a conscious creature in that sense is ‘conscious’ at a particular time, say at this moment, meaning roughly, is it awake, actually doing some perceiving, and in control of its actions?  Even that ‘normal waking state’ admits some degrees, since we speak of accident victims and seriously ill patients as ‘semi-conscious.’

A much rarer form of consciousness is what we refer to when we speak of a ‘conscious memory’ or a ‘conscious decision’—we mean not only being in a mental state but being aware of that very mental state from the inside. A conscious memory is a memory we are directly aware of.  The same goes for a conscious emotion, desire, intention, or bodily sensation such as pain.  It’s assumed that there are memories, emotions, desires, intentions, perceptions, and even pains that we are unaware of, at least at times.

More here.

Chinese scientists have put human brain genes in monkeys—and yes, they may be smarter

Antonio Regalado in MIT Technology Review:

Now scientists in southern China report that they’ve tried to narrow the evolutionary gap, creating several transgenic macaque monkeys with extra copies of a human gene suspected of playing a role in shaping human intelligence.

“This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model,” says Bing Su, the geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology who led the effort.

According to their findings, the modified monkeys did better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop—as those of human children do. There wasn’t a difference in brain size.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Natalya Bailey on Navigating Earth Orbit and Beyond

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

The space age officially began in 1957 with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. But recent years have seen the beginning of a boom in the number of objects orbiting Earth, as satellite tracking and communications have assumed enormous importance in the modern world. This raises obvious concerns for the control and eventual fate of these orbiting artifacts. Natalya Bailey is pioneering a novel approach to satellite propulsion, building tiny ion engines at her company Accion Systems. We talk about how satellite technology is rapidly changing, and what that means for the future of space travel inside and outside the Solar System.

More here.

Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu

Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books:

‘The problem with Israel,’ Tony Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2003,

is not – as is sometimes suggested – that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-19th-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ – a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are for ever excluded – is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

Today, it is Judt’s liberal internationalist certainty that seems like an anachronism, while Israel – a ‘hybrid society of ancient phobias and high-tech hope, a combination of tribalism and globalism’, in the words of the journalist Anshel Pfeffer – looks increasingly like the embryo of a new world governed by atavistic fears, whose most malign symptom is the presidency of Donald Trump.

Pfeffer, a correspondent for Haaretz, has written a biography of Benjamin Netanyahu as a way of explaining today’s Israel – by no means an enviable task. Say what you will about Netanyahu’s predecessors, they had their fascination, from the monastic self-discipline of David Ben-Gurion to the gluttony of Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu comes across as a hollow figure: a ‘marketing man’, in the words of Max Hastings, who met him while writing a biography of his brother Jonathan. Yet Netanyahu can hardly be avoided, or his survival skills denied.

More here.

Only Bernie Can (And Will) Beat Trump

Anis Shivani in Medium:

Bernie is in, and if anything, compared to his run three years ago, he finds himself in much more favorable territory, based on any number of measures, not least because of the alternative narrative he himself, and through prominent disciples who have picked the baton from him, has created and spread far and wide in the body politic. The heresies and unorthodoxies of his last run are mere commonplaces now (wealth tax, Medicare-for-all, $15 living wage, free college), to the extent that the media should find it easy to depict his policy prescriptions as so much ho-hum, not much different than, oh, say, Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren.

But make no mistake about it, Bernie is the only candidate on the Democratic side with a radical agenda that takes on the perversions of capitalism, while all the rest of them — every one of them, to some extent or other — continue to offer, in the best Clintonian tradition, paeans to American exceptionalism. It was precisely this obeisance to exceptionalism — America is already great, in the words of Michelle Obama, or Hillary Clinton, whoever said it — that crashed the political system last time around, and it is precisely this naïve, faithless, robotic, uninspired, spectacular ode to exceptionalism, whether it comes from the mouth of Cory Booker or Julian Castro or Beto O’Rourke or Kirsten Gillibrand, that would guarantee Trump another four years.

More here.

The New Anxiety Therapy That’s All About Accepting Your Fears

Jamie Friedlander in Medium:

When Brenda Hurwood was in her thirties, she had an accident that left her with a partial disability: She worked in home care support with elderly patients, and she injured her shoulder and neck while helping a client get out of a chair. The injury left her with decreased stamina and constant pain, Hurwood says, and she found it difficult to continue working. “It eroded away my self-confidence as a person,” she says. Hurwood, 63, who lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, says she developed generalized anxiety disorder, which persisted for decades. She tried different forms of therapy and various medications, but nothing worked — until 15 years ago, when a therapist introduced her to acceptance and commitment therapy.

ACT (pronounced like “act”) is a relatively new form of therapy centered on accepting that pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life, and using that acceptance to manage negative thoughts and feelings. In addition to anxiety, it’s been used as a treatment for depression, chronic pain, anger, phobias, and a host of other issues. Its primary conceit is that instead of trying to control or push away your negative emotions, you should focus on learning to live with them. For some people, more traditional ways of coping with those thoughts and feelings can have the opposite of their intended effect, says Jenna LeJeune, PhD, a therapist and ACT practitioner based in Portland, Oregon: “Paradoxically, the more we focus on trying to get rid of painful thoughts or feelings, the more those things become the center of our lives.”

More here.

Today’s Biggest Threat: The Polarized Mind

Schneider and Fatemi in Scientific American:

As the bitter strife between left and right, citizen and noncitizen, white and non-white attest, the greatest threat to humanity today goes beyond political and religious divides, economics, and psychiatric diagnoses. It goes beyond cultural conflicts and even the degradation of the environment—and yet it includes all of these. As psychologists concerned with the social and psychological bases of human destructiveness, and as dedicated observers of history, we have arrived at the conclusion that so much of what we call human depravity (“evil”) seems to be based on a principle termed “the polarized mind. The polarized mind is the fixation on a single point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view, and it has caused more human torment and misery than virtually any other factor.

As citizens of very different and sometimes clashing civilizations, the United States and Iran respectively, we also have a unique vantage point on the polarized mind. While so many theories of human destructiveness are associated with regional customs, mores and histories, we have observed the polarized mind at work in widely divergent cultural, ethnic and economic circumstances.

Moreover, we are in complete agreement that the polarized mind is one of the major threats to humanity, not just isolated parts of the world. Our empirically based studies, for example, have indicated that mindlessness—a condition of narrowed perception and reactivity—is a chief and cross-cultural feature of the polarized mind; while (Langerian) mindfulness, an attitude of heightened awareness or presence, is a cardinal feature of the depolarized mind, associated with capacity for discovery, creativity and well-being. It is also associated with a radical transformation of consciousness, but this consciousness cannot flourish until it counterbalances and, to the extent possible, supersedes the polarized mind.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Career Counseling

You can be whatever you set your mind to,
my teachers were fond of saying.
Sit down, son.
The counselor pointed to a chair,
pulling out brochures like a travel agent.
Where are you headed?
As if no destination were outside the realm of possibility;
we just had to plug it into the computer,
check flights,
book tickets far enough in advance.
You can be whatever you wish,
my father said — meaning, lawyer, teacher, engineer, MD,
RN, CPA — speaking in that voice
parents use, knowing
they’re being more understanding
than their parents were. Tell me,
what do you really want to do?

What could I say? I want to be a boy
adopted by vultures. Or a blind girl
who lives in a cave.
Or a hermit who speaks to lizards.
I wanted to be washed up,
a castaway searching
for the crew I’d been separated from,
shipwrecked on this planet,
marooned in a human body.
Maybe that was why I touched myself so often —
to see if I could feel a fragment
of who I really was, a piece of light
buried in me, broken off from the star
I spent so much energy trying to get back to.
Maybe that’s why I lit matches
and pressed the flames into my palms,
as if pain held the answer
folded up in its petals.
Maybe the only way back
was to hurt, to rub against broken glass.

What’s on your mind?
asked the doctor. Don’t be afraid. You can
tell me anything. I was thinking
of what I’d have to give up,
what every young man or woman
serious about making a living has to give up:
gazing at leaves, those elegant distractions,
or the creek’s long, run-on sentences,
its exclamations, its
parentheses, its tireless questions.

What if we made graduation a little more honest,
held a ceremony
where every eighteen-year-old dragged onto the field
all he’d hidden in his closets,
all that could prove embarrassing,
all she loved but had no excuse to hold on to anymore?
Final exams would require every student
to write down the idle thoughts
she’d promised never
to think again, every word
it excited a boy just to write:
wastrel, changeling, maelstrom, cataclysm, galaxy,
alien, naked, vampire, crucible, relic.

Fire would grade the papers,
and everybody would get the same mark,
flames correcting the notebooks
filled with spaceships
or Greek gods
or the names of sweethearts written over
and over in different scripts
or drawings of horses —
all a girl had to do was look at them, then close her eyes,
to feel the power ripping
under her, carrying her into the sky —
or pictures of dogs too important to die,
of movie stars or rock bands
into whose faces a young man or woman gazes
till afternoons open like doors
they’d thought shut tight.

You can be whatever you set your mind to.
But at what cost?
Sit down, son.
Tell me what you want to do with the rest of your life.

by Chris Bursk
from The Sun Magazine
September 1996

Sam Lipsyte: “I Depend on Not Knowing”

Leah Dworkin in Guernica:

For many writers, Sam Lipsyte’s readerly eyes are the most coveted. Hordes flock to the Columbia MFA Writing Program for the chance to take his fiction workshop, where he and I first met. On campus, revved up egos struggled under the weight of our grandiose dreams. We students all crossed our fingers in hopes that we’d be one of the lucky ones to gain access to The Great Lipsyte’s secrets.

His secret? No secrets. He pays attention. In an atmosphere that otherwise conditions writers to race towards the sparkliest “high-status” achievements, oh, there’s Sam with his stable vision.  He embraces time, urging his students to do the same, reintroducing the ancient notion that good work might require it.

I write this because I see something familiar in Lipsyte’s new novel Hark: aimless followers with luminous dreams, desperate for a goody bag of shortcuts. Its protagonist, Hark Morner, is a failed comedian turned spiritual guide, the founder of a technique called “mental archery.” Hark guides his disciples in doing the same thing Lipsyte teaches his students: to actually focus.

More here.

The Day Richard Feynman Worked Out Black-Hole Radiation on My Blackboard

Alan Lightman in Nautilus:

One day at lunch in the Caltech cafeteria, I was with two graduate students, Bill Press and Saul Teukolsky, and Feynman. Bill and Saul were talking about a calculation they had just done. It was a theoretical calculation, purely mathematical, where they looked at what happens if you shine light on a rotating black hole. If you shine it at the right angle, the light will bounce off the black hole with more energy than it came in with. The classical analogue is a spinning top. If you throw a marble at the top at the right angle, the marble will bounce off the top with more velocity than it came in with. The top slows down and the energy, the increased energy of the marble, comes from the spin of the top. As Bill and Saul were talking, Feynman was listening.

We got up from the table and began walking back through the campus. Feynman said, “You know that process you’ve described? It sounds very much like stimulated emission.” That’s a quantum process in atomic physics where you have an electron orbiting an atom, and a light particle, a photon, comes in. The two particles are emitted and the electron goes to a lower energy state, so the light is amplified by the electron. The electron decreases energy and gives up that extra energy to sending out two photons. Feynman said, “What you’ve just described sounds like stimulated emission. According to Einstein, there’s a well-known relationship between stimulated emission and spontaneous emission.”

Spontaneous emission is when you have an electron orbiting an atom and it just emits a photon all by itself, without any light coming in, and goes to a lower energy state. Einstein had worked out this relationship between stimulated and spontaneous emission. Whenever you have one, you have the other, at the atomic level. That’s well known to graduate students of physics. Feynman said that what Bill and Saul were describing sounded like simulated emission, and so there should be a spontaneous emission process analogous to it.

We’d been wandering through the campus. We ended up in my office, a tiny little room, Bill, Saul, me, and Feynman. Feynman went to the blackboard and began working out the equations for spontaneous emission from black holes. Up to this point in history, it had been thought that all black holes were completely black, that a black hole could never emit on its own any kind of energy.

More here.

Why Focusing All Our Energies on the Presidency Is a Big Mistake

Laila Lalami in The Nation:

What are you looking for in a presidential candidate? I want someone with fresh proposals on health care or the environment, you might say. A track record that testifies to experience and effectiveness. Or you might say: Listen, I’m just looking for anyone who can defeat Donald Trump in 2020. Whatever your position, you’re likely to have already gotten into spirited conversations about it with family and friends. And as the race for the Democratic nomination heats up, the debate has become increasingly acrimonious. In fact, it’s threatening to turn into a search for a savior.

This search manifests itself in two ways. The first is the belief that electing the right person will result in immediate solutions to the multitude of systemic problems that plague the country. If only we had the perfect person in the Oval Office, the thinking goes, then we would finally be able to fix our disastrous health-care system, or take serious action on global warming, or counteract the rightward shift of the Supreme Court. But this thinking runs counter to the reality that each president inherits problems from the previous administration, as well as constraints or even obstruction from the legislative branch.

More here.

Ms. Difficult: Translating Emily Dickinson

Ana Luísa Amaral at The Paris Review:

Attempting to “transport” Emily Dickinson’s poems into Portuguese is a still harder task, because Dickinson’s poetry is notable for its peculiar agrammaticality: unexpected plurals, inverted syntax, and an often complete disregard for gender, person, or agreement between nouns and verbs. As for form, Dickinson uses the structure of hymns, though, as Mutlu Konuk Blasing says, “the metric norm so severely limits the verse it empowers that the verse grows cryptic, crabbed, and idiosyncratic and resists communication itself, thus undermining the religious and social function of hymns that the form alludes to as authorization for her ‘dialect,’ her ‘New Englandly’ tune.” The result is a compact, cryptic language full of ellipses, which translates into texts that challenge the tradition of poetry as communication and gives literary language an autonomy more akin to the aesthetics of modern poetry.

more here.

The Moral Order of Panera

Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein at The Baffler:

Shaich is not only a self-described conscious capitalist, but a board member of Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, Inc. He and other conscious capitalists operate under the assumption that consumers will prefer their businesses because they are doing good. They assert that by publicly taking on charitable initiatives that benefit people beyond their shareholders, they will lower marketing costs and raise profits—because customers will like them and thus be more loyal. But conscious capitalism is a young, largely untested business theory, and its efficacy claims haven’t been well studied. With Eckhardt and Dobscha’s research, that’s beginning to change. Over the course of a few months in 2017, they cased the Panera Cares in Boston and reviewed every single Yelp review of all five Panera Cares locations. They found that the food secure and insecure both had profound “physical, psychological, and philosophical” problems with the restaurant.

more here.

Notre Dame was Built to Last until The End of the World

Paul Mason at The New Statesman:

This is like losing the hard drive of medieval Paris. Every inch had meaning — not just the meaning imbued by the carpenter and the stonemason, but the meaning imbued by the student, the monk, the penitent — and then by the emergent French bourgeois society.

I know almost nothing about architecture, but I do understand music. And the music composed in Notre Dame during the high period of feudalism is some of the most complex, beautiful and emotionally expressive you will ever hear. Understanding the music helped me understand the building. Andrieu’s requiem dirge for Guillaume de Machaut, O Fleur des Fleurs, seems to be on loop inside my head. The challenge was to make it as complicated as possible but as directly expressive.

more here.

Lethal clues to cancer-cell vulnerability

Feng and Gilbert in Nature:

Suitable protein targets are needed to develop new anticancer drug-based treatments. Writing in NatureBehan et al.1 and Chan et al.2, and, in eLifeLieb et al.3, report that certain tumours that have deficiencies in a type of DNA-repair process require an enzyme called Werner syndrome ATP-dependent helicase (WRN) for their survival. If inhibitors of WRN are found, such molecules might be promising drug candidates for further testing.

Imagine a scenario in which scientists could perform an experiment that reveals how almost every gene in the human genome is dysregulated in cancer. Even better, what if such an investigation also offered a road map for how to select a target when trying to develop treatments that take aim at cancer cells, but are non-toxic to normal cells? A type of gene-editing technology called CRISPR–Cas9 enables just that in an approach termed functional genomics. Using this technique, the function of almost every gene in cell-based models of cancer (comprising human cells grown in vitro or in vivo animal models) can be perturbed, and the effect of each perturbation on cancer-cell survival can be measured.

CRISPR can be used to mutate, repress or activate any targeted human gene4,5. In functional genomics, gene function is assessed in a single experiment by growing a large number of cells and then perturbing one gene in each of the cells.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Skin Inside

Out there past the last old windmill
and the last stagnant canal—
the no-man’s land of western Dithmarschen—
cabbage and horseradish in rows of staggering accuracy
stretching all the way out to the frigid
gray-brown waters of the North Sea—
hard-hatted Day-Glo-vested workers perched high
in the new steel pylons rigging cables to connect
off-shore wind parks with the ant-hills of civilization—
I’ve got one hand on the steering wheel,
the other on the dial cranking up King Tubby’s
“A Better Version” nice and loud while waiting
most likely in vain in some kind of cerebral limbo
for the old symbolism to morph into
an entirely new vernacular—an idiom of sheer imagery
in which the images themselves have
no significance whatsoever but struggle nonetheless
to articulate the meaning of meaning—
a hall of mirrors where purity reigns
and the algorithm of death can no longer find you—
and if it’s a truth to be realized that your body is not
your own, then it must be a delegated image of heaven,
while the skin inside has a luster all its own,
reflecting back the warm glow from within.

Mark Terrill
from Empty Mirror


Robert Caro: (Obsessively) Working

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Robert Caro might well go down in history as the greatest American biographer of all time. Through two monumental biographies, one of Robert Moses – perhaps the most powerful man in New York City’s history – and the other an epic multivolume treatment of the life and times of Lyndon Johnson – perhaps the president who wielded the greatest political power of any in American history – Caro has illuminated what power and especially political power is all about, and the lengths men will go to acquire and hold on to it. Part deep psychological profiles, part grand portraits of their times, Caro has made the men and the places and times indelible. His treatment of individuals, while as complete as any that can be found, is in some sense only a lens through which one understands the world at large, but because he is such an uncontested master of his trade, he makes the man indistinguishable from the time and place, so that understanding Robert Moses through “The Power Broker” effectively means understanding New York City in the first half of the 20th century, and understanding Lyndon Johnson through “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” effectively means understanding America in the mid 20th century.

By drawing up this grand landscape, Caro has become one of the most obsessive and exhaustive non-fiction writers of all time, going to great lengths to acquire the most minute details about his subject, whether it’s tracking down every individual connected with a specific topic or interviewing them or spending six days a week in the archives. He worked for seven years on the Moses biography, and has worked an incredible forty-five years on the years of Lyndon Johnson. At 83 his fans are worried, and they are imploring him to finish the fifth and last volume as soon as possible. But Caro shows no sign of slowing down.

In “Working”, Caro takes the reader behind the scenes of some of his most important research, but this is not an autobiography – he helpfully informs us that that long book is coming soon (and anyone who has read Caro would know just how long it will be). He describes being overwhelmed by the 45 million documents in the LBJ library and the almost equal number in the New York Public Library, and obsessively combing through them every day from 9 AM to 6 PM cross-referencing memos, letters, government reports, phone call transcripts, the dreariest and most exciting written material and every kind of formal and informal piece of papers with individuals who he would then call or visit to interview. Read more »

Monday Poem


ahead, behind

“behind” may be a metaphor
….. “lingering to catch
what’s-up before you’re
so far ahead you’ve forgotten
what was on your mind
when blood was running fast
so that what’s-up is just a blur
hardly worth remembering,
a rush that didn’t last”

go slow so
life is not mere

Jim Culleny

Climate Solutions

by Joan Harvey

Where will you be in 2045?. . .

All of us right now can testify

Take a stand, radical man, oh

—Prince Rogers Nelson “2045 Radical Man”

Amid all the despair about our future (and there are plenty of reasons to be despairing), it also seems as if finally, maybe, the times they are a changin’. Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, 16, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work combating global warming. The Green New Deal, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as one of the more outspoken advocates, has the support of more than 80 percent of registered voters, according to a joint Yale and George Mason University survey. Increasingly people recognize that these mega-storms and fires, these terrible cold waves and cyclone bombs, these long droughts and flooded farms are related to global warming. Young people tragically understand that they will have a degraded future unless they act now. From the group of youth suing the U.S. government over their future, to Isra Hirsi, also 16 (daughter of Ilhan Omar), one of the three youth leaders planning the U.S. component of the March 15 International Youth Climate Strike, the world is waking up.

Extreme weather has become the devastating new normal. And everything is accelerating. Just the release of methane and carbon as tundra permafrost melts across Russia, northern Canada, and Alaska can add a couple of degrees to the heating of the globe. Wildfires release carbon and create smoke which traps more heat. Arctic sea ice used to be a shiny white surface that reflected sunshine, but now with ice melt we get a dark surface that absorbs heat. We’ve entered an age of runaway feedback loops. We kick off the loop and nature accelerates it. Ice is melting so fast that the science can’t keep up. We also need to remember that CO2 in the atmosphere stays there, with a half-life of millennia. Meanwhile in 2018, CO2 emissions in the U.S. rose 3.4 percent from the previous year. That is the second largest gain in in the last two decades, and one we can’t afford.

Everyone agrees time is of the essence. In a report released in October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that if the world is to contain the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, carbon emissions must be reduced by about fifty per cent before 2030, and completely phased out before 2050. There’s no time for shilly-shallying. Swift, decisive, smart action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is imperative.

I’m a member of, Bill McKibben’s project, as I suspect many 3QD readers are. Read more »