I’m trying to concentrate on writing this piece, but my two grandchildren in the room next door have stopped making paper aeroplanes and started arguing. ‘You kicked me,’ yells Freya. Her brother Ben insists it was an accident. ‘I didn’t mean to,’ he cries.Continue reading
Biologist Marston Bates once described research as “the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.” Bates was referring to the inherent uncertainty in predicting and managing the scientific process. Research funding, particularly for fundamental science, can be a seemingly risky investment because of the uncertainty of a study’s impact. However, it is imperative that fundamental science is not viewed as a luxury, but as a necessary investment that has the potential to yield significant returns.
Cognitive scientists have known for decades that humans are inherently irrational when it comes to making economic decisions. This may seem obvious to a good poker player, who will likely utilize mathematical probability to make economic decisions during a poker game, but to most people the fact that they have systematic economic biases might come as a surprise.Continue reading
Nature is so predictable. Or is it? On Monday, August 21, 2017, thousands will travel to see the first total solar eclipse in the contiguous United States since 1979. Peering back into the minds of our ancestors, we often recount ancient eclipse memories as omens of chaos.Continue reading
“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” – René Magritte
Magritte’s comments on our fascination with the unknown rings true not just in artistic surrealism, but also in many of our scientific research endeavors. The human mind is continually fascinated with what it has yet to understand, and curiously enough, the human mind itself is one such mystery. However, recent efforts focused on imaging and analyzing the entire brain, performed by both scientists and artists alike, have helped shed some light on this mystery. With this new technology, however, comes the question of how neuroimaging can influence the perspectives of a sentient being. What does it mean to see a reflection of our own cognition, both for our understanding of science and for our perception of humanity and living creatures?
Whether you’re listening through tinny iPhone headphones on your morning commute or crying at a John Mayer concert, there is a special place in our hearts for music. But what is the biological basis for that magical sensation we feel when listening to our favorite song?
The Matrix made all of us ask the same disturbing questions: How do I know that the world I see, hear, and touch is real? Can I prove that I’m not actually in a pod created by machines bent on harvesting my bioelectricity?Continue reading
Is consciousness everywhere? Is it a basic feature of the Universe, at the very heart of the tiniest subatomic particles? Such an idea – panpsychism as it is known – might sound like New Age mysticism, but some hard-nosed analytic philosophers have suggested it might be how things are, and it’s now a hot topic in philosophy of mind.
Common sense tells us that only living things have an inner life. Rabbits and tigers and mice have feelings, sensations and experiences; tables and rocks and molecules do not. Panpsychists deny this datum of common sense. According to panpsychism, the smallest bits of matter – things such as electrons and quarks – have very basic kinds of experience; an electron has an inner life.Continue reading
In Part II of this series, we considered artificial intelligent in the context of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Space Odyssey, intelligence is arguably seen as an end in-and-of itself, rather than a means to an end. Flowers for Algernon, a short story later turned into a novel by author Daniel Keyes, questions that assumption while considering the ethical implications of artificially manipulating a person’s intelligence.
The protagonist of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon, a janitor who begins the story with intellectual disability, or mental retardation as it was referred to at the time when Keyes wrote the story. Gordon’s intellectual disability is a result of phenylketonuria, a real life metabolic disorder resulting from mutations of the gene encoding phenylalanine hydroxylase, an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine. An inability to metabolize this amino acid causes its toxic build up in the brain, often resulting in a low IQ and other problems, such as mental disorders.
In our previous post, we considered the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the context of a thought experiment: a thinking tool used by scientists and philosophers to reframe an unintuitive problem in a new, more familiar context.
Another great thought experiment of the 1960s is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Developed in parallel as both a novel by Arthur C. Clarke and a film by Stanley Kubrick, Space Odyssey is a story about the evolution of humanity and intelligence. Beginning with the invention of tool use in Africa, the story asks how intelligence might continue to evolve after humans develop sophisticated technology. Both the novel and the film follow astronaut Dave Bowman on his journey to the Outer Solar System guided by HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence (AI) that controls the spaceship and is responsible for the well being of the crew.