Daniel Dennett on Consciousness

One of my favorite philosophers was on The Economist Asks,


The Economist asks: What is consciousness?

Every word is a little software agent that replicates and competes for space in people’s minds and on the page and everywhere else. It’s the differential reproduction of things like words, and other memes that can’t be pronounced, that’s what creates human culture. – Daniel Dennett

His new book is From Bacteria to Bach and Back.  I love Daniel Dennett. The human groups that could communicate essential information; danger/safe attack/hide food/poison. Those groups would have a higher probability of survival than the ones who could not. What an insightful application of knowledge at work in that observation. All of it because of him and his work. I (and science) will be forever in his debt.

Facebook status update backdated to the blog. 

Abortion: As Natural as Life Itself

I keep getting hung up on the fact that the subjects of abortion and “when does human life begin?” are still an issue. I am genuinely baffled by this fact because these questions have never (and I do mean never) been something I suffered moral quandaries about. The reason this has never been an issue for me is the subject of my soon to be completed chapter on EPHN which goes into the murky world of what human life is and why most opinion on the subject is completely wrong, but since that chapter will not be about abortion but the distinction between life and human life, that leaves me with a ton of text that I’ve written over the years on the subject of abortion itself that really needs to be published or re-published under its own heading.

I’ve lost several Facebook friends over the years because of this subject, largely because I cannot let falsehoods stand unchallenged.  This argument goes back to the dawn of my internet experience (much like the subjects of gender and homosexuality) and spans complete shifts in most of my other opinions on other subjects.  This one, though.  On this subject I know what reality is.  Reality is harsh, it is brutish, and it isn’t fair.

The natural world doesn’t worry about those softer concepts. The young, the old and the infirm are the most common fodder for the predator. The unsuspecting are the victims of the parasite. In evolutionary terms, procreation is fundamental to an organism’s success. It doesn’t matter how many of the species is killed just as long as a mating pair survives long enough to mate and produce sufficient offspring to continue the species. That fact of life is the reason that sex exists, and that is also the reason that sex feels good. It feels good so as to encourage the organism to engage in the activity more often. Any other interpretation of the reasons for the processes are a matter of individual delusion or group ritual (which is phenomenally about the same as mass delusion) there are social reasons to engage in sex outside of procreation (pair bonding as one example) but those reasons do not negate the actual purpose of the act.

After a similar fashion, the natural world has no problem with abortion.  Three quarters (or thereabouts) of all fertilized eggs do not produce live offspring.  Half of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. The vast majority of potential human lives never see the light of day with human eyes, because nature is a harsh judge of viability.

Until very recently in the civilized parts of the world, infant mortality was astronomically high. It was commonplace for women to have 8 to 10 children and yet only 3 or 4 make it to adulthood. In some parts of the world these death rates still occur.

It is the mark of several decades of arguing this subject that I can rattle off these facts without having to consult reference material to back them up. The links to this information have long slipped my mind, and searching for the current location of the information is time-consuming and largely pointless.  If you doubt the facts dear reader, please take the time to verify them. Here is your fair warning in advance; If your source has anything to do with the anti-abortion industry, I will reject it.  They have been shown to be lying time and time again.

So abortion and child death are normal states in nature.  As mentioned previously, predators single out the young, the old and the infirm as their first targets for consumption. They are easier to take down, and the herd animals will leave them behind in order to preserve the remaining numbers of the herd.  Predators that live birth large litters of young will frequently eat the smaller, sicklier young themselves. Nature is brutish in this way.

Into this world we too are born.  But as the lucky few of the lucky even smaller few, we exist in a world of science. We have science-based medicine to thank for the dramatic reduction in child deaths, mothers dying in childbirth, epidemics that halve the populations of entire nations of people. We have government to thank for civilizing the vast majority of the world’s population, enforcing laws that are (Hopefully. As the future continues to regress into the past I remain hopeful) grounded in common sense and science.

At the very least, the courts which try laws and the violators of law have rules based on solid science and evidence. Which is where we get to the popular confusion concerning life, human life and abortion.

Among the generally reasonable people who just want to get through their day so that they can have time at the end of the day to relax, there is a very large section of the population who don’t understand how much of our society is actually based on science; don’t realize that the very technology used to write this blog, the technology you used to get here to read it, means that science is based on objective reality.  That the existence of this technology means that reality is as I’ve described it so far.  These people are magical thinkers. I haven’t written that blog entry (one day I will) but for the purpose of this article suffice it to say that these people are not satisfied with reality as it exists. They’d like very much to believe that reality is something which can be bypassed or altered.

These people see that they want their children. They see that they love their children, and they cannot conceive of a world where children are not wanted at best and are a liability at worst. They are outraged at the notion that people might engage in sexual activity without intending to have children. They are inflamed with righteous indignation that women are avoiding the punishment of having to raise the children that they’ve created because science and medicine have created an escape for them by harnessing the powers of nature that already exist. Already exist and are used to get rid of the majority of conceived offspring.

The magical thinker in question is usually a member of a religion; and in the US that religion is overwhelmingly one of the hundreds of variants known colloquially as christianity. Christians are convinced that their god is opposed to abortion even though the natural world (which he also made if he exists) utilizes abortion on a much greater scale than we humans could ever achieve. Attempting to show these christians that their holy book makes no mention of abortion has been a futile effort in my experience. Most christians accept Catholic dogma on the subject, even though the majority of US christians are protestants whose ancestors spent precious blood escaping from Catholic rule.

Most of them are also unswayed by arguments that Judaism (the precursor to christianity) rules the beginning of life as the taking of the first breath; that the soul enters the body with that breath of air. Why this argument doesn’t sway is anybody’s guess, because science tends to agree with the idea that breathing air allows for consciousness to occur. Consciousness which is the hallmark of human life;

…Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Roughly two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration. Thus, many of the circuit elements necessary for consciousness are in place by the third trimester. By this time, preterm infants can survive outside the womb under proper medical care. And as it is so much easier to observe and interact with a preterm baby than with a fetus of the same gestational age in the womb, the fetus is often considered to be like a preterm baby, like an unborn newborn. But this notion disregards the unique uterine environment: suspended in a warm and dark cave, connected to the placenta that pumps blood, nutrients and hormones into its growing body and brain, the fetus is asleep.

Invasive experiments in rat and lamb pups and observational studies using ultrasound and electrical recordings in humans show that the third-trimester fetus is almost always in one of two sleep states. Called active and quiet sleep, these states can be distinguished using electroencephalography. Their different EEG signatures go hand in hand with distinct behaviors: breathing, swallowing, licking, and moving the eyes but no large-scale body movements in active sleep; no breathing, no eye movements and tonic muscle activity in quiet sleep. These stages correspond to rapid-eye-movement (REM) and slow-wave sleep common to all mammals. In late gestation the fetus is in one of these two sleep states 95 percent of the time, separated by brief transitions.

What is fascinating is the discovery that the fetus is actively sedated by the low oxygen pressure (equivalent to that at the top of Mount Everest), the warm and cushioned uterine environment and a range of neuroinhibitory and sleep-inducing substances produced by the placenta and the fetus itself: adenosine; two steroidal anesthetics, allopregnanolone and pregnanolone; one potent hormone, prostaglandin D2; and others. The role of the placenta in maintaining sedation is revealed when the umbilical cord is closed off while keeping the fetus adequately supplied with oxygen. The lamb embryo now moves and breathes continuously. From all this evidence, neonatologists conclude that the fetus is asleep while its brain matures.

Scientific American

These same magical thinkers rail against the decision of Roe Vs. Wade completely oblivious to the benefit that they gain from having a right to privacy established in the Constitution (Ninth Amendment) granting them the privilege of private conversation with their doctors and attorneys. They are equally oblivious to the biology behind why the third trimester of a pregnancy is the only part of a pregnancy which the government should rightly have any say over; and then only on the presumption that more inhabitants of the state are good for the state.

With the passage of the ACA, the argument about abortion has devolved somewhat.  Now it isn’t enough simply to think abortion murder (which it demonstrably isn’t. But I’ll get to that) Now the opposition to abortion has lost a bit of it’s holier-than-thou mask and completely endorsed the Catholic dogma against birth control, morning after pills, and women’s healthcare in general.  Conservatives and the Religious Right (once derisively labeled the Reich. They can have the word right and the right side of the aisle for all I care now) have become well-nigh hysterical on the subject of abortion and women’s health choices, largely because of the dual nature of a record decline in the number of Americans who attend church and the fact that most resistance to abortion is religiously motivated;

In spite of the small shift toward opposition to legal abortion, the basic contours of the debate are still intact, with most major groups lining up on the same side of the issue as they have in the past. For example, most people who regularly attend religious services continue to come down in opposition to abortion, while the large majority of those who rarely or never attend religious services still support legal abortion.

The survey also reveals continued polarization over abortion. Even as the public expresses support for finding a middle ground, most Americans are quite certain that their own position on abortion is the right one, with only a quarter (26%) saying they ever wonder about their views on the issue. This is a slight decline since 2006, when 30% expressed doubts about their own view on abortion. Furthermore, many people on both sides of the issue say that the opposite point of view on abortion is not a “respectable” opinion for someone to hold. Nearly half of abortion opponents (47%), including 62% of those who say abortion should be illegal in all cases, say that a pro-choice view is not a respectable opinion for someone to hold. On the other side, 42% of abortion supporters (including 54% of those who want abortion to be legal in all cases) say the pro-life point of view is not respectable.

Pew

Attend church services weekly; 73% favor making all abortion illegal. There’s your pro-life movement, and that movement is shrinking at a regular rate; is already smaller than it has been at any time in US history, and is only going to get smaller as time goes on.

Their declining numbers leads to attempts to tie resistance to abortion being legal to humanitarian feelings, but that is a lie perpetrated by the desperate;

The current secular consensus, however, is that all stages of human life do not merit equal protection. As mentioned above, it’s an uncontroversially easy choice to allow a woman to live, not her fetus, when that choice is forced by a dangerous pregnancy.

The Humanist

 Which also addresses why abortion is not murder; because not all stages of life are protectable or even demonstrably human in any way beyond basic genetic makeup.  Human life is governed by several necessary components; volitional will, conscious mind, corporeal existence, breath and heartbeat. That abortion stops a beating heart is only an observation that the autonomic functions of the brain stem have been established.  The brain itself is not functioning in any meaningful way until well into the third trimester; and even then the brain (if it even exists) is in a sleep state until after birth.

In the first trimester (when the vast majority of abortions and chemical interventions take place) there isn’t even a beating heart yet.  This doesn’t stop the punishment obsessed from inflicting the requirement for ultrasound examinations and various other forms of near-torture on the woman who is contemplating an abortion;

Halfway through my pregnancy, I learned that my baby was ill. Profoundly so. My doctor gave us the news kindly, but still, my husband and I weren’t prepared. Just a few minutes earlier, we’d been smiling giddily at fellow expectant parents as we waited for the doctor to see us. In a sonography room smelling faintly of lemongrass, I’d just had gel rubbed on my stomach, just seen blots on the screen become tiny hands. For a brief, exultant moment, we’d seen our son—a brother for our 2-year-old girl.

Yet now my doctor was looking grim and, with chair pulled close, was speaking of alarming things. “I’m worried about your baby’s head shape,” she said. “I want you to see a specialist—now.”

My husband looked angry, and maybe I did too, but it was astonishment more than anger. Ours was a profound disbelief that something so bad might happen to people who think themselves charmed. We already had one healthy child and had expected good fortune to give us two.Instead, before I’d even known I was pregnant, a molecular flaw had determined that our son’s brain, spine and legs wouldn’t develop correctly. If he were to make it to term—something our doctor couldn’t guarantee—he’d need a lifetime of medical care. From the moment he was born, my doctor told us, our son would suffer greatly.

Texas Observer

That is how you can get to the second trimester and not act to terminate a pregnancy. It isn’t laziness or inconvenience or even wanton disregard.  It is that these things take time to determine. This poor woman’s story isn’t even rare or particularly hard to sympathize with.  Nor was it over;

“I’m so sorry that I have to do this,” the doctor told us, “but if I don’t, I can lose my license.” Before he could even start to describe our baby, I began to sob until I could barely breathe. Somewhere, a nurse cranked up the volume on a radio, allowing the inane pronouncements of a DJ to dull the doctor’s voice. Still, despite the noise, I heard him. His unwelcome words echoed off sterile walls while I, trapped on a bed, my feet in stirrups, twisted away from his voice.

“Here I see a well-developed diaphragm and here I see four healthy chambers of the heart…”

I closed my eyes and waited for it to end, as one waits for the car to stop rolling at the end of a terrible accident.

When the description was finally over, the doctor held up a script and said he was legally obliged to read me information provided by the state. It was about the health dangers of having an abortion, the risks of infection or hemorrhage, the potential for infertility and my increased chance of getting breast cancer. I was reminded that medical benefits may be available for my maternity care and that the baby’s father was liable to provide support, whether he’d agreed to pay for the abortion or not.

Texas observer

Most second and third trimester abortions fall into this category.  In fact, only 5% of third trimester abortions occur because of delay, even delay with a valid reason.  95% of third trimester abortions occur because of a defect in the fetus that would be life-threatening, a defect that couldn’t be diagnosed until this late stage of pregnancy.  So the overwhelming majority of women seeking abortion in the third trimester are needlessly subjected to shaming measures in the misbegotten hope that they will carry to term and deliver a child which will die shortly after birth.  The best outcome for these pregnancies if they were not aborted is that the child produced will grow up into an adult who will always be a burden on society.

This makes third trimester abortion resistance nothing more than a smoke-screen, and a harmful one at that. The laws which the well-meaning have gotten passed have only served to torment women who want to have healthy children, but have been unlucky enough to have a pregnancy that tests positive for birth defects. Most of them desperately wanted to have their children but have finally accepted the inevitable. They are then subjected to torment by protesters outside the clinics they don’t even want to go to, and then tormented by law by healthcare practitioners who are chained to requirements over which they have not control.

When I said reality is harsh, it is brutish, and it isn’t fair I wasn’t joking. And I wasn’t even talking about abortion then. I was talking about the ease with which it is to find oneself pregnant. The notion that all children are wanted, or that all women see their pregnancies as a blessing (or even a potential life) is soft-headed bullshit, just to be blunt.  Ask any poor child starving anywhere in the world (even in the US) if they felt their existence was valued, that life was worth living, and you are likely to be shocked by the answer.

…And that is today, when abortion is legal and generally available.  If you travel to Southern Asia or Africa or South America to regions where women are still treated as property, you will run into the kinds of offspring that used to be common everywhere around the world.  Children that women were forced to have because no alternatives were available to them.  Unwanted children who turn into criminal-minded adults that are a plague on society as a whole.

This is a statistical fact laid out by the authors of Freakonomics. the wiki page describes it this way;

The effect of legalized abortion on crime (sometimes referred to as the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis) is the theory that legal abortion reduces crime. Proponents of the theory generally argue that since unwanted children are more likely to become criminals and that an inverse correlation is observed between the availability of abortion and subsequent crime. Not only that, but children born under these conditions are usually less fortunate as enough preparation was not put in place for their birth and upbringing. In particular, it is argued that the legalization of abortion in the United States, largely due to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, has reduced crime in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Opponents generally reject these statistics, and argue that abortion has negative effects on society or decrease in crime is brought about in other ways.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If you don’t believe this, read the book.  I have read the book, and several books after that.  I have researched the counters and the later revelations on the influence of lead in gasoline on violence in society.  Nothing seen so far disproves the hypothesis that abortion had a noticeable effect in lowering crime rates in the US; and it bears thinking that perhaps freeing women from chattel states throughout the parts of the world where they are still deemed property, and providing them with access to modern healthcare including abortion and contraception might lead to more stable societies in those areas.

Because reality isn’t fair.  It makes sex irresistible to the people among us (the young) who are least able to provide for the offspring sex produces. The cost of raising a child is astronomical (projected as over $245,000 in 2015) where is the average 16 to 18 year old going to find that kind of money? Are we, as a society going to foot that bill?  Anyone?  Ready to ante up the cost of raising all the unwanted children all over the world as a means of stemming the plague of abortion? where will we house the extra millions who need to be housed, feed them, clothe them, etc., when the world population already tops 7 billion and the maximum projected supportable population (with current technology) is 10 billion?

No, I really want to know! You want to stop abortion, but you don’t want to pay for the consequences of removing that option from the table. Tell me how we stop people from having children they can’t raise without allowing them to decide if they can afford children or not.  Because any plan that doesn’t include those calculations is just magical thinking, and this is the real world.


Now for the emotional argument. A bit of proof that I do understand where anti-abortionists are coming from. I have two children of my own. When I say that people who oppose abortion fail to grasp objectivity on this subject (barring rock-solid counter evidence) my subjective, anecdotal experience with my own children bears out this observation.

My children were persons from the time I knew they existed, and I would have been devastated if anything had kept them from becoming the people that they are today.  No amount of knowledge concerning the limited nature of their selves while in the womb and even several years after their birth could modify the way I thought of them, treated them.  They were always going to become adults, people, responsible humans if only I managed not to screw things up.

I got lucky.  Or maybe it was just plodding, methodical planning.  In any case, they’ve grown up well and I’ve never had to make the kinds of choices that other potential parents have had to make.  We could have waited and things could have been easier, but you play the hand you are dealt.  That is a mantra I’ve lived with all my life.

…and the rock-solid evidence that counters my understanding of reality? I know what form it would take. Prove the existence of the soul. I don’t mean have faith that we have one, I mean scientifically prove the existence of the soul.  That is the evidence that would counter all court decisions and scientific evidence accumulated to date.  Ensoulment is what believers hang their hats on when they talk about personhood being a part of the fertilized egg.  Most of them have enough caution not to bring that up as proof these days.

Believers have been trying to prove the existence of the soul since science was discovered.  All of them have come up empty, and there were a lot more scientists who believed in the existence of the soul when science was young than there are now that we have progressed as far as we have today in our understanding of the natural world. Our understanding of science itself.  

But that is also another blog entry.

“So, don’t speak to me about abortion, about the sacredness of human LIFE, when you don’t give a damn about the future of the planet, when you prize the warrior over the peacemaker and the teacher, when you’d build walls to keep out human life and pull the ladder up after yourself, when you don’t think all human life deserves liberty, justice, access to healthcare, clean water, adequate food, a decent place to live, education, safety, and the right to define themselves as they will.”

Stonekettle Station

To Grok in Fullness

“You grok,” Smith repeated firmly. “I am explain. I did not have the word. You grok. Anne groks. I grok. The grass under my feet groks in happy beauty. But I needed the word. The word is God.”
Jubal shook his head to clear it. “Go ahead.”
Mike pointed triumphantly at Jubal. “Thou art God!”

Robert A. Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land

I find it ironical that failure to communicate ideas (generally philosophical/religious ideas) always sends me scurrying back into the dusty cupboards of my mind, only to fall upon that phrase in the end.

From: Mindset by Carol Dweck; h/t to Brian Pickings

I don’t think most people read, even the ones who do.  I find that I don’t actually read a lot of the things presented to me these days. I mean read as in; take the time to soak up the words.  Not just look at their surface, but really understand the meaning of the words as arranged on the page.  To grok them, as they exist.

The tons of text presented to us each day in today’s world precludes us from spending time actually thinking about what the words mean, What we mean in the words.  So we skim.  We assume intent on the part of the writer, trust that the structure will lead a predictable direction, and skip to the ending to assure ourselves our assumptions were correct.

Gone are the days laying on the floor in the sun-illumined dust, turning pages in earnest, breathlessly exploring the bounds of knowledge.  Now it’s electronic pre-determinism and endless counter-attack against ideas we aren’t even sure our opponents are supporting, but we think it’s there in the text we didn’t actually take time to read.

Listening to a book isn’t reading it.  It is a valuable experience to be read to, I’m not knocking that.  I have read whole series of books to my children, some of them more than once. A good reader can add himself to the work, making it more than it was when written. But then it isn’t the work as the writer intended it; just as the movie isn’t the written word, either.

You cannot grok the intent of the writer through headphones, listening while you are doing something else.  Suddenly the reader seems to be editorializing on your ability to fold towels, the words interwoven with the task you were performing, the two inextricably interwoven in your memory.  When you try to recall the subject, suddenly you feel like doing laundry or walking the dog. Why does thinking about that lecture bring up images from a video game?

To understand the meaning of the words, you have to read the words in the form they were written in, to get a feel for each individual character and it’s placement in the word, the word in the sentence, the sentence in the paragraph, because that is how the idea came to the writer in the first place.

That is how you Grok.  But don’t expect me to agree with you, the writer, just because I understand you.  That is a whole different set of problems.

When Does Life Begin?

Reposted here from the FTL forum.


Always, when discussing Abortion (as I have a few times) the question of whether an abortion is murder or not revolves around when life begins; after all, a civilization does not condone murder of the innocent and still remain a civilization in anything but name. So inevitably, the concerned individual asks these questions of himself. Does life begin at conception? (the typical religious answer) When the brain shows activity complex enough to signal consciousness? When the child is born? When the individual develops? (2 or 3 years of age) When does life begin?

How about the missing option? That life has no beginning point. Living tissues from the parents combine to make a living creature that grows in independence until one day it borrows the car keys and crashes the family car, moves out on it’s own and doesn’t call except when it needs something, and eventually confines you to an old-folks home. C’est la vie.

Well, if life doesn’t have a hard and fast beginning point (as the argument usually evolves) when does interrupting the process of growth constitute muder? That is a tricky question. I think we can afford limited legal protection of the fetus sometime in the third trimester, because that is when limited consciousness occurs.

A parent who kills their own child under a certain age (2 or 3) should not be guilty of murder in the normal sense. Psychologically, they are killing a part of themselves, and this changes the crime from the normal homicide to something else. Sterilization of those types of people should be a punishment option. People who kill children should not have more children that they can then also abuse.

A person is entitled to be free from aggression against his or her life.

“Free from aggression” is a dangerous phrase. What about punishment? Time-out? Every method for modifying behavior at a parents disposal can and will be seen as aggression by the child. I know that you mean aggression in a life or death sense, but the best of intentions can be perverted to the worst of uses.

Children remain emotionally and mentally attached to their parents long past the point when they can realistically be called children. (I really hate it when people refer to 16-18 year olds as ‘children’. They aren’t. In the same sense, I know plenty of 20 year olds who don’t deserve the label ‘adult’. Hence the phrase…) Young adults should be able to declare themselves emancipated when they deem that the time has arrived. Until that point they remain tied to their parents in some form, and so cannot be “Free from aggression” in the normal child rearing sense.

Although you may argue that the woman has the right to rescind her consent to carry the baby, once the fetus has reached the level of consciousness required to qualify as a person, then the child’s rights must also be considered.

In a theoretical/legal sense, perhaps. Realistically, I have to fall back on the “How do you protect children from their own parents” point that always seems to get overlooked. Unless you are willing to separate parent and child forcefully, you really can’t. Someone else mentioned an outreach program designed to intervene in late term unwanted pregnancy cases. A program designed to reimburse the mother-to-be for agreeing to carry the child to term and then adopt it out.

…That sounds like a good solution on the surface. I would still object to labeling a woman who had a late term abortion (or the doctor who performed it) a ‘murderer’. There are plenty of medically valid reasons why a pregnancy cannot be carried full term; reasons that might not be detectable until late in the pregnancy. If you have to make a choice, better to save one life than loose both.