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The Alliance for Positive Thought Blog

Music: Now Additive-Free


Positive thought, unlike the chemical remedies for malaise, is completely harmless. You can't get addicted to meditation or music. No one ever died from singing in church.  Today's New York Times, in a piece about music therapy, notes:

In general what has power to heal has potential to harm. In the case of music, the truism appears not to apply. Allegations of adverse reactions, addiction or overdoses, to cite some of the most serious dangers, are rare, and those that might be cited seem either flatly incredible or specious in the extreme. In Wagner’s time some predicted that “Tristan und Isolde” would drive people insane, but where were the mental cases? And in our time we hear of military interrogators administering music nonstop at deafening volume as a form of torture lite. But surely the torture lies in sleep deprivation, repetition and trauma to the inner ear, not in exposure to the music as such.

Music, in fact is a terrific way to tap into the brain's link with the body, creating good health through good will.  This particular technique is a little newer and less well-understood than meditation and prayer.  But it has just as long a history as those other techniques as a part of religious practice, whether or not its practitioners understood its scientific underpinnings.  Like drugs, musical religious experiences can be euphoric in the short term; unlike them, it is healthy in the long term.  Music ecstasy may be attached to musical performances that are non-religious.  But these experiences lack the institutional and ideological focus that religion provides, which can enhance the musical experience beyond the joyous and into the realm of a component of a legitimate life philosophy.


Religion for Robots


Science fiction authors have been predicting for years the day when humanoid robots will roam the earth, and when mankind will be faced with a host of associated ethical issues. We still don't have C3PO, Data, The Terminator, Johnny 5 or Wall-E. But unlike the doomed flying car, scientists still believe that intelligent, man-made beings are in our future. Hans Moravec, chief scientist at Seegrid, a company that develops industrial robots capable of navigating on their own, believes that the fantastic robots of sci-fi will become reality within his lifetime.

The human retina is a patch of nervous tissue in the back of the eyeball half a millimeter thick and approximately two centimeters across. It consists mostly of light-sensing cells, but one tenth of a millimeter of its thickness is populated by image-processing circuitry that is capable of detecting edges (boundaries between light and dark) and motion for about a million tiny image regions. Each of these regions is associated with its own fiber in the optic nerve, and each performs about 10 detections of an edge or a motion each second. The results flow deeper into the brain along the associated fiber.

From long experience working on robot vision systems, I know that similar edge or motion detection, if performed by efficient software, requires the execution of at least 100 computer instructions. Therefore, to accomplish the retina’s 10 million detections per second would necessitate at least 1,000 MIPS.

The entire human brain is about 75,000 times heavier than the 0.02 gram of processing circuitry in the retina, which implies that it would take, in round numbers, 100 million MIPS (100 trillion instructions per second) to emulate the 1,500-gram human brain. Personal computers in 2008 are just about a match for the 0.1-gram brain of a guppy, but a typical PC would have to be at least 10,000 times more powerful to perform like a human brain.

Though dispiriting to artificial-intelligence experts, the huge deficit does not mean that the goal of a humanlike artificial brain is unreachable. Computer power for a given price doubled each year in the 1990s, after doubling every 18 months in the 1980s and every two years before that. Prior to 1990 this progress made possible a great decrease in the cost and size of robot-controlling computers. Cost went from many millions of dollars to a few thousand, and size went from room-filling to handheld. Power, meanwhile, held steady at about 1 MIPS. Since 1990 cost and size reductions have abated, but power has risen to about 10,000 MIPS for a home computer. At the present pace, only about 20 or 30 years will be needed to close the gap.

Of course, Mr. Moravec's logic is subject to argument. Scientists have long known that brain mass is not the best way to measure processing capability. Smaller people have smaller brains, and yet physical size is not a good predictor of intelligence. Whales have the largest brains of any animal on Earth, and yet humans like to consider themselves the most intelligent species.

Nevertheless, his conclusion that the processing power threshold for an artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence will eventually be reached is unimpeachable. As long as humans survive and prosper, technological progress will continue, which will ultimately lead to the creation of artificial intelligence. The only question is when. His answer, like many others in the field, is soon.

That brings us to the question that concerns us here: will these robots need or want something like religion?


How Big is God?


I have argued that humans lack knowledge about the organization of time/space on distance scales greater than 300 million light years or so, and that this lack of knowledge means that agnosticism is necessary regarding higher intelligence, to the extent that “higher intelligence” means an entity who exists on incredibly large distance scales. But what kinds of things or entities could we imagine exist on these scales?

When we talk about quantum mechanics, we accept that there is a different physics on small scales. We call the physics that we observe in our day to day lives, the gravity that holds us down, and the mechanics of objects that we can observe “macro level” or “Newtonian” physics. Suppose we imagine that there is something on larger distance scales than what we can observe. Let’s call this the “supermacroscopic” level.

When I talk about supermacroscopic physics, I am talking about huge things, bigger than galaxies, and obviously, we don’t know what exists on those scales, if anything. I can just imagine hypothetical supermacroscopic beings laughing at our feeble attempts to pretend we understand something about them. Of course, I don’t believe that there are Gods laughing at me – this imaginary entity I have created in my brain is a metaphor for the lack of knowledge that I have.

What do we know about the supermacroscopic? Almost nothing. It is easier to list what we do know, because that is a very short list. We know that there is some physics operating there that we don’t understand, because we can measure the influence of dark energy.


Religion and Self-Control


Research overwhelmingly supports the proposition that religion, in general, increases length and quality of life. In a forthcoming paper, McCullough and Willoughby attempt to fit an explanatory narrative to this well-established experimental result: that “self-control” is the trait promoted by religion that results in benefits in health and well-being. This paper is discussed in today’s New York Times Science Section. Unfortunately, the research cited by the authors of the paper is contradictory and does not support their conclusions.


Pig Organs and Evolutionary Ethics


Lord Winston of Imperial College, London, said recently that he believes pig organs will be available for human transplant within ten years. Porcine valves are already widely used for human heart patients, but this kind of experimentation often provokes revulsion and ethical outrage, despite its potential to save lives. Why?

The argument made by those who oppose interspecies transplant is that humans are sacred and that we ought not play God. Further, genetic experimentation is dangerous because gene modifications could have unintended consequences. And for many of us who do not oppose stem-cell research or other research avenues, porcine organs just seems revolting.

And there may be another motivation for opposing research into life-extending therapies. Religions serve their interests when they oppose medical research, because they prevent progress that has the potential to increase lifespan. If medical science can provide immortality, that’s one less perk of signing up for a religion that promises eternal bliss and salvation.

If human beings are chemical concoctions lacking free will then the ethical objections to interspecies transplant and genetic modification melt away, except to the extent that these practices harm either our survival prospects or harm ideas which promote survival.

Of course, if all of the ideas that compose our intuitive ethic arose through evolutionary processes, it could be argued that revulsion with mixing our genetic material with that of animals must confer an evolutionary benefit.

The trick in tackling controversial ethical propositions using an evolutionary ethic is sometimes teasing out which aspects of the intuition, or socially or biologically conditioned ethical feeling, actually produce the survival benefit, and which aspects are mere side effects. Evolutionary biologists who believe that all traits produce survival benefits are “adaptationist,” but the non-adapationists have strong arguments; so many human behaviors seem like they are just side-effects.

Why do men wear neckties? I cannot imagine even the beginnings of a theory to explain how this behavior confers some evolutionary advantage over wearing some other attire or wearing no neckwear at all. Wearing neckties must be a behavioral consequence of some other general behaviors and preferences which increase our chances for survival. The necktie-wearing behavior is just a side effect.

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