The state of the world

Daniel Alroy

Revised 2016, July 16


Coupling what can be, with what ought to be, done. From the evolutionary perspective, species come and go. Whether or not the current millennium is Homo sapiens’ last depends on what is done this century. Rational policy decision couples what can be done with what ought to be done. What can be done is represented by technology - the most successful part of knowledge. What ought to be done is within the exclusive domain of ethics, a field of philosophy – the most troubled part of knowledge. It is as if technology is catapulting humanity into an unknown future, while dysfunctional notions of what ought to be done have set the trajectory toward possible extinction. Listed below are four developments that have long-term global impact to serve as a backdrop before the challenge is addressed.


Information technology. The engine that has driven information technology revolution is the semiconductor technology. It is best exemplified by the growth of the number of transistors per unit area of silicon of memory chips. Consider a 1 gigabit (1Gb) random access memory (RAM) chip. The silicon area it occupies is about the same as the single transistor integrated circuit of 1960. The production cost per unit area of silicon has grown only modestly. Hence, for the first approximation, the billion-fold increase in density reflects a billion-fold drop in the cost per transistor. In addition, the increased density of transistors reduced the distance between them thus increasing processing speed. Thus, information processing cost dropped several orders of magnitude beyond the cost per transistor. Public domain databases make available billions dollar worth of information free to any interested person. No government had such information available a century ago. The information technology revolution shows that history is unidirectional. History can no longer be used as a guide for the future.


Climate Change. The first industrial revolution was powered by burning fossil fuel, producing carbon dioxide (CO2) as a by-product. A significant part of that CO2 ends in the oceans, where it causes acidification. In 2015, the CO2 level in the atmosphere and the acidification of the oceans reached records last occurred some 4 million years ago. Then, the sea level was some twenty meters higher than now. Melting of the polar ice is likely to result in similar increase in the level of the oceans. These trends are neither reversible nor stoppable this century. The question the question is what ought to be done. And again, The capability of effectively addressing the problem depends on first bringing the related aspect of knowledge up to date.


Another instance of unintended consequences



The United Nations programs in Africa. After the liberation of Africa from colonial rule the UN began providing food and medicine toward assisting these countries toward self-rule. One consequence of that help those help was a drop in child mortality and the increase in population. The population of Africa was 229 million in 1950. It is projected to grow tenfold to 2.4 billion by 2050, and to 3.6 billion by century end of the current century. The growth of food production has not kept pace with the growth of the population, and Africa cannot feed its current population of 1.2 billion. This has resulted in a growing flow of immigrants from Africa to more developed countries.


The 1950 Hague Convention. The non-democratic rule in many African countries justifies migrants with claim of asylum seekers. The United Nations 1950 Hague Convention guarantee such persons the following rights:


Not getting sent back to their home countries 



The right to not be punished for illegally entering signatory



The right to housing 



The right to work



Access to education 



Access to public assistance



Access to courts



The right to get identification and travel documents 



The European Union. The European Union is a signatory to the Hague Convention. Hence the right of persons claiming the status of asylum seekers is guaranteed by law. It is therefore possible, and indeed likely, that by the end of the current century Africans will be the majority in Europe. The prospect that European may find themselves minority in their own countries rises again the question what is the right thing to be done.


Biotechnology. Recent advances in biotechnology make it now possible to wrest from nature the future of human evolution. This awesome power makes central the question what ought to be done. It turns out that the conceptual framework for addressing the question is dysfunctional, For this reason that question would remain beyond rational consideration until the foundation of knowledge, including ethics, are brought up to date.

The Pupil of the Eye – an Epistemological Tidbit

Daniel Alroy

2016 June 5


The constriction and dilation of the pupil of the eye demonstrates that



humans have some innate and universal mental states



some such states manifest knowledge about the world prior to experience.



the mind affects the brain and behavior.

These facts are epistemologically significant because they disprove currently held misconceptions.


Pupil-size is be affected by lighting as well as by emotional attitudes



Darkness dilates the pupils; brightness constricts them



Liking a person we encounter dilates, and disliking constricts, pupil-size;



We like persons with dilated pupils and dislike those with constricted pupils



The three conditions in A2 are innate and universal.



Constriction of pupil-size of a person encountering you involuntarily reveals negative response, and possible negative intent. This evolutionary wisdom constitutes vital knowledge prior to experience.


We don’t have direct voluntary control of the size of the pupil. But we can affect it by top-down attention. If we imagine a bright light, the pupil constricts; if we imagine darkness, the pupil dilates. Similarly, if we imagine being with a person we dislike, our pupils constrict; if we imagine we are with a person we like, our pupils dilate. This fact demonstrates the ability of the non-physical mind to affect the physical brain. The current dogma is that the non-physical mind is causally inert. Evolution apparently found otherwise.

Notes toward a new foundation of knowledge

Daniel Alroy

2016, May 23



Biotechnology. Recent advances in sequencing and editing genomes make it now possible to wrest from nature the future of human evolution. This awesome power makes the question what ought to be done central. However, science and technology can only provide information about what can be done, but not about what ought to be done. Addressing the question what ought to be done is within the domain of philosophy, specifically the subfield of ethics. The basic tenets of ethics are an empirical issue: Are there innate commonalities of human nature? Can choices made affect behavior? In conclusion, at present there is no empirically based conceptual frame-work with which to address the vital most issues confronting humanity this century. The time has come to bring the foundation of knowledge up to date. It may prove to be a survival imperative.


Innateness. Brain prosthetics for the born deaf elicit sensations of sound by the direct electrical stimulation of hearing-related brain loci. This proves that the sensation of sound is innate and evoked by the brain. The same is true of all sensations. Hence, our experience of the world is phenomenal. Our knowledge of the physical is inferred from the phenomenal. This consequence brings to an end the three hundred year-old legacy of the tabula rasa doctrine (Locke 1690; Hume 1777).


Mental causation. Brain loci that are activated when a voluntary movement is made are also activated when such a movement is imagined. This fact is the basis for providing persons paralyzed from the neck down with brain computer interface (BCI) to control with their thoughts things like moving the location of a cursor on a computer screen or the action of a mechanical wheelchair. Thus, it is commonplace for the non-physical mind to affect the brain. These facts show that the assumption that only physical causes can have physical effects is false, and consequently that physics is a profoundly incomplete description of nature.


Human nature and conduct. The innate commonalities that underlie the apparent diversity of human cultures constitute human nature. Human nature is the empirical grounds for human conduct. The tabula rasa doctrine denies that any mental faculty is innate. It contributed to the fact that ethical and legal systems of the West are non-universal. Such systems are inherently ineffective in addressing long-term global issues. In due course ethical and legal systems will be put on firmer empirical grounds – the earlier the better.


Whatever is true of all cell types of the body is necessarily true of brain cells

2016 May 24


The Cell



The cell is the basic unit of function. To the first approximation the cell-types of an organism contain the same genome. What distinguishes one cell-type from another are the proteins that can be, or are expressed in it. The protein-specificity of the cell is the primary determinant of its phenotype and intrinsic function. Whatever is true for all cell-types of the body is necessarily true for brain cells.


The discovery of the structure of DNA and cell-type- specificity. Ever since Theodor Schwann identified the cell as the basic unit of function, without proving the mechanism of action. The discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 shed light on how the molecular constitution of the cell determines its phenotype and intrinsic function. There are no empirical studies indicating the need to downplay the central role of cells in biological function.


Three fields where the cell does not play central role



Genetics. In genetics, a gene is identified by its location on a particular chromosome and its expression in a particular organism. In some cases, the parts of the organism in which it is expressed are also noted. What is typically excluded is cell-type membership of the gene product (e.g. protein). There have been numerous genome-wide association studies (GWASs). The hope for major medical advances did not materialize. This should have been expected; you cannot be cell-blind and get anywhere in biology.


Action potentials and cellular communication. One misconception about the brain function are consequences of the mistaken assumption that in a chemical synapse action potentials cross the synaptic gap and bind to post-synaptic receptors. That mistake was first made by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts in 1943 when they used this empirically false assumption to claim to have proven that the brain is a universal Turing machine (UTM), and later in 1949 by Donald O. Hebb to explain neural function by excluding the contribution cells to their own output. This is the primary reason why to date, attempts to account for neural function have failed. Since protein-specificity of the cell is the primary determinant of its function, the first thing that needs to be done is to determine protein-specificity of brain cells. This has not yet been done. And, there is no technical difficulty in doing so, proving that the present trends are misdirected.


The Hebbian synapse. Donald Hebb accepted the view of his mentor, Karl Lashley, that cells and brain loci do not have specificity of function. He therefore proposed that the specificity is obtained by the interconnection of the local cellular network where the synapses are modified by experience. It is indeed factual that synapses are modified by experience. Such modifications are downstream events of what happens within cells. The Hebbian view shifted intracellular intrinsic function of the cell into the synapses. Neuroscientists therefore seek functional clues in the neural code. Thus far, they have failed. The reason is simple, neural function is not in the neural code.


The computer of the brain.



The function of proteins is structure-dependent. A protein is a linear (1D) sequence of amino acids. However, the function of a protein is determined by its native three-dimensional (3D) structure. The 1D structure does not determine its 3D structure. Furthermore, the genome does not contain information about protein folding. It is laws of nature that determine protein folding. How laws of nature determine protein folding is not known. Hence, the aspiration to model cellular function computationally is not presently realizable.


Structure-independent function. In biochemistry, structure determines function: a function may be understood as a change of structure over time. Observing physical events involve measurements. The mathematical description of measured quantities is analog. Such description may involve digital events. Consider, in contrast the digital switch. It can be made one of numerous materials, and it can operate on one of several different principles, such as mechanical, chemical magnetic, or electrical. Furthermore, considerations of speed, energy consumption, and error-rate are, in principle, not relevant. The binary digital switch performs a logical operation stripped from physical attributes. The general-purpose digital computer can viewed as an ensemble of digital switches.


The Universal Turing Machine (UTM). Alan Turing (1936, 1937) undertook to explicate the notion of computation. Turing described a simple abstract computer (now called the Universal Turing Machine) that could compute anything that other computers could compute, proving that the algorithm that specify a given computation is independent of the mode of it computation. It is generally overlooked that not only the UTM function is structure-independent, but that it is largely made independent of law of nature, such as an unlimited energy for operation, unlimited memory, and the impossibility of making errors.


Physicalism and Artificial Intelligence. Physicalism postulates that only the physical brain matters, leading to the quaint conclusion that consciousness is an evolutionary fluke. Artificial Intelligence (AI) goes ways further. Contrary to evidence, it postulates that the brain is a biological Universal Turing Machine, implying that computations performed by brains can also be performed by non-biological computers. In sum, Physicalism declares the mind superfluous, while Artificial Intelligence find that so is also the brain. It is time to review and revise basic assumptions.


Quote of the Week


Rudolf Carnap

In our discussion we were especially interested in the question of whether a phenomenalistic language or a physicalistic language was preferable for the purposes of philosophy. By phenomnealistic language we meant one which begins with sentences about sense data, such as “there is now a red triangle in my visual field”. The sentences of the physicalistic language or thing-language speak of material things and ascribe observable properties, e.g. “this is black and heavy.” Under the influence of some philosophers especially Mach and Russell I regarded in the Logischer Aufbau a phenomenalistic language as the best for a philosophical analysis of knowledge. I believe that the task of philosophy consists in reducing all knowledge to a basis of certainty. Since the most certain knowledge is that of the immediately given, whereas of material things is derivative and less certain, it seemed that the philosopher must employ a language which uses sense data as a basis.

Rudolf Carnap. Carnap’s intellectual autobiography. The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap. PA Schilpp, Editor. 1963. Cambridge University Press


© 2016 Daniel Alroy