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Dan Nicholson is a philosopher at George Mason University. He incorporates the history of science and philosophy into modern analyses of our conceptions of processes related to life and organisms. He is also interested in re-orienting our conception of the universe as made fundamentally of things/substances, and replacing it with the idea the universe is made fundamentally of processes (process philosophy). In this episode, we both of those subjects, the why the “machine conception of the organism” is incorrect, how to apply these ideas to topics like neuroscience and artificial intelligence, and much more.
- Dan’s website. Google Scholar.
- Twitter: @NicholsonHPBio
- Related papers
- Related episode: BI 118 Johannes Jäger: Beyond Networks.
0:00 – Intro
2:49 – Philosophy and science
16:37 – Role of history
23:28 – What Is Life? And interaction with James Watson
38:37 – Arguments against the machine conception of organisms
49:08 – Organisms as streams (processes)
57:52 – Process philosophy
1:08:59 – Alfred North Whitehead
1:12:45 – Process and consciousness
1:22:16 – Artificial intelligence and process
1:31:47 – Language and symbols and processes
Dan 00:00:03 I like to think of philosophy as a set of tools that you can apply to any discipline, Right? And that in any discipline, if you start thinking carefully about the nature of that discipline, you’re gonna end up doing philosophy anyway. It’s, it’s useful, but that doesn’t mean it’s, it’s true. I mean, sometimes we, we, uh, we conflate these, right? So it is almost, the burden is on me to explain. I mean, if I’m going around telling people that this is a bad way of thinking about organisms, right? Then the first question I’m gonna get is, why are we still using it if it’s so terrible? Basically, what I wanna do is try to listen to, attend to what physics tells us. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Okay. Instead of engineering and what this physics tells us, what it tells us that organisms of flows of energy and matter. So, I’m not naive enough to think that we can get away without using any metaphors, Okay? Right. Even though I’m very critical of the machine metaphor, I recognize the metaphors. I’m indispensable.
Speaker 0 00:01:02 This is brain inspired.
Paul 00:01:15 Hey everyone. I’m Paul. And that was Daniel Nicholson. So Daniel is a philosopher at George Mason University. And I say philosopher, but he’s just as much a historian, really as a philosopher. Dan considers it, um, essential to understand the historical roots and traces of the philosophical issues that keep cropping up again and again, often without, um, acknowledging that these ideas are old and that many break people have already addressed them. And we should pay attention to the work of those bright people rather than reinvent the wheel again and again. So, we talk about Dan’s approach. Um, we talk about process philosophy, the notion that a better way to understand our universe is as a collection of processes rather than a collection of things or substances. We discuss Dan’s work arguing against what he calls the machine conception of the organism. And that’s the view that we understand organisms, mechanistically, uh, and reductively like machines. Um, much like the computer metaphor of the brain that you’re probably familiar with. If you listen to this podcast and we dance around a bunch of other, uh, subjects like his interest in artificial life, which is part of the full episode available to Patreon supporters, you can learn how to support the podcast, uh, and the different bells and whistles that, uh, come with that through the email@example.com. And you can also find the show notes, uh, there at brain inspired.co/podcast/ 150. Or I also link to Dan and his works. All right. Enjoy. Dan,
Paul 00:02:48 Dan, we, we were just talking about, uh, our academic histories. And you, you’re a ex molecular biologist turned, would it be right to say biological philosopher philosophy of bi philosopher of biology?
Dan 00:03:00 Yeah. Or you could even broaden that up even more to historian philosopher of biology. I do sort of integrate hps at, it’s
Paul 00:03:07 Called hps. Yeah. So I was telling you about my decision to quit academia and, and how I did not turn to philosophy like you did, but perhaps I should have. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And, you know, I said I was in a postdoc. My postdoc lasted about six years. And you said your years was about, you did 10 years worth of postdocs
Dan 00:03:24 Yeah. About that. Almost, almost a decade. And, uh, I mean, I enjoyed, of course, having the, the autonomy to do whatever I wanted. I mean, even when I was part of a, of a funded project, I still had reasonable amount of, of leeway to, to, you know, to, to, to pursue that project however I wanted. So that was really good. Um, but yeah, it was obviously very unnerving to not know where I would be next. And, uh, so I did my first, my first postoc was, um, was it the kli was in near Vienna, in Austria, as this sort of institute for advanced studies, where basically you come and you can do whatever you want. And it’s a wonderful place. You got all these resources, wonderful spaces to work, uh, library, um, funding to travel,
Paul 00:04:09 But you need to stay in the lab. Uh, if you’re a molecular biologist, you gotta stay in the lab, man. Well,
Dan 00:04:13 No, I mean, so the story of me leaving the lab is, comes much earlier. I, I, I thankfully learned really early on that it wasn’t for me. I mean, I enjoy, I love biology. I love molecular biology. I’m interested, always been interested in 70, you know, life, the nature of life. And, um, and that inevitably led me from higher organisms to lower organisms that ended up doing molecular biology, because those were, I guess, the simplest, simplest point to, to begin that process of understanding life. And, um, but yeah, I just did not enjoy the lab work at all. It found it extremely tedious. Uh, you had to be like very good with your hands. And I was always like, pips,
Paul 00:04:53 Lot
Dan 00:04:53 Of pipe cutting, lagging behind, like everyone else was. You know, in the, in the practicals, the seven, the, the, those horrible seven hour practicals in my degree, I, I, I just was always behind. And, uh, I wanted to talk about this stuff, you know, uh, discuss, uh, the issues. And I noticed that they, people just don’t really do that. At least they don’t do that when they’re working in the lab. They might do that when they go out for a drink after, Right? And I figured, well, wouldn’t it, it be lovely to be able to do, to do that all the time? You know, the stuff that, that these people do, these scientists do, you know, after when they take a speaker out for dinner or when they’re reflecting, Right? Uh, wouldn’t it be great to be able to just spend most of your time doing that? And, uh, I didn’t even know there was a discipline called philosophy of science or anything like that. I just, uh, That’s crazy. Isn’t that crazy
Paul 00:05:41 That so many scientists have no purchase on philosophy at all?
Dan 00:05:47 I know, and it’s, it’s such a shame because it’s a discipline that is by its very nature, right? Interdisciplinary, and it needs the input, Right? You need to know the science. It’s, it’s, it’s, I think, think, uh, targeted to scientists. I mean, if it’s not, we’re not doing a good job if we’re only talking to each other, right? <laugh>, of course, we have our own journals, and we, and we are the ones who are reading each other’s word. But ultimately, there has to be some contact with, uh, you know, with the scientists. Not everyone agrees, by the way. Some people think that, uh, it’s perfectly hi, fine, to have this sort of, uh, second order discussion, which is completely divorced, What’s going on? Like, you know, we’re commenting on what other people are doing. But I, I’ve never, I never bought that. I always thought that the whole point of me doing this work is that in some way, hopefully in the long term, I can have some influence on, on what?
Dan 00:06:32 On the actual science, right? I guess that the reason why I think that is because I don’t really think of myself as doing something completely different from science. Right? Maybe you can think of philosophy of science as doing science by other means. You know, you’re not in lab, but you’re still thinking, you’re reading the literature you are doing, You can do critical work, right? You don’t have to be commenting on what others are doing. You can take a stand, you know, have a seat at the table, uh, engage in the debates that are going on in the science, right? And if you, if you talk to them and you’re publish in their outlets, then there’s no reason why philosophers of science can’t contribute. And many of us have a science background anyway. Yeah. So I don’t see why, you know, it’s like, um, it’s like what theoretical biology used to be, you know?
Dan 00:07:13 So I’m interested that at the moment, I’m doing a engaged in a project looking at the history of this discipline, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And it’s very interesting because most people have a terrible opinion of theoretical biology because it’s associated with mathematical models, uh, of particular biological processes. And usually the mathematics comes first, as it were. And most biologists were very practically minded, very experimentally minded, don’t see the relevance of theoretical biology. And it’s such a shame because if you go back to the beginning of the 20th century hundred years ago, when the discipline got going, it was all about, you know, conceptual clarification, uh, discussion of, uh, you know, ideas and theories on their relation. It’s all the stuff that we philosophers are doing now. Um, so maybe it’s time to take back reclaim theoretical biology as something that can be as useful to biology, as theoretical physics is to physics, you know, a discipline that can provide some sort of foundation where you don’t, you know, you don’t learn necessarily through doing experimental work, but you, you, you can, and you don’t even need to do math, right? It can be sort of non-formal theoretical work, conceptual clarification things, these kinds of things. But is that not,
Paul 00:08:21 Is that philosophy or is that theory? What’s the
Dan 00:08:23 That? Well, that’s the, that’s the nice thing about it. I mean, when you are not able to distinguish them, I think we’re, we’re going somewhere, right? Mm-hmm. But we are going say, Well, is this philosophy is a theory. Well, this is exactly the kind of space that philosophers biology should be taking. You know, the space where it’s not clear the space where, um, it is, it is beneficial to have someone, one of us right in upon a group of bi biologists, right? Because even though we’re trained differently, uh, we can still contribute to those sorts of discussions. You know, biologists need us, right? They need a clarification. We have no idea, for example, how to define a gene, right? We have no understanding about what level of description we should focus on when trying to explain complex phenomena. So it’s not like something, No, they’re doing philosophy anyway, right? They just are not aware of it. Right? Why not just, you know, take, uh, ask for a helping hand from those of us who, who who may be able to provide some, some assistance.
Paul 00:09:16 You, you, you’ve mentioned that you, you know, read the literature. How much of the literature that you’re reading is biology and how much philosophy, what’s the, what’s the, uh, ratio?
Dan 00:09:26 Uh, it’s a good question. Depends on the, on the projects I’m engaged in. To be brutally honest with you, I, I don’t, um, find much of philosophy, all that interesting. I have to say.
Paul 00:09:39 Ouch. Well, we edit that out. We’ll edit that. I’m
Dan 00:09:42 Kidding. No, but that’s, that’s fine. I mean, philosophy, it’s just such a weird discipline, because it’s not, I just don’t even see it as a discipline. It’s, it’s, you can have philosophy of everything, right? Philosophy of art, philosophy of history, philosophy of music, love your science, philosophy, gender
Paul 00:09:56 Philosophy.
Dan 00:09:57 Yeah. Anything, right? And plus, of course, ethics, aesthetics, uh, you know, metaphysics, epistemology. So, um, I like to think of philosophy as a set of tools that you can apply to any discipline, right? And that in any discipline, if you start thinking carefully about the nature of that discipline, you’re gonna end up doing philosophy anyway. So, you know, you could imagine a world where p philosophy departments dissipate, right? Or if they don’t disappear, they become grossly reduced. And what happens is philosophers of law end up talking to people, practicing law, philosophers of politics end up talking to, you know, And, and you could imagine that situation, right? And, and a few people are in, you know, a few of my colleagues are in biology departments, for example. And I know philosophy, a physics sometimes are housed or in, in, in physics departments. And I think that’s, uh, that, that wouldn’t be a terrible thing if that happened, right? Um, because when I think about the work that my colleagues do in my department, I mean, it’s an extremely diverse department. That’s philosophy. Departments tend to be right.
Paul 00:10:54 It’s also boring. It’s difficult. Your colleagues work. I know. I,
Dan 00:10:57 I don’t wanna say that, but, but it’s difficult for me to find points of context,
Paul 00:11:00 See?
Dan 00:11:00 Right, right, right. With what, I mean, what do I have in common, right? Uh, uh, um, whereas if I’m in a biology, um, context, right? I may not be doing the experiments, right. But I am able to ask interesting questions and to, and to learn a great deal, uh, from what the kind of work that they’re doing. So in that sense, uh, you know, huge swa of philosophy are just not, um, I mean, at least in the research level, right? When I’m, of course, it’s different, um, I’m not, frankly, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not reading that stuff. Um, obviously I wouldn I wouldn’t be able to anyway, right? If I wanted to do this kinda work, which is so interdisciplinary. So, so, you know, in some projects that I’ve done, uh, it’s been almost all, um, science, and in others, it’s been mostly, it’s mostly philosophy, right? It also depends on the target audience of what I’m writing. I’ve tried to be very deliberate. I’m very intentional and clear in my mind before I start writing. Am I writing what I’m going to write? Is this going to be consumed by yeah. Philosophers or bio biologists, or by historians? You know? So it really, that, that will determine the how I use my
Paul 00:12:06 Time. Wh when’s the last time you walked into a wet lab and, uh, who does consume now are, are, are you making that difference in science? Are you connecting with the scientists?
Dan 00:12:15 I, last time, I, I did. Any lab work was
Paul 00:12:18 No, just walked. I’m just thinking like afterwards, you know, walking into a wet lab, what it must feel like that you’re free. Yeah. <laugh>.
Dan 00:12:25 Yeah. No, um, <laugh>, I, so many of my colleagues are very skeptical that philosophers science can actually make a difference. They have a pretty pessimistic view. But honestly, that hasn’t been my experience. I’ve had a great experience with scientists. I’ve always found scientists, well, for the most part, interested, you know, and almost like, uh, amazed because of course, they don’t know that there are people like me doing this kind of work, you know? And so they, yeah.
Paul 00:12:52 But how you kind of just try to, uh, brush you off, you know, like, uh,
Dan 00:12:56 Um, it, I mean, it does happen, but not as com not as often as many philosophers say that it happens, Right? It doesn’t happen that often. I mean, what they want, what scientists want to know, first of all, is that you’re not talking outta your backside. That you know what you’re talking about. And if they, if you make, if you show any indication that you can follow the conversation that you, that you are, you know, reasonably scientifically literate, then, then my experience is that they’ve all often been interested in what I have to say. Now, of course, the sorts of questions that you get in the q and a, uh, at the end of a, you know, of a talk when the talk is delivered in a biology department Yeah. Say, are very different from the sort of questions that I get in the philosophy department, right?
Dan 00:13:36 So, philosophers are trained to think critically to, um, you know, to scrutinize every argument, right? So at the end of any, so, you know, philosophy, collo, you’re gonna get people who are going to try to disagree with you, right? Yeah. Even if they actually don’t disagree with you, because they’re just trying to test the argument. Uh, you know, you may know for a fact that your friend standing, you know, sitting in front of you agrees with you, but there they are in public now trying to destroy your argument, and they’re doing you a service. You know, that’s how it’s understood in philosophy. Yeah. It’s a good thing because they, they’re giving me the opportunity to think more carefully about how I would defend the argument and how I would respond to objections that may come up. So, so that’s considered, So think about that, right? That’s even considered a service.
Paul 00:14:15 That’s the same in science, though. That’s the same between scientists. There’s a similarity there. But as a bio, as a philosopher in a science department, perhaps it’s different <laugh>.
Dan 00:14:26 I mean, my, my experience talking to scientists is actually that some scientists, uh, don’t, I mean, don’t necessarily expect that to be, um, sort of, um, conflict, uh, again, you know, I’m just speaking sort of secondhand. Um, also it happens in, uh, you know, in, in, in, in public, in papers, right? So my, I’ve had experiences of scientists being upset when they, when they read a paper that’s just come out that is this, that is, you know, criticizing their work. Whereas philosopher is delighted because it gives you the opportunity. So, I mean, maybe there’s a cultural difference there, maybe not. But the point is that if, if I then give a talk to a science audience, then the questions are gonna be all like, uh, okay, that’s fantastic. Very interesting, and got me thinking in any way, but how do I translate this into something I actually do implement in my lab? Yeah. How, how does this matter to my work? And that’s a question that never comes up, you know, in Phil, in in philosophical, uh, with philosophical audience. It’s kind of nice to, to always remind yourself that the kind of stuff that that one does, if you want to be, you know, to, to have an impact or, or be read by scientists, you have to never forget that there has to be some sort of payoff that can be something that can be implemented practically, which, which is the same most philosophers don’t ever worry about.
Paul 00:15:41 Do you prefer that sort of, uh, feedback, those that, that biological q and a, like, how can I apply this? Or is it more challenging and is that better or worse?
Dan 00:15:51 It’s more challenging. Yeah. Because I’m not, I mean, know, I’m not that interested in, I mean, of course I’m interested, but that’s not what I’m doing. Right? Right. I mean, I see it as division of labor, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, I like to think about, but conceptual problems. I hope that you as a scientist can find a way to, to draw on those reflections in your work. I, I feel a little bit, it’s a bit odd to, for me to, to tell, you know, the scientists what they should do, right? I don’t know enough. Right? It seems like I’m out of my depth if, uh, if they’re ask me, you know? Well, okay, how do you, um, how do you adopt a process perspective in the lab? Okay, so let’s, or, uh, you know, questions relating to, to, to my work. So, uh, it can be very challenging, and I know I don’t always have a good answer to, to those kinda questions, to be frank.
Paul 00:16:38 So, uh, you know, you, you’ve talked about reading a lot of, uh, literature. I know that you read a lot of historical literature because history is almost central to your philosophical endeavors. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, why is that? And, and then I, I really wanna know like how you, uh, choose what to read, how you, your path in reading the history, How do you mine for these ideas Yeah. That are connected to what you’re trying to write about
Dan 00:17:08 Uhhuh? Well, I mean, for me, it’s always seemed natural, uh, when thinking about science to, to, to think about the evolution of the ideas that I’m dealing with, right? So it’s almost unnatural. Uh, I mean, I could almost throw the question back at the sort of a historical analytic philosophers who don’t really care about history, and how can you possibly think about causation or think about, you know, emergence or mechanism without looking at how that debate has unfolded over time. It seems almost, um, I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s naive. It’s, it seems almost why a bit arrogant, right? To think Well, because, because there’s a huge number of people who have thought about those same issues Yeah. Probably smarter than us, right? Who have a great deal, uh, that we can learn from, right? Um, maybe the specific context, of course, is different. And, you know, we, we obviously, depending on the question, the, the question is, is, is narrowly formulated then, then, then maybe much of the history of science is not that relevant. But because we, they didn’t know what we know now, but the questions don’t tend to be very narrow, right? They tend to be quite general conceptual, right? So, um, so there you essentially have an entire sort of symmetry, right, of forgotten ideas waiting to be rediscovered, dug up and, you know, cleaned and, and reused. Uh, because obviously the alternative is just to continuously reinvent the wheel, which
Paul 00:18:30 We do, which
Dan 00:18:30 Unfortunately happens. Yeah. Which, and so I’ve always had that, um, sensibility towards history. And, and, uh, I think that, I mean, I, I can’t imagine doing philosophy of biology without also doing history of biology, because it helps me situate the debate that I’m engaging in. It also reminds me that the way we are addressing a problem is not inevitable. The way we’re addressing it now is not inevitable. It’s a consequence of, of, of contingency, you know, choices that were made at particular times that there is, there are a number of different ways we can think about an issue, right? And often these are, have already been explored historically. Um, and so, you know, I, I’ve never, I’m different from a historian because of course, historians are interested in the history for its own sake. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, right? They’re interested in narratives. You know, you read a history of paper and it begins, like, you know, in the October 4th, 1863, this person, you know, and that’s not how pH mistake, right? Philosophy, interested in trying to solve problems, right? But the history there comes in, uh, by, I say, as I say, affording as, uh, maybe forgotten, uh, strategies to deal with those problems, right? And so I think in that sense, it’s extremely helpful. And the answer to your question about how to know what to read, well just, just follow the I is it,
Paul 00:19:42 It’s the same because, so if I, if I want to learn about process philosophy, I can go to your book, Everything flows, right? And read your chapter, and then you already have all the history laid out. By the way, do you know the band teenage fan club? No. Okay. This is, uh, I think it’s a UK band kind of old, maybe, I think I’m older than you, But, uh, they have this, this, my favorite song by them is Everything Flows Back When they Were a Good Band. Anyway, So I really like the title of that book, but, but if I want to learn about, you know, the history, I can just go to your chapter in, in the book, everything flows, right? And so what you just said is that you just kind of, um, follow the dots, but are the dots laid? So in let’s, you know, like in neuroscience or biology, you can do that, right? More easily, it seems. But these buried ideas, uh, it’s not necessarily the case that the dots have been connected through time already, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.
Dan 00:20:34 Well, the thing is that if you read my chapter and you’re interested in the, uh, in the evolution of the ideas that I’m discussing, you may not necessarily agree with the survey that I offer. I mean, any historical survey is a, is an incredible subjective act of selection of sources, right? Yeah. You innumerable sources are suddenly all, it’s all boiled down to a couple of pages, right? Uh, not only that, but you know, how I discuss them, how I connect them. It’s, you could have a hundred or a thousand people looking at the same sources, and they would all come with a different account. So in that sense, uh, you don’t have to trust, Take my word for it, you know, I’m also using history. Uh, it’s, it’s always a, a means to an end, right? So if you have a different agenda, you may look at the author that I’m looking at in a different way, right?
Dan 00:21:18 And so the question is, well, which of the two interpretations is right? Historians often are, for that reason, are quite unhappy with philosophers like me, uh, digging their noses into their history, uh, because, well, you know, for one thing, they think that they have, that they own history. And I completely re disagree with that. You know, they think that it’s their turf, and we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t, you know, try to, to, um, to make <laugh> to intrusions there. I totally disagree with that. I think that history belongs to all of us, and we, including scientists, and we, we will all benefit from, from context, you know, from understanding, uh, because, you know, the answers may be there. I mean, what you want to say, which may be, you know, 20, 22, may in some sense already be in a <laugh> encapsulated in ideas that were proposed decades, if not centuries ago.
Dan 00:22:06 And I had happened to me. I mean, and when I was doing my, my PhD, I, I discovered this, this basically this, this movement, this intellectual movement in the inter war period, the 1920s, 1930s, of authors in different countries who were developing a view of the organism, which was the view that I wanted to defend, is the, to defend, Yeah. The organist, right? So the view that I wanted to defend in the context of 21st century discussions was a view that had been developed by very, very smart people that have been completely forgotten for a number of interesting reasons, uh, a hundred years ago, right? Yeah. And so, me reading this work is almost more valuable than reading the literature that is being published today. Cause Oh, wow. Okay. Of course, you know, they didn’t, they didn’t know this, but look at how they had, look how they addressed it, right?
Dan 00:22:49 And so, I see a lot of my work as trying to essentially revive this movement, which of course is a cycle, right? Because they thought they saw themselves as reviving earlier scholars, right? And it goes, it goes on and on. Yeah. It’s so, you know, in that sense, we’re all part of this, of this grand conversation and, and this analytic sort of Anglo-American, um, you know, culturally, this, this, this, um, this, this, this way of doing philosophy where one thinks that the history is completely irrelevant, One should only focus on argument, I think is a little bit myopic because it’s, uh, I don’t know. It’s like you’re choosing not to, uh, avail yourself of all these other resources that the, that are there.
Paul 00:23:29 So, I have to ask you about this, because we’re talking about history, and, um, it’s a total aside, but speaking of history, you meet recently ran into, uh, James Watson, co-founder of That’s right. Of DNA <laugh>. Yeah. But I just wanna know what that inter it was in the context of you giving a talk about, uh, sh Schrodinger’s, what his life, and That’s right, Yeah. And his views on, you know, the gene and order from disorder, et cetera. So I, yeah, we don’t have to go down a long road on this, but maybe you can just, um, talk about the context of meeting him and then what the interaction was like. Absolutely. If you had like a picture with him, I think, too, right?
Dan 00:24:04 That’s right. I mean, I’m happy to go down this road. This is actually what I’m currently working on. So it’s the freshest in my mind. Okay. So essentially, I’m, I’m engaged right now in a, a reappraisal of this really famous book, uh, showing us what is life that is taken to be, right. One of the most, uh, influential well known books of, you know, popular science of the 20th century,
Paul 00:24:21 And that you claim that no one reads, but I’ve read at least a paragraph or two of it.
Dan 00:24:25 No, no. I mean, I, so I, I think that people might read it, but what what’s striking to me is that, so, you know, I was, initially the idea was just to write some sort of short essay commemorating the 75th anniversary of its publication, which would been 2018, Right? Um, and then when I looked at, look back at the, at the book, and at the argument, I noticed that, uh, the argument is super interesting, the argument that showing that puts forward for why he thinks that the order of the cell is based on this, a periodic crystal. We didn’t even know that it was dna, but, you know, turned out to be dna, right? The, the, the, the her material. And, you know, there’s a huge amount of secondary literature shorting there, like hundreds, literally hundreds of papers I’ve been collecting, right? Uh, people, uh, even, you know, on the title of the paper, you know, Right?
Dan 00:25:11 We, we appraisal, blah, blah, blah, blah. Um, and yet no one seen, I’ve only found three people <laugh> Oh, wow. Who actually engaged, right? With what the argument is about. Right? And so I’ve figured, Wow, this is kind of interesting. So, so I’ve devoted the last no year and a half more, uh, thinking about this. I’m writing a short book, Reappraising, uh, this, this part, the book, right? So probably the book will be as short as the original. Um, and, um, and it’s actually very interesting because, uh, I think that in that argument we have, and we, we sort of have the key to why it is that for more than half a century molecular cell, molecular biologist have been, um, sort of, and, and obsessed with, with a particular kind of view of the cell with a sort of clockwork engineering machine view of the cell.
Dan 00:26:00 So this is something that I’ve written about earlier. And so doing this project, a historical project, by the way, so it relates to what we’re talking a moment ago, gives me an understanding of why it is that people think the way they do. Right? If I, if you, you know, I can answer your question again about why, ma, why this history matter, If I didn’t do this history, I would, I would be able to tell you why I think they’re wrong, <laugh>, Right? But I wouldn’t be able to tell you why it is that they think this is the standard way of thinking about the sale.
Paul 00:26:25 Right. Why they should say it there wrong <laugh>,
Dan 00:26:27 Why they should at least understand where they’re coming from, Right. You know, who is this that came up with those ideas? That those ideas are not inevitable? You know, that, that, that that nature’s not telling us that we need to understand it in a machine way. Okay? And the particular choices were made at particular times that led to this research program called molecular Biology, that that takes for granted that this is the way the sell is. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, right? And so that’s why I’m motivated to, to, to look at, to dig into this history and understand why does the showing argued the way he did. And it’s a fascinating story, but we won’t get into it. So let’s to go back to Watson. So I was, uh, invited to give this talk at, called Spring Harbor Laboratory in, uh, Long Island at, um, you know, Watson was, um, sort of president or the director for, for decades.
Dan 00:27:09 And, uh, he, uh, lives nearby. And, um, yeah. And I, I was there to give, give a talk on, on s because I had been, uh, looking at the archive, so had been a fellow, uh, the previous summer. So I had, because there are archives of a number of really famous people over there. So Sydney br, Francis Creek, James Watson, also, Right? So I had just been digging in the archives to find out, actually, eh, or whether I could, whether I could find any obvious traces of evidence, uh, that, you know, shorten this ideas had percolated into the way they were thinking about the problems that were interested in in the 1950s, 1960s, right? So, anyway, I go there, go and give a talk. Uh, this was a few a month ago. Um, oh, and to my total surprise, uh, James, James wasn’t is in the audience, but
Paul 00:27:56 He
Dan 00:27:57 Four
Paul 00:27:57 Through Zoom, right? Or was he No, no, no.
Dan 00:27:59 Physically came. They wheeled him in, Like, he came in right here. No one seen him. And like since before the pandemic, right? Uh, uh, you know, he’s had to, he’s had some trouble because of many of his unsaved reviews, you know? Right. They renamed the School of Biology, used to be called the Watson School of Biology. Now it’s, you know, they’ve canceled a little bit. I mean, perhaps with some, with, with some justification mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, uh, given some of the views that he, he persistently holds, right? I mean, and people who know him have told me that, uh, he’s never been a particularly nice guy. I mean, he was like this when he was <laugh>, you know? But anyway, it’s super exciting, of course, to have someone like that in the audience, Right? And almost surreal, because here I am getting a history talk, Uh, and it’s not like super recent history. We’re talking 1940s, 1950s, right? And, and in the audience is one of the main, main characters of my story in the first row, listening to what I have to say. Listen, seeing the quotes that I’m putting on the, on the screen of him, right?
Paul 00:29:01 Was, was that unnerving at all?
Dan 00:29:03 It was super surreal. It was a little bit un driving. Um, and I, you know, I, I normally try to do my homework right as it was. So I, I, I tried to, when I’m, I, I’m not afraid of making controversial claims. So of course, when you do that, you need to make sure that you know, that you, you, you are only in some sense, uh, showing the tip of the iceberg of the work that you’ve done, right? So if questions come, you can always sort of justify why it is that you’re saying what you’re saying, Right? If you agree with other people, it’s, you don’t actually have to do as much work. But, um, so, you know, I, I knew I was, I was unnerve a little bit, and I was shocked, but at the same time, I knew that if I knew that things were gonna come, I knew that he was gonna say something.
Dan 00:29:42 Right? And so I was prepared for that. But I mean, I would’ve liked to have known in advance because maybe I would’ve, I would’ve been able to change my, my talk and maybe, maybe even make it even more provocative to get him to respond in the ways that I expected. I didn’t expect him to be there. So anyway, he was there. I gave my talk. He fell asleep a couple of times, <laugh>, uh, I mean, understand it with 94. Sure, sure. Uh, he’s the last of that generation, by the way, which is, which is quite amazing. And I dunno how long he’ll be with us, but it’s, it’s, it was a unique opportunity. I mean, he won’t be around much longer. And I was quoting him, uh, saying that in 1946, in 1946, he had red shorting, and that’s what led him to give up, uh, on mythology and to turn to, to, to the study of dna mm-hmm.
Dan 00:30:28 <affirmative> and, and, you know, that led essentially to the, to the development of molecular biology. Right. And he was there. Right. Anyway, I, uh, at the end of my talk, um, you know, I had some, I’m, the lesson that I’m drawing from this is that certain decisions were made, uh, by the architects of molecular biology, which have not been good. Right. Which have had some, uh, bad consequences. And of course, he picked up on that. And, uh, and he said, Well, you know what you’re saying, what you’re saying about us having neglected physics is crap. He said, Crap like that. And, you know, silence in the, in the <laugh>, the audience, all the faces, you turned to him and then turned to me to see how I’d respond. So I, I actually tried to engage with him. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I said, You know, I can see how you, I can, what I said, like, I appreciate that, but I can explain if you want, I can elaborate why I, why I said that. And so I tried to,
Paul 00:31:18 You didn’t just say, No, your ideas were crap. And that’s what you didn’t just say,
Dan 00:31:22 It’s normal, Laurie. You know, this is like, I, who am I, I mean, I’m not nobody. Right? Right. So I’m, I’m trying to just, um, make him understand why it is that I’m saying what I’m saying. Um, and interestingly, he, uh, he retracted it. He said, Well, we were dealing with, um, I com exactly remember his words, but it was something like, uh, um, we had to deal with the simplest possible models. Uh, so of course we were not able to take into account everything else. And, and I said, Okay, well, that, that seems reasonable. But then the next thing he said was completely unreasonable. So, and we haven’t made much more progress ever since. Anyway, we’re still with it. And I was like, Really? Um, so I was hoping to continue that conversation after the talk. Uh, which is where you guess the picture that you saw when was taken after the, after the talk?
Dan 00:32:10 Uh, we briefly had an exchange, but he wasn’t interested. Uh, he just, uh, you know, and then he left, you know, didn’t even get to talk to him to ask him, uh, whether he agreed with the hypothesis, you know, the hypothesis that I had proposed about, you know, how he, if he really was influenced by short in the way that I, that I had suggested, so really odd, I mean, in some sense, a missed opportunity. But on the, on the other hand, it was, um, it was really great to see him rep, to see him voice the view that I was criticizing, You know, because sometimes as a philosopher, you’re worried that you are drawing a straw man that your cur characterizing your opponent’s view. Yeah. But to see what’s in the flesh defending the view that I think is ally wrong, and, you know, presenting it and, and, and defending it, and being upset by what I had said and said, showed to me that I’m on the right track. It showed to me that at least, uh, my target is correct. You know, it may not be a target that reflects many people that are alive today, but, but it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a view and it’s the view that, that dominated the field for much of the latter half of the 20th century. So in that sense, it was a very gratifying experience to be able to get confirmation from one of the people who was there, one of the actors, one of the, the instrumental people.
Paul 00:33:22 Is it worth saying the, what the view was and or, or would that take us? Absolutely. Yeah. Okay. Yeah.
Dan 00:33:27 Yeah. So the view is, is the view that I’m saying comes from sga, it’s the view that the order of the cell and, and ultimately of any multicellular organism is, uh, a consequence of, or, or is basically it’s the amplification of order that already exists in, in the her hereditary substance. It’s sort of this pre formation view where, you know, basically what you, everything is already in case, right? In the, uh, in the, uh, in this molecular substance. And, and it’s more than that. It’s also that this substance is extremely rigid and fixed. It has to be super rigid and fixed chemically speaking, because otherwise it would be subject to the, um, you know, the disturbing effects of, of, of brown in motion, right. Of, of thermal agitation. So showing the reason, right, that, that in order for, um, DNA or for the hereditary substance to be able to, uh, to essentially, uh, uh, uh, store this information, even though he didn’t use the word information to store the, this information, uh, over, you know, years centuries, right? It, it had to have this incredibly solid, rigid molecular structure,
Paul 00:34:34 A periodic crystal
Dan 00:34:35 And, and a periodic crystal. Exactly. Right. And so, and from there, he says, Well, um, that order then has to be passed on to, or has to be transmitted to the proteins and, and potentially the entire cell has to, in some sense, uh, manifest the order that is already encoded in the dna. And so the implication is that the proteins themselves also have to be rigid enough to, to be, to be able to, to, to keep that order right. And to, uh, to execute the functions according to, to the, to the sort of the, uh, the, the, the program in the, uh, uh, in, in, in the dna, which by the way, is another metaphor, which we use all the time. Genetic program. Yeah. Which one can already also trace to shortener. Um, and, uh, so, so I think that view is actually then I, the view that I, um, that, that, that I criticized in early work, I mean, it’s a view that I think is very problematic.
Dan 00:35:25 I mean, we shouldn’t think about proteins in this way. I mean, maybe even DNA in that way, right? Proteins are plastic, they’re dynamic. They don’t have a rigid structure. Sometimes they don’t even have a structure at all. They’re completely natured, and so they’re just bind to substrate, and they, they then adopt a confirmation. So, and that’s, it’s fine that that wasn’t known. Um, but what matters is that now that we know that, right, we need to rethink how we, how order is transmitted. If it’s really the case that all orders already in the dna we have order from order, which is shing this term, or if you have order from disorder, if order is emerging from chaos mm-hmm. <affirmative>, if you have like things happening, right? That enable order to, uh, to emerge right through, uh, nonlinear interactions through self-organization, through coupling of, of, um, of disorder process together.
Dan 00:36:13 So, you know, it was, it’s, it’s a nice, it’s, for me, as I say this, this kinda work, uh, uh, uh, gives me an understanding of why it is that those ideas, uh, are still around, right? And, and also why it is that people today are very resistant to them, right? Um, it’s, it’s less natural for a molecular biologist to think about the cell as a physical system as, as it’s less natural for molecular b to think about, uh, to, to draw on what physics tells us about the cell, namely that it’s a far form cbri steady state structure that’s constantly, you know, importing energy and matter. And it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a process, right? Then it is to, for them to think about it as a piece of engineering. And that’s very interesting, because why should we think that the engineer, the engineering view, reflects better this natural entity that is a cell, right? Why should we think that it’s normal to expect circuits with wiring diagrams to be things that we, we should find in the cell? It seems to me that that’s doesn’t follow at all. And the only reason why we think that way is because we’ve been thinking that way for a long time. We’re used to thinking that way, right? So the historical work comes in, in trying to work out why it is that, you know, where these ideas come from.
Paul 00:37:24 So this is the machine conception of the organism or mco Yeah. As you abbreviate it, um, which you’ve written a lot about, um, and, and you blame Schrodinger. So is it
Dan 00:37:35 No, I mean, I can just tell you that I, I, um, the MCO has lots and lots of different incarnations, right? Yeah. Yeah. Machine metaphors come up in different context and evolution development, um, in the context of the cell molecular biology, you, you still have, I mean, I’ve done, I’ve looked at the history. You, you still have appeals to machine and engineering metaphors earlier in the twentie century and even, and even before that. But the, the way we think about the cell today, I think the most approximate cause is, is this, is this, this argument that er, uh, puts forward about determinacy. You know, he wants to have this determinate view, and the reason he wants that is because he wants to disagree with his physicist colleagues about the implications of quantum mechanic. So, you know, there are other interesting reasons about why it is that those short go adopts this determinist of you in biology. Uh, but yeah. So of course, if you look at the mco more generally, the machine conception of the organism, and you look at it in the context of physiology, the classic starting point is decar in the 17th century, right? Right. Right. Or even that’s just the starting point, because you can, you can see earlier scholastic author, uh, thinking about this as well.
Paul 00:38:36 Yeah. So, uh, metaphors, they’re useful. And, and I know that you regard the machine metaphor or conception of the organism as a useful metaphor in neuroscience, the most popular metaphor is the computer metaphor for the brain. Yeah. So, I don’t know if you have, maybe we can come back to that, but you’ve spent, uh, you’ve spilled a lot of ink, uh, you know, coming up with, at at least three so far reasons why the machine conception of the organism is maybe not as useful as maybe not universally useful and should be replaced with a, a processor, uh, view that the organism is as a stream, right? So mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I would love to just kind of step through the three arguments, uh, from Telogy, from thermodynamics, and from scale, and, uh, yeah. And then I don’t know if you have other arguments that you’re working on. I know you’re, you have this project, but
Dan 00:39:29 Yeah. So no, I mean, the, uh, well, first of all, uh, I, it’s, it’s useful, but that doesn’t mean it’s, it’s true. I mean, sometimes we, we, uh, we conflate these, right? So it is almost, the burden is on me to explain. I mean, if I’m going around telling people that this is a bad way of thinking about organisms, right? Then the first question I’m gonna get is, why are we still using it if it’s so terrible? Right? And so that’s where the distinction between truth and usefulness comes in. Something can be false and yet be useful because it provides a reasonable, um, approximation for particular context, right? If you’re doing particular projects, uh, empirical, uh, studies, then it may be helpful, right? To think about, uh, muscle contraction in terms of, you know, mechanical forces, and that’s all fine, right? So what matters is whether we’re getting the right view overall of the, of the cell or the organism. So there, I think is where the, yeah, the, the, the machine metaphor, uh, breaks down. It’s just inadequate.
Paul 00:40:26 Yeah. So George P Box is, uh, often quoted as saying all models are wrong, but some are useful. And I suppose the, the same, could, you could just switch out models with metaphors in that statement?
Dan 00:40:37 Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s, it’s inevitable, right? That when you do a metaphorical re description, the target domain, what you’re eScribing is going to be different from the source domain, otherwise, you wouldn’t be appealing to metaphors in the first place. So the, the ation is never gonna be complete, right? It’s just that when a metaphor or model is very, very successful, we forget, we forget that we, that, that we actually <laugh> trans, you know, we drew on something to make sense of something else. Yeah. And just we, we see that something else to the lens of that first thing, right? Um, and, and that’s, that’s where the, that’s, that’s where the problems begin, right? When we, when we forget that. So anyway, uh, you can come up with a number of reasons why this is a, a problematic way or a wrong way of thinking about, about, um, about life.
Dan 00:41:23 Uh, the three arguments that, uh, as you say that I’ve, I’ve put forward, um, they’re not intended to be so non exhaustive list, but, um, the, the basically arguments that, that are also appeal to different audiences, right? So if I’m talking to mm-hmm. <affirmative> philosophers, it may make more sense for me to talk about tey, you know, which is a term that is not necessarily very familiar to every scientist. If I’m talking to, um, you know, to to, to scientists, it may make more sense for me to talk about thermodynamics, right? If I’m talking to physicists or to, or talk about scale, you know, when I’m talking to molecular biologists, right? So that’s, that’s where the, that distinction comes up. It doesn’t mean that these arguments are completely mutually exclusive, Right? One can think of the first to actually connected in some way. Yeah. So very briefly, just to, to, to outline them.
Dan 00:42:09 So the argument from teleology, again, this is, I don’t claim originality here. This is an argument that has come up in different ways since at least can’t, if not earlier, one could argue even Aristotle, and it keeps coming up, right? You see it in, in the work of people like Locke, unexpectedly, and, uh, um, you know, a number of, a number of author. The idea is that, um, we should think about gold directed processes in two ways. The two kinds of teleological, um, systems, ones that we can call intrinsically purpose and others, which we can call extrinsically. Purpose of all of that distinction amounts to is that entities that are, uh, inwardly directed intrinsically purpose, it means that, uh, are those that, um, where their behaviors and their operations are directed towards their own maintenance mm-hmm. <affirmative>, right? Um, so everything that, that, when you’re thinking about function, for example, in biology, uh, you can think of what each part of the system is doing as a contribution to the maintenance of the system, of which it is a part, right?
Dan 00:43:10 Yep. And that sense, it’s, it’s contributing to, its, to its, uh, to its maintenance. So it’s, so its own maintenance is its purpose, okay? So organisms are that kind of system, there’re systems which, which are, um, you know, which, which, um, everything that they’re doing in some sense, right? Can be interpreted as contributions to their own maintenance, right? Uh, whereas extrinsically purpose of systems, the systems whose operation are directed to ends that are outside of themselves, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So they are, they do, So machines do what they do, uh, because that benefits the maker or the user of the machine, right? Uh, your toaster, you know, cooks heats up your bread in the morning, your slice of bread, and it does that not for itself, but because, uh, you are, you’re going to consume that bread or your car drives you from point A to point B, that’s not in the interest of the car, that’s in the interest that you are the one who’s benefiting, right? Um, from that operation. So in some sense, the, the purpose, if we can use that, that concept of the operation of a machine is, is outside of itself, right? Does that make
Paul 00:44:17 Sense? Yep. This is actually, you know, immediately connected then to the argument from thermodynamics as well.
Dan 00:44:22 Absolutely. Uh, I was gonna, I was gonna say exactly right. So the reason why organisms are interestingly purpose, it has to do with the peculiar thermodynamic character, the fact that they exist far from Aon, that they’re dynamically stable, right? So the second argument has to do with, with that, with, you know, attending to what it is that physics tells us about, about organisms and machines, and what it tells us is that organisms are inherently unstable, then they have to keep acting to keep existing, right? And so that is a very different state of affairs from the situation you find in, in, in machines where there are near conditions, which means that they can be, you can, you can, you can use them and then you can turn them off. You know? The way I put it is that all organisms don’t have an off switch, right?
Dan 00:45:07 Uh, they have to keep, keep going, right? If they stop, uh, acting, they, they stop existing. It’s, it’s almost connected to how we think about life and death. Also, thermodynamics gives us a way of thinking about what it means to die. It means to lose that sort of irreversible, steady state far from and return to a conditions. Um, whereas in the case of machines, right? Um, of course, when you’re using them, they, there may be exchange, uh, of energy and even of matter. There may be open systems, right? Um, like a car where you, you you put in fuel and then, you know, uh, and, and, and something’s come out as well. But the point is that the car doesn’t stop existing when you stop using it, right? If when you park your car at night and go home, you’re not worried then in the mor when the morning when you wake up, the car is no longer gonna be there.
Dan 00:45:47 Whereas if you, if you forget your hamster in the, I think that’s the example I I, I have in the, in the paper, you forget your hamster in your loft, uh, you, you won’t have a hamster <laugh> much longer, right? Right. Uh, so there’s something clearly quite fundamentally different here. And, and so what I do in this, in, in, in that paper where I, where there’s the chapter in the book where I, uh, present this argument is tease out the implications. What does it mean? What are the implications of us accepting that there is this fundamental difference, the more dynamically speaking between organisms and machines? And then the final, the final argument, uh, is one that applies specifically to appeals to machine metaphors and engineering ideas in molecular sell molecular bars. You know, the idea is quite simple. Um, machine, the machines that we design took the whole point of appealing to machines when we’re trying to explain, uh, biological phenomena is that we are supposed to understand machines quite well.
Dan 00:46:40 I mean, we designed them after all, so they’re familiar entities, right? Um, and the idea is that we are going to use those familiar intuitions and project them onto something that we are less familiar. We’re trying to understand, right? That’s the whole point of this metaphorical, uh, red re description of, uh, that that is involved. But the point is that when you’re looking at molecular, um, uh, phenomenon, molecular entities, um, that transposition is going to mislead you, right? Because machine, the machines that we create exist in the, in our microscopic world of our everyday experience. And that macroscopic world is governed by a particular set of physical forces, kis
Paul 00:47:20 And ball bearings, and yeah,
Dan 00:47:22 Exactly. Everything that we think of when we think of this mechanical worldview, right? Very much our macroscopic one. And, and obviously the world of molecules is a fundamentally different one from a physical perspective. You don’t need to know any biology to know that. I mean, any physicist knows, right? That it’s difficult to have directed movement from one place to another when you are a molecule, because thermal agitation makes that impossible unless you are absolute zero temperatures actually measuring that level of, of, of spasticity that exists inherently right there, this thermal energy, right? So that means, right, that to think of molecular processes in a mechanical way is going to, is going to means leaders. If we’re not aware that the scale at which these processes are happening is so different that the physical forces that exert the greatest, the greatest influence are different, right? So gravity’s thrown out of the window doesn’t really matter.
Dan 00:48:11 Inertia doesn’t matter. But, but for example, um, you know, as I say, brown motion is super important. Ele electromagnetic sort of forces begin to matter a great deal. Uh, the, the medium changes, right? So water behaves differently when you are a protein, right? You, you experience water differently. Um, it’s, it’s like punching you, it’s profiting you, Uh, it’s not a liquid. It’s like, um, you know, model is, and physicists, when they’re looking at proteins, they tend to talk about how it, the, the, the, the movement has to be understood as if you were trying to walk through more losses or through honey, you know? And these are again, metaphors to help us understand that they did difference in scale matters. And that we just can’t, willynilly just, just just transport, you know, these, these, you know, the engines and all and so on and so forth. The cogs and wheels that we, that, that we are familiar with, we can’t just assume that those exist at that scale because they just couldn’t, you know? Uh, and so that’s basically the, the, that third argument.
Paul 00:49:08 And you, you want to replace it with a more metaphor and may we’ll talk about process philosophy in a moment, but as a stream, I mean, uh, the organism as a stream, first of all, is that right? Is is that,
Dan 00:49:21 Um, yeah. I mean, it’s basically what I wanna do is try to listen to attend to what physics tells us. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Okay. Instead of engineering and what this physics tells us, what it tells us that organisms of flows of energy and matter. So I’m not naive enough to think that we can get away without using any metaphors. Okay? Right. Even though I’m very critical of the machine metaphor, I recognize that metaphors are indispensable and it’s a good thing. It’s not, I’m not saying I’m not making a normative, you know, I’m not saying it’s a, it’s, it’s something we should be ashamed about. Metaphors.
Paul 00:49:49 We have to extremely, we have to talk about things, so we have to use words we have. So, Yeah.
Dan 00:49:53 Exactly. And often, you know, words actually come up, uh, new words are <laugh> developed coin as a consequence of metaphorical re descriptions. Right. Okay. So, so I’m not, So what I’m saying is, well, okay, fine, we need metaphors, but maybe we, we need to use a different set of metaphors. And maybe the time is has come when, uh, perhaps we should, uh, start drawing on metaphors that capture the, the, you know, the, the features of living systems that physics tells us. Right. So in that sense, the professional sort of, of, of battery of metaphors, and here, I I, you know, you can think of all, not just streams, but you know, vies, flames, Right? Uh, and where these become more, more valuable. And in fact, you know, these, these are usually referred to as ative structures by physicists. Right. Systems that are far from ACLU and organisms also.
Dan 00:50:38 Right? So, so when you’re describing organisms from a physical perspective, you actually don’t necessarily make a distinction between, between a, between an organism and a flame. You, you think of when you’re modeling and you’re theorizing about them, they’re all separative structures, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Now, of course, it’s a very sort of first approximation, and I’m the first one to admit that it’s not going to capture everything. And of course, even more so that a lot of things that you capture with a machine metaphor, for example, functions, you know, uh, uh, hierarchical organization is not captured with, um, Right. With a metaphor overflow. Right? Right. You don’t have a division of labor of parts, Right. In a, in a, in a, in a stream or in a vortex. But you do capture other things, arguably other things that are even, that are as or even more important, right? You capture the, the, the, the sort of as to say the, the processional ontology that should lie at the heart of how we theorize about life.
Paul 00:51:29 So I know that you’re not a neuro philosophy of neuroscience, philosopher of neuroscience, but so the machine conception of the organism is, you know, directly paralleled in the computer metaphor of the brain, the brain as an information processing system. And there’s been, you know, plenty of voices pushing back and, you know, suggesting replacements for the computer metaphor of the brain. But it has been super useful in neuroscience, and I don’t, I’m just curious if you have any thoughts on, um, you know, if, if you’ve explored that literature at all and have thoughts on the computer metaphor of the brain as an information processing computer.
Dan 00:52:07 Well, I mean, the computer metaphor, I mean, I have some familiarity. I’m, I’m, I’m, I’m familiar with it to some extent because the computer metaphor also comes up in molecular biology, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So the way we think about, um, um, what happens to development, we think about it as the execution. I mean, this is the traditional view, right? The execution of a set of algorithm instructions and coded in the genome. Yeah. And we, there’s talk of, you know, software and hardware as you have in computers, and, you know, the software is, is the genetic material, and the hardware is, is is the embryo. And of course, that doesn’t really work because the idea is that the software is creating the hardware. <laugh> obviously no computer works that way, right? Right. The, the hardware has to be already assembled for the software to be able to be run on it.
Dan 00:52:51 But anyway, the point is that that language and that, um, that that’s already there, those metaphors, and of course, the notion of information also, right? And computability and all these things, right? Um, what matters to me when I think about these things is, again, the history. Because, uh, if you don’t know anything about the history, right? You may say, Well, you know, this is a perfectly reasonable way of thinking about the brain, um, or about the cell or whatever. But when you realize that, you know, information language was brought in under particular circumstances at a particular time, and there was nothing inevitable about it, you realize that it, that you can’t just assume, for example, that information is something that’s just out there, which is what the cyber eist and others try to argue. And many people think that way today. I mean, the information is just like matter and energy.
Dan 00:53:33 It’s just there. And I think that, again, a historical perspective allows you to, reminds you, right? That information, maybe it’s a useful, might be a useful metaphor, but there are some dangers in verifying it, and assuming that, that the, the only way to think about what’s happening in what’s going on in their brain is in terms of information processing, right? It also has interesting, uh, uh, problematic, potentially problematic consequences, right? But the idea of, of computability, um, that’s something that’s, that that’s been taken up by embryos. You know, they say, Well, okay, if there’s, if there’s, uh, if there’s, um, if, if, if the DNA is computing the embryo, right? When in principle we should be able to act like the laps demon and say, Well, mm-hmm. <affirmative>, if I have all the inform, if I, if I know what’s in the dna, and I know all the initial conditions, I should be able toe, uh, determin perfectly deterministically the outcome, right?
Dan 00:54:19 And that some serious, uh, respected developmental bias have made that claim. Uh, but that’s completely concise in the face of everything we know about, about the, the, about the pro the molecular process that are going on in, in the cells. So I, I assume maybe you can, you, we can have a conversation. You can tell me, I mean, that, whether that’s, maybe that’s, that’s a problem as well when you’re thinking about what’s going on in the brain, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that we can’t, we can’t assume, um, first of all, this deterministic outlook, right? Where you have in the way that you have in a, in a, in a, when you, when you execute a program in a computer, you can’t assume that, that at the molecular level, that translates to something, uh, with the same sort of, uh, of, of, of determinacy. Um, I don’t know what you, what, what’s, what you tell me.
Paul 00:55:07 Well, no, I mean, it’s interesting that you brought up dna. First of all, um, Cla Shannon himself warned against the use of his Shannon, what’s now known as Shannon information, um, because everyone was taking it up in biology and other fields, and he has this really nice short paper warning against that anyway, mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, you mentioned dna, and it’s, you know, there’s not enough information, uh, in DNA to program all of the, just the structure of the human brain. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, I mean mm-hmm. <affirmative>, when you get down to like worm some worms and, you know, some smaller organisms, you could actually fit all of that information into the dna, but, but the connections of our brain, uh, you know, rely on development, right? So there’s a set of instructions, but then there’s the developmental process, which we talked about on the podcast before, right? So, um mm-hmm. <affirmative>, so that computability doesn’t exist essentially from dna right. To, to the structure of our brains and I suppose bodies
Dan 00:56:03 Yeah. Well, as exactly, that’s exactly the same, that the conclusion that people in development are drawing Yeah. Is exactly that, that, that it may be a useful, um, idealization, but what it misses is the materiality, the, the substance mm-hmm. <affirmative> of life or of the brain, You know, it’s, if you think about it, these sorts of descriptions are, are, are, are very sort of divorced from the materials, right? Um, I guess that’s in some sense, the, the, that’s where their seduction lies, you know, that you can, you can sort of, uh, move it from what the, the medium doesn’t really matter, but of course, it matters a great deal, right? Uh, the, the, the stuff of life, if either it’s a brain or
Paul 00:56:46 There’s no stuff, I thought it’s all processes.
Dan 00:56:53 All of that is a great deal. And, and it’s, it’s just an exercise in abstraction to, to, and it might be a useful one for some purposes, right? To think of ion networks, for example. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, just think of zeros and ones and gates and logic gates, and just saying, Well, you know, and some people have adopted that framework, and when thinking about, you know, uh, development, and I’m sure that also comes up in, in the study of, of, of the brain. And so, you know, the question then is, well, if there’s this, are you, are you suggesting you can ask the person who’s defending that view that this is the way that this is a useful way of, of understanding, um, you know, is this reflecting what’s actually going on, You know, the molecular level and my, and my, my suspicion is that that’s where it’s much harder to, to, to defend those, those metaphors, right? Because they, they don’t take scale seriously, for example, is maybe another example. Uh, you know, a a place where, um, this argument from scale that I mentioned, uh, has some bearing on discussions in neuroscience.
Paul 00:57:52 Let, let’s move, talk a little bit more about process philosophy. So you just use the word abstraction, so I, I just kind of want to bounce some ideas off of you, I guess, uh, mm-hmm. <affirmative> around the, the notion that processes are, um, more fundamental than things than substances. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, and I, again, I’ll direct people to your book, everything flows, um, just for lots of different essays regarding, uh, different, uh, subjects and accounts of different subjects as process, uh, philosophies. But you just use the term, um, abstraction. And I was, you know, I’ve been thinking about processes a lot since I talked to Yogi, actually, um, a handful of episodes. And, and he refers to your work a lot in his, in his own work. Um, one of it’s, I don’t know if it’s ironic or paradoxical, but one of the things that is considered to, uh, be a fundamental aspect of our intelligence is our ability to abstract. So if, if the thing to explain from a process philosophy perspective is how things can become static. So it seems like an abstraction, a concept, a thing, um, which is what makes us intelligent. One of the things that makes us quote intelligent is to be able to conceive of concepts as things, uh, as static kind entities. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> that it’s interesting that, uh, the thing that, or one of the things that makes us intelligent is, uh, our ability to conceive of things incorrectly.
Dan 00:59:28 <laugh>. That’s a really, really interesting and, and interesting reflection. I, I, I think that’s right. It’s almost paradoxical, right? That if it’s, if we do define intelligence that way, we could say that in that, that we demonstrate our intelligence when we transform a world of processes into a world of substances through our concept <laugh>. Yeah. Um,
Paul 00:59:49 Yeah. I’m not sure what that means, though. I, I don’t know how to, uh, judge it. <laugh>.
Dan 00:59:53 I mean, I, I think that, um, again, if we want to understand why it is the process philosophy and our process outlook has always been a minority view. We, we have to, uh, um, reflect on, on, on the, on, on, on, on, on why this, that the substance view is, is so much more familiar to us mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And surely that part of the answer or part of the story there is gonna have to do with, with our cognitive operators, with how we perceive the world, with how we reason, with the language, with, with how we use language, right? So it’s almost as if the, our entire disposition or everything about is, is, is geared towards thinking in terms of substances, because that’s easier and that, that makes better sense of the world around us. And I guess that is why the, well, one reason why the process view is seems to us counter intuitive why it seems unfamiliar, even though, and here’s the argument, you know, it, that is, I think the view that the science is giving us of the world. So the natural science is telling us it’s not just biology, by the way, physics, chemistry is telling us that the world is dynamic and perceptual through and through all the way down. And yet the way we think, the way we use language, the way we use concepts, everything is, is <laugh> based on this other benefits we’re built that way.
Paul 01:01:15 Maybe that’s where we’re going against the grain almost in that sense.
Dan 01:01:18 Yeah. I mean, all of what you said, maybe they, what makes us intelligent is the ability to, uh, to, to, in some sense abstract from the dynamic and, uh, and, and, and find points of that that stay the same of stages that enable us to, to keep track of what’s going on.
Paul 01:01:35 But the result, then the result would be creating a false ontology.
Dan 01:01:40 Yeah. One that we have to resist, Right.
Paul 01:01:43 Resist
Dan 01:01:44 One that, that, uh, thankfully science itself can, uh, I mean, look, I would be, I would not be defending this view if it was just some sort of exercise in armchair theorize, Right? Okay. The whole reason why I think this is a very compelling view is because it’s the view that I think we should, we should, um, embrace if we take the findings of natural science seriously. Right? This is a, this is a metaphysics. It’s true. And this scares lots of people. Yeah. But it’s a metaphysics that is grounded in science. It’s not, it’s not armchair metaphysics or based on intuitions that you may have, or when you’re meditating, you know, by the fire. It’s, it’s something, it’s, it’s basically let’s work out what view of the world we should have if we, if we take seriously the findings of science. And, uh, we happen to focus on biology.
Dan 01:02:29 But as to say, I mean, a hundred years earlier, people like Whitehead came to the same conclusions when looking at physics. So in some sense, the revolution in biology is overdue. Right. And many of these organics that I mentioned at the beginning of the, of our discussion, were already aware of this in the 1920s, we’re already talking about organisms as, as processes. They realize that this is the word to think about them. Again, that’s another reason why the history there is useful. So, so yeah, it, it, it may seem like, uh, a lot to take in, right? And sometimes scientists are not, are not, uh, very happy with this word, metaphysics. It seems to not have the right connotations. But you can think of metaphysics also on a continuum with science. You know, metaphysics is, is not fundamentally different. I mean, if you think about science as the enterprise that we engage in, what we want to find out what the world is like, that’s also what metaphysics doing, is just doing it at a, at a high level of abstraction, you know?
Dan 01:03:22 Hmm. And so surely that’s the case, then metaphysics has to be grounded, or there has to be some dialectical relationship between science and metaphysics. Right? One has to inform the other all the time. And of course, that means that if science changes, you know, we should be prepared to, to change also our metaphysical conclusions, Right. Um, which of course, meta physicians are not necessarily, uh, inclined to do. I mean, when, when I was presenting this stuff, again, there’s the, the, the target audience, mathed a great deal. So when we presented this kind of work to audiences where there were meta physicians in the room, they were, you know, they were like, Why you care so much about science. You know, why, you know, we user intuitions, you know, <laugh>, and there’s a very different sort of tradition analytic metaphysics that doesn’t necessarily take the findings of sciences as that important, because they can change. Right? Um, so yeah. Uh, and then, and then, you know, you talk to scientists and you get the opposite problem, you know, Well, metaphysics, well, why, why are you drawing those sorts of conclusions? Yeah.
Paul 01:04:20 Yeah. So, so, um, it struck me that there’s a, a current kind of trend in neuroscience and computational neuroscience that lends itself well to a process perspective. And that is the idea of computation through dynamics. So when you’re recording, when you’re looking at the activity of a large population of neurons, you can reduce the dimensionality. Um, so if you have a thousand neurons, that’s a thousand dimensions, right. Of activity. But if you can reduce the dimensionality, uh, according to the variance, um, of, of the population of neurons, and then what you see is this trajectory in this lower dimensional space along, often along a manifold, some sort of shape, right? Right. Some sort of low dimensional shape. And, um, there’s a trend in recently in thinking of cognitive, uh, functions as these sort of, uh, trajectories along these manifolds, which is a very dynamical and process mm-hmm. <affirmative> oriented perspective. So I, I don’t know that neuroscience is wri large, is aware that that’s a sort of a process view
Dan 01:05:23 That’s super interesting. Yeah. It sounds a bit like dynamical systems theory.
Paul 01:05:27 It is. It’s directly from dynamical systems theory. Okay. Okay. Yeah. It’s using the tools of dynamical systems theory to analyze these pop high dimensional populations of neurons. So, um,
Dan 01:05:35 Yeah. I mean, there are similar, um, approaches, not, not part of the mainstream, but you can find them historically, you know, proposed and then forgotten. Yeah. Uh, but available to anyone who cares to look, or people who try to, for example, think of development in this way, uh, instead of thinking about genes being switched on and switched off static things, Yeah. Thinking about patterns and, uh, dynamic flows and, and the stability. Know, for example, um, we have this notion homeostasis, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> in physiology, um, warton one of these developmental biologists, also an organicist, by the way, but someone who actually tried to, perhaps the one that’s been least forgotten some, most people know who Warton is. Huh? He, uh, he came up with this notion of homeo homeo Reeses as a contract, sort of as a, as the other side of the coin of homeostasis.
Dan 01:06:23 Andreus is not, um, not st not sort of, um, uh, stability around a, a particular, um, variable, but actually stability across time, Right? That when you look at development of many processes, they are, they are stable temporarily, meaning that they are able to compensate against perturbations and keep the same sort of trajectory paths, right? So it’s, it’s, you know, and what what was very much inspired by Whitehead, right? And what you see in his, in his theorizing is this idea that you were just describing where you focus more on patterns, right? On things that are dynamic instead of the individual entities, which would deem to be less important.
Paul 01:07:03 But, but the pattern through time is a process of view of identity, right?
Dan 01:07:09 Yeah. That’s right. So that’s how we think about identity, right? So if you wanna think about why something stays the same across time, you think about what’s, how it’s being maintained about the, you know, you, you think about it, you think of, I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s inevitable. If you, if you take the time seriously, and you don’t, I mean, some sense pro process thinking is a consequence of taking time seriously. Right? Right. Uh, we just, we’re just not very good at taking time. Seriously. Uh, um, so, you know, at any moment in time when you are, you are just a time slice of the person that you are, Right? You are extended in time. And so, uh, to, if you want to understand, say, an organism, you need to look at the entire life cycle of the organism. Uh, it reflects through time. It’s just that when you’re looking at a particular, when you’re looking at any entity at a particular time, you’re just dealing with one instance, Right?
Dan 01:08:01 With a temporal part to use a meta’s term. And that’s a interesting, uh, location, because you can start thinking about parts temporally in the way that we think about parts spatially. So in the same way that your arm and your head are parts of you, you can think of you, the you of yesterday and the you of today as, as also parts of you temporal parts. Yeah. Interesting. And if you take that seriously, that idea, then it means obviously that you need to consider the, the whole and the hole in this context is not, is not you at any moment, but the, the you across time. So, again, you always have lingering at the back of your mind that scientist question of how am I gonna translate this into, how does this help me Right. In, uh, in my work? Because obviously it’s really difficult right? To, to study anything across, across the entire duration of its existence. Right? Uh, most of the techniques and tools that we’re use in science slice are meant to Yeah. If you think about it. Yeah. That’s what we’re doing. We’re always working with time slices, and we are expect that we can abstract the entire process on the basis of these snapshots. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, like a movie.
Paul 01:09:00 Uh, this is an aside, but you don’t favor looking too much to Alfred North Whitehead, um, which a lot of people appeal to him as sort of an originator of a process philosophy. But is it because he, uh, used a bunch of neologisms made up a, a bunch of unnecessary words? Or is his process philosophy the incorrect process
Dan 01:09:23 Philosophy? Um, I mean, he, he is the person that nowadays, for better, for worse, is people think of when, when you say the, the phrase, you know, process philosophy mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, and there are good reasons for it, right? He was the person, perhaps who most systematically developed a, uh, a process view. Um, and, you know, uh, the reason why I’m not, I’m not a white head in, is because I don’t think that he exhausts. I think that process thinking can exist, uh, beyond what white had happened to say about processes, Right? He offered one proposal, and, um, it’s fine. I mean, but you know, when I, when I looked at it and when, you know, I did this, this, this postdoc, I was part of this project with John Dere and Exeter on process. We actually tried to read process. In reality, we didn’t get very far.
Dan 01:10:13 Why? I mean, is it really the iss the effort, effort worth it, Right? Uh, when you talk to white headon, you talk to processional thinkers who are white headon. They live in Whitehead framework, you know, they, and they disagree ex energetically about what Whitehead meant by certain categories and by certain terms. And I’m like, That’s not my project. That’s fine. If you wanna do that. I care about, about, about a science. I care about a view, what view we need off the world that makes sense of the science that I care about, Right? So it’s still professional, but, you know, I don’t have to avail myself of the, of these terms and this way of thinking. And, and that’s, that’s one reason I can give you many more. I mean, he, his view is not really totally, actually fully professional. He believes in these sort of actual occasions that, that are the atoms of their office, of the processes that he suggests.
Dan 01:11:04 You know, He has also, it’s a, it’s a meta that that is not particularly naturalistic, right? It’s not conforming with science. There’s God, there’s a theo, there’s a process theology. And, you know, you process thinking is already hard enough to, for scientists to accept. You don’t want to make your work even harder by saying no. Yeah. If you wanna accept what I’m saying, not only do you have to accept that the world is dynamic, but you also have to learn and read this, or take pros by this, uh, early 20th century author. Uh, but that is not to say that the history is not relevant. In fact, uh, you know, if you, when you, I’m sure you saw that when I, after discussing white did, I would go on to discuss these, these biologists that were inspired by white, I said, Well, actually, those people have all the, the way they translated though, that thinking turns out to be much more helpful for me than the thinking of the, of the master, as it were. Right? So second order white, he maybe, I dunno. But the point is that yeah, there’s more than one way to be a professional philosopher. That’s what I would
Paul 01:12:01 Say. Uh, it was interest, It made me remember, uh, when I was in an undergraduate, I, I was taking some literature course, uh, I think we read, um, Gabriel Garcia marque or something. Anyway, the professor was, he, he did his thesis, I suppose, on Jean Paul Sark’s, uh, being in nothingness. And I was really into existentialism at the time because I was young, you know, And I tracked him down, and I was like, Should I, because I, it’s such a thick tone, that book. And I’d read a bunch of other peripherals, uh, works by Sarra and other existentialists, and I asked him, Should I read being in Nothingness? And he said, No, <laugh>, clearly not. Even though he did his thesis on it, You know? So maybe, maybe it’s, uh, similar to your Whitehead experience. Okay. I have two more process, uh, questions for you. One, I had this fleet moment in the gym, uh, a few weeks ago where I was thinking about, uh, consciousness and our minds and our subjective experience. And I thought, could it be like, acceleration is a process on top of velocity, which is a process, right? So it’s a process of a process. Is there any fruit? And thinking of consciousness, and I know this is maybe just a silly non-starter, but of thinking of consciousness as sort of a process of a process, right? Of a subjective experience as a process of our brain processes. So
Dan 01:13:22 What would be the underlying process in that, in that case,
Paul 01:13:25 The brain activity would be its own process, right?
Dan 01:13:28 Okay. And then consciousness on top
Paul 01:13:30 Of that, on top of that is, is it odd to think of hierarchical structures of processes?
Dan 01:13:36 No. No. That’s how I think we should think about processes. Otherwise, you don’t, can’t get very far. You think that there’s this one process, right? We need to make certain distinctions, Right? So the idea, so, okay. Um, okay, well, I’ll just, I
Paul 01:13:50 Don’t know how to get, I don’t know how to move forward from it. So I want you, I want your help.
Dan 01:13:52 Let’s see if we can, Yeah. Okay. So I mean, let’s talk about hierarchies or processes. So you can think of, you can think of, say the biological world as one huge process, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but then within it, you can find different, um, processes within that which you can identify because they had different time scales mm-hmm. <affirmative>, which the turnover rates are different. So think of, uh, think of, think of yourself, right? So you, um, you are made up of, of organs. The organs are made up of tissues. The tissues are made up of cells. The cells are made up of molecules. And at each of those levels, slow,
Paul 01:14:29 Slow, slower,
Dan 01:14:30 Slow. You were having energy. Yeah. That, you know, the, the, the turnover is faster as you go down, actually, right? Um, and you can also even have the level of a population, right? So at the population level, um, everything looks, everything looks the same. But if you look, the individuals come and go, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, same way, when you look at the, the individual, you stay the same, but then, you know, your cells are constantly coming and going. And if you, again, if you look at one of your cells, the cells stays the same, but the molecules are constantly, um, turning over, right? So in that sense, it, it’s, it seems perfectly reasonable to be able to objectively, it’s not something that the, uh, observer imposes on the reality, but you can objectively identify scales or levels, right, of, of, of processual change. Um, and you don’t actually need to assume that the fundamental level, even if there is one, you might not even have to assume there’s a fundamental level, is sub, is substances.
Dan 01:15:24 You know, you can just say that the pro process is all the way down, turtles all the way down, right? Right. And that every time you identify substances, or you see, of course, you rely on substances some extent, you’re saying, well, you know, the substances are instantiations of those processes, or they’re maintained actively by means of the processes above and below them. Right? That’s a slower, The reason why cell cells seem stable is because the, you know, the, he hepato is maintained by processes above it when deliver, and also by processes below it, by the, by all the sort of molecular, uh, entities that, that, that, that are doing, doing things for the cell to maintain itself. So, so I think hierarchy is, uh, completely reasonable in a perceptual view. Um, the worry I have, not worry, but the, the difficulty I have with, uh, thinking about consciousness, that it’s not obvious to me what it is.
Paul 01:16:11 Yeah, I know. That’s always the problem,
Dan 01:16:13 <laugh>. See, you know, I was thinking when we, when we had this correspondence by email, and you, we were talking about what we’re gonna talk, you were saying what we were gonna talk about. And I, and it’s like, okay, why? I, I, I was think, I’ve been thinking about why it is that I don’t have a great deal to say about, about, you know, consciousness in the, And the reason, the reason I think, uh, is, is, is that it’s too hard. It’s just, it’s too difficult. I mean, really, I mean, I, I don’t, I, I don’t understand Paul how people like you are able to devote their time to thinking about such hard problems, you know? But
Paul 01:16:46 It’s, the problem is, I don’t, and that’s the problem, is I would like to, but it’s out of my reach, you know? And that, I think it’s just been out of reach for everyone forever.
Dan 01:16:55 But I, so what’s the motivation to get up in the morning and, and work on such a hugely difficult, intractable problem? I mean, but I don’t,
Paul 01:17:03 Let me, I want you to figure it out. I want you to solve the mind brain problem,
Dan 01:17:07 <laugh>, but you know, the reason why <laugh>, you know, so if I ask myself why it is that I’m more interested in life than I am in mind, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> is a reasonable question mm-hmm. <affirmative>, which is what I’ve been asking myself since we’ve, since we’ve been, uh, corresponding interesting. The answer has to be that when I set my eyes, you know, on the horizon of trying to work out what life is, I guess, that seemed to me, even though it’s an extremely difficult problem within, you know, not within my reach, but something that I can, I, I hope makes some progress over the course of my life. Yeah. Right? Uh, a problem that we can begin to illuminate over decades, decades of hard work, whereas, and so that is already, that helps me motivate me because I feel like, okay, my work is not completely useless because maybe I can help illuminate, but when I think about the mind, which of course is the next frontier, right?
Dan 01:17:56 Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it’s so beyond what I can even hope to <laugh>, but I, I couldn’t possibly motivate myself to work on a topic. Like, and I guess that’s why I never thought about this before, but this just came up to me when I was, you know, in the last two days. Maybe that’s the reason why I inherently have avoided looking at questions about mind and conscience, because as your question illustrates about consciousness, we just know so little. Yeah. Our knowledge is so primitive. I mean, I did take a couple of courses on, uh, cellular, uh, neurobiology. I looked, you know, and, and we know so little. I mean, it’s so primitive our scientific understanding of what’s going on. It’s so primitive that I, it’s almost hopeless. But of course, if everyone thought the way that I did, we would never make any progress. So obviously, some people need to do this work. I, I just don’t wanna be one of them, right?
Paul 01:18:40 <laugh>. But yeah, I, I, I think that the motivation is just that it’s such a miraculous thing that we have, that it feels like anything to be a process, let’s say. You know? So that it’s just, it’s a fundamental mystery. So, but yeah, you reach and there’s nothing to grab. There’s really nothing to grab. So, you know,
Dan 01:18:58 It seems, uh, I mean, yeah, it does. There’s nothing to grab then. Um, it’s almost as if, well, not anything goes, but there, there’s gonna be a great, a great range, I guess, of possible hypothesis because it’s difficult to know which one, which one we can reject. Right? So, again, I mean, I applaud and I admire people who, you know, scientists philosophists, who are looking at these questions. Yeah. Because I just, I don’t have the, uh, I don’t have the nerve. I, I, I don’t have the, the, the person, the temperament to be able to, uh, motivate myself to work on something so difficult, this consciousness in mind. I mean, and also, you know, if you ask me a question like that, it just almost seems irresponsible of me to try to answer, because it’s so difficult.
Paul 01:19:36 So what you’re saying is that you agree that consciousness is a process of a process of a process <laugh>. I think if that’s what,
Dan 01:19:42 What we, I don’t see any reason not to, um, you know, not, uh, yeah. Not to pursue it,
Paul 01:19:48 But we’re not gonna solve it today. What about, uh, so here’s my, my last, um, uh, process question for you. How do to think about the big bang in terms of process? Or is it not, you know, cuz that’s a singularity, right? And I remember seeing like a picture of the size of the core pual that was the big bang, you know, relative to an ant, and it’s like, like a little ball, right? Which is a thing, right? Yeah. So how do we, Is is it worth even thinking about that from a profession?
Dan 01:20:12 Well, great question. Great question. I, I don’t know. I mean, um, well, I guess, so the issue is how do you make sense of, of an event that has a beginning from a professional perspective? Is that the idea? Yeah. Um, well, I mean, one could, one could take the easy way out and say, well, the very notion of time did not exist before the
Paul 01:20:30 Beginning of Yes. That, that’s what I thought you said
Dan 01:20:32 A bit of a, it’s a bit of a cop out, right? Because you say, well, you know, that question makes no sense. Right? Uh, because time, uh, begins when that happens. So there is not such thing as before,
Paul 01:20:42 But we do think of it as a little ball of all of the mass and energy and whatever else. That’s
Dan 01:20:47 Right. Yeah. We can move. Yeah. It’s, I mean, it, it’s, No, no, I, So I’ll tell you something about that. I mean, maybe, maybe we can go somewhere with this. Um, has it, I mean, has it occurred to you, occurred to you that, I mean, that it’s not inevitable for us to think that the universe has a beginning, right? Right. But for centuries, uh, many people thought that didn’t actually, that was a silly thing to think <laugh>. Right? That it made sense to think that there’s always been, um, we’re not talking, so of course we’re talking people who don’t believe in creation. So we’re of course, cause creation. The, the, the theological narrative has the beginning. And I, and I guess that’s why many, many people who believe in that secretly were satisfied when, you know, scientists, physicists start, you know, proposed the Big bang theory and start thinking, well, you know, maybe the universe at the beginning, because at least it aligns with this notion of a beginning. But the alternative, which, which was defended by many people in ancient Greece, and, you know, many authors or atheist thinkers, is a very interesting one, Right. Where you don’t have a beginning. It’s one that we nowadays find difficult to even make sense of.
Paul 01:21:51 Right. Doesn’t make sense. Yeah. But,
Dan 01:21:53 Uh, but you know, if you, if if the universe has already, has always existed, um, I wonder, Yeah, I don add,
Paul 01:22:01 But how can you have something add have nothing <laugh>, That’s the,
Dan 01:22:04 Well, the, the idea would be that there was always been something, so
Paul 01:22:07 There is always kind of been nothing as well. There’s no difference then I suppose all we’re really gonna,
Dan 01:22:12 No, no, it’s, it’s <laugh>. I dunno. It’s an interesting question
Paul 01:22:17 To ask. All right. Anyway, um, I’d like to ask you about artificial intelligence, of which I know that in our, in our log correspondence, you’re very resistant because you, you don’t, um, you know, you’re not an AI expert or anything. And then if you have time, I’d like to ask you about your interest in artificial life. So, mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, I, given your, uh, the, you know, your view of organisms as streams, right? As processes, uh, you know, my, I guess the question is what does that say about using a computer or so, you know, to, to model artificial quote unquote intelligence? What, I guess what I want to connect is the idea of the organism and life with the idea of intelligence and whether intelligence, which also another, uh, fuzzy term ill defined, um, whether we should think of intelligence as something that is inherently connected to life, or, you know, the idea of artificial intelligence in general is these days modeling, trying to model human, uh, intelligence and our fancy, our, because we’re the most intelligent things in the universe, right? So mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, but should we, do we need to change our notion of intelligence when we’re talking about something that we’re programming a computer to do, even if it learns mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but a computer has no autonomy, has no self-organization has, it’s not far from thermal. Um, there’s no far from thermal equilibrium issues mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So I, I, I don’t know. I, I just wanted to get your kind of overarching view on, on artificial intelligence and how to think of it. Yeah. Given the machine,
Dan 01:23:51 The reason, the reason why I was, Yeah. I mean, the reason why I was resistant is cause I don’t know much and I don’t want to, I don’t want speak about things. I, I, yeah, yeah. But, but I, I, I’ll give you my, uh, my two senses. I mean, I think that, um, and I think what the attempts to, for example, um, think about biological process or psychological processes in iCal are, are going, I’m making a number of assumptions, which, which how we have to test, we don’t have to accept, right? That, um, again, this is relates to what we talking about before, that the process can be abstracted from the material, uh, that instantiates it. Mm. Right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, if, if, if one thinks that we can recreate what it means to be intelligent in the machine, uh, what it means for, for it to have an, that resembles ours, then we are making that sort of assumption.
Dan 01:24:42 And, and I think that that’s, that’s problematic. I mean, the, if you think of a, of, of the classic most famous attempts, so examples of ai, I mean, I dunno much about this, but I know for example, of the, uh, deep blue, the classic, you know mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, situation, right? When we had this computer that was able for the first time to defeat, uh, best chess player at chess, right? That seems like a great accomplishment of ai. But the question is, you know, what do we draw from that? What conclusions do we draw? Do we draw the conclusion that the, uh, that the, uh, the computer, uh, reasons the way that a human reasons when they play chess, and the reason better? Well, clearly no, right? Because the computer is, is, is computing, is considering all these different, uh, chess moves, right? Millions and millions and millions.
Dan 01:25:31 And clearly that’s not how the human mind works, right? The human mind, I guess, I dunno much about chess, but presumably, you know, uses intuition and, and a number of other factors come in, right? Heuristics will, you know, so that’s clearly not a conclusion that you can draw from that event when deep blue, uh, defeated Casper of, So what can you say, can you say that the computer is smarter than Casper because it defeated him, uh, at chess? Well, again, there, it, what do we mean by smart? Do we, are we talking again about computability mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, maybe in that sense, yes. But we, I think, tend to think about intelligence as something more than that, right? There are there gonna be aspects to intelligence, creativity, imagination, ability for abstract thought that are not necessarily captured by the computing power of the, of the machine, right? So again, my, I have nothing against ai, but surely what, what we need to be careful about is what we conclude, what, what do we think we are licensed to conclude from those sorts of events mm-hmm. <affirmative>, right? And I don’t, I dunno, the literature well enough to know what it is that people thought we had accomplished by defeating humans, by, by creating, Maybe you can tell me, I mean, what was the conclusion from that sort of,
Paul 01:26:43 Yeah, Deep blue would be the wrong example. A more, um, appropriate example for these days is something like AlphaGo or Alpha Zero, um, out of deep Mind, which <laugh>, of course, it’s always in the games domain, uh, beat the, um, world champion go, uh, player. But it was trained by, um, essentially playing itself over and over the, the most recent celebrated version. You know, you, you, you have to train the model, but it trained itself by playing itself and go over and over. I mean, it has a built in architecture, but as it’s training, it’s changing, its weights and stuff like that. And, um, I mean, it’s a, you know, big complicated model. But so, so that is a scale that is, uh, it’s a really large scale and, and wasn’t, and not necessarily modeling the brain or our intelligence, right? It’s, it’s just, uh, given a task and, um, trained to do that task.
Paul 01:27:36 However, a lot of what we talk about on this podcast is using those kinds of models as models of our brain activity and our cognitive function. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and there’s been a lot of progress, um, in that and mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and from a pro, uh, thinking about it from a process perspective, there’s, see, you know, there would be something missing. You’re not capturing the, the actual process, process of nature, of our intelligence by using machine that you can walk away from for a hundred years. You come back, your hamster is dead, but the machine you can just turn back on, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, I, I, so I’m, you know, I don’t have conclusive thoughts about this, which is why I wanted to ask you about it. If, if there you agree that there’s just, you know, what would be missing from using a, an AI model as a model of our brain and cognitive processing?
Dan 01:28:24 You know, it depends on, on what the, what the, uh, the reason is for doing it in the first place, what the motivation is. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, if, if we want super, if we want machines to, to, to conduct extremely <laugh> difficult tasks that it would take a human age is to calculate, then, then there’s no reason to those a good reason to fund this kind of research. Sure. The issues only emerge, I think, when, when the intention is to draw certain scientific conclusions mm-hmm. <affirmative> when it’s not just the technological feat that we’re after. Right.
Paul 01:28:56 Right. Well, that, that’s what I’m, that’s what I’m Yeah. Asking about is the, the, you know, using artificial intelligence in the pursuit of understanding natural intelligence.
Dan 01:29:04 I think there is where one has to, uh, step in and say, well, uh, step in. Yeah. I mean, yeah. And say, Well, I mean, are we, what, to what extent can we say that this, that, that this system is embodying? Um, well, first of all, it’s involving the same sort of behaviors that we can manifest to our intelligence, but that may be easier than if it’s causily, right? If the mechanisms, of course, the, the, the, the means by which computers do what they do and behave intelligent, they’re going to be fundamentally different from the way that we do it, right? Because they don’t have a brain mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, the, the, the circuits are gonna be over very different nature. So surely that’s, that’s already, that’s an easy answer, right? So we’re not gonna learn about the intricacies of brain function by looking at, by, by devising these ai, uh, uh, you know, systems because they don’t work in the same way.
Dan 01:29:54 Maybe at the functional level, there’s some similarities, but if you’re interested in the, in the causes, right? How things happen, surely there’s a, there a, this analogy there. So that’s one, one thing that one could say. Um, and it’s a very simple reason why. I mean, we, the, the matter of life is, is, uh, is organic. And, uh, it’s, it’s, it’s just different. I mean, as you said, physically speaking, it’s, uh, it’s, uh, exists in a different sort of, uh, situation like thermodynamically speaking than, than, uh, than sical systems, Right? They obviously fundamentally different. And, and I guess that’s also what a cist would want to say, right? I mean, chemistry and I think matters to, to, that’s why I’m also, I mean, this also applies to people talking about organization in the abstract mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. I really like the work of people.
Dan 01:30:40 Like, uh, I noticed that you mentioned this in your conversation with Yogi. Uh, I, they’re both friends of mine. It’s a great book, great book that they, Yeah, that’s all great stuff. Yeah. Um, and one of the things that they have tried to do in comparison to the earliest sort of polis, uh, tradition about, about was to, and, and I and I, and yet I don’t think they do with, you know, <laugh>, they don’t do it enough, is to show that any conversation of organization has to be grounded in, in, in, it can’t be too abstract. We can’t just talk about organization on its own because it’s not, we’re not gonna get very far. First of all, the scientists are not gonna be that interested because it’s too abstract. Secondly, we are still in a situation where we don’t know really what we’re talking about. Right. And I think those same concerns exist a probably much more magnified by many, many times in the discussions of intelligence, right? We need, what is it that our goal is? If our goal is what you said and try to illuminate psych, the psychological processes and, and, and, and, and our cognitive capacities, then surely, um, there’s very little, presumably one can, uh, one can derive or draw from, from these sorts of models, I
Paul 01:31:46 Would say. Interesting. Um, so the most recent, um, celebration in AI are these what are known as foundation models or large language models. Have you heard of these? No. Like G P T three and, uh, Palm, and there’s these really giant models that you can just, um, give a prompt to, um, some text and they’ll generate a story based on like a question that you ask it, or, or if I gave like your name and the name of your book and asked, asked it to write a summary, it would generate some summary, uh, of the book, probably because it’s been trained on Wikipedia and Reddit and Uhhuh, you know, the corpus of, um, the entire internet. But, uh, the, because of that success, I mean, these are based on words, right? Which are tokens that then are vectorized into sub symbolic, um, structures. Uhhuh, uhhuh, uh, you know, we used to, we think that, um, we’re special because of our ability to, um, generate language, right?
Paul 01:32:38 And generate and understand language and words are traditionally thought of as symbols. And then, so then I thought, uh, how do, how to think about language and perhaps symbols in a professional manner. And I, I don’t know if you have thought about this, but, but this go, you know, harkens back to the, the concept of abstraction that we were talking about before in intelligence. And part that’s part of our intelligence is to be able to abstract and create a concept or, and or assemble. So I don’t know if, if you just have thoughts about that, I just wanna
Dan 01:33:07 Throw Well, that’s super interesting. I I, I don’t have much to say. I mean, what I would say, one thing I can say is that abstraction really matters in process thinking because it’s the way for you to make sense of what everyone else thinks it’s going on, right? <laugh>, So everyone else thinks the world is substance is made up of things. Oh, right, right, right, right. Um, so abstraction is your tool to, in some sense, save the phenomena, you know, to say, Well, you know, uh, what you think is going on is actually a product of what whiter called the, uh, fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This is the,
Paul 01:33:39 Right, it’s this
Dan 01:33:40 Famous phrase, the mouthful, right? Yeah. So the idea there is that you, uh, yeah, you, you take something, uh, that is actually dynamic. You take it to be concrete, uh, because for, for heuristic reasons, it’s helpful too.
Paul 01:33:51 But,
Dan 01:33:51 But in the case, you forgot that that was
Paul 01:33:52 Yeah. But in the case of the material world, you can think of a rock just as a super slow process, right? That’s
Dan 01:33:58 Right. That’s right. So the point is that at the, yeah, at the material level, everything is perceptual at the conceptual level, and it’s certain experimental context, things have to become thing like mm-hmm. Right? And that’s the actual of abstraction. But if you, we didn’t do any abstraction, we were just talking about the world, there would be no reason essentially to, uh, to adopt a substance view, right? Everything would just look like processes that are stabilized at different time scales, and that they, uh, they seem to be stable only to an observer looking upon that, upon that thing at a particular time.
Paul 01:34:29 So then what’s a concept
Dan 01:34:30 Is a good example. Yeah.
Paul 01:34:31 So, so, so then what is a concept or a symbol? How is it a super, super, super, super, super slow process? Or is do we need to No,
Dan 01:34:39 I guess, I guess concepts can be just because they’re abstractions, they don’t have to reflect reality, right? A concept, you can just say, a concept is whatever I want it to be, and I’m going to take as my concept something that doesn’t change. That’s how I define it. So it’s analytically true that that’s what the concept is, because I’m defining it that way. The question is not that, the question is whether, how well that corresponds to what’s going on or how useful it is, and I’m not, you know, and I’m very happy to consider, I know it’s useful. I mean, we’re doing it all the time. Um, it’s useful to, to project onto reality. These idealizations, these things that we know are not right, because for certain contexts it’s good enough. It’s like, uh, discussion of Newtonian mechanics and, and gen and general relativity. I mean, for all intents and purposes, we can do very well. Engineers designing bridges can just, uh, appeal to an, to classical mechanics without having to worry about, uh, about no, without having to worry that that framework isn’t strictly speaking. Right. You know? Um, so we could think about the, the, the substance view in that same way. It’s an approximation to reality, and it’s a perfectly serviceable one in certain context, but remember the meta physicians that care about the big questions, Okay, What is the ultimate, ultimate, ultimate nature of reality, you
Paul 01:35:48 Know? Yeah. Yeah. When is, um, what’s the title of the, what is life book? Is it, What Is, What is Life? Would that be a good title? Or is what,
Dan 01:35:56 What is life? It’s just gonna be What is Life Revisited?
Paul 01:35:59 Oh, Revisited. Oh, I like what is, what is Life <laugh>?
Dan 01:36:02 What is, what is life
Paul 01:36:04 And what it is? Yeah.
Dan 01:36:05 I mean, I guess it’s a bit of a, it’s a bit of a misnomer because it’s, I mean, short wasn’t writing about life. He was, you know, you know what I’m saying? Like, the title is a very savvy and easy to remember, but it’s, it’s not a book about life. It’s a book about, you know, Gene and the cells. So, so if I title my book, What Is Live Is, I’m Concerned, people are also going to think that I’m addressing the sort of questions we’re discussing right now, which are leaving for the future.
Paul 01:36:28 Yeah. And then the, the subtitle could be, I met James Watson and told him all his work was crap after he,
Dan 01:36:35 He told me,
Paul 01:36:35 He told me that
Dan 01:36:37 I essentially thinking of maybe including that in a footnote.
Paul 01:36:40 You totally should. You totally should. Because that’s a momentous thing.
Dan 01:36:43 Yeah.
Paul 01:36:44 It’s all you have to say. That’s all crap also, that that’s what he said. Dan, this has been a ton of fun for me, and I could go on and on, but, um, I’ve really enjoyed reading your work, and, uh, I look forward to more of it. So when you do, when you’re ready to publish that, uh, what is Life Revisited book? Uh, if you want to come and talk about it and, and get the word out, know and we’ll have you back on.
Dan 01:37:02 Absolutely. Okay, I will. Thank you. That one’s been so much fun. Thanks so much, Paul, again, for inviting me. It’s been great. It’s wonderful to think about these things, and, and your questions have been really, really well posed and intriguing, and making me think about things in different ways. So I really appreciate that. Uh, yeah. I’ll be in touch. All
Paul 01:37:18 Right, sounds good. I alone produce Brain inspired. If you value this podcast, consider supporting it through Patreon to access full versions of all the episodes and to join our Discord community. Or if you wanna learn more about the intersection of neuroscience and ai, consider signing up for my online course, Neuro Ai, the quest to explain intelligence. Go to Brain inspired.co. To learn more, to get in touch with me, email paul bpi.co. You’re hearing music by the new year. Find firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you. Thank you for your support. See you next time.