Desiderata #8: links and commentary
Quantum effects in the brain, academia is enervated, ChatGPT, Kanye
The Desiderata series is a monthly roundup of links and thoughts, as well as an open thread and ongoing AMA in the comments (for paid subscribers).
1 of 13. Since the last Desiderata, The Intrinsic Perspective published:
Goodbye academia, hello Substack: The Intrinsic Perspective goes paid.
(A brief note: I’ve been truly honored by the support. This was incredibly exciting to put out, both because of what it means for myself but also for TIP and its readers. As I wrote:
Going paid allows me to scale up TIP into something unmissable and extremely worth your while. I want to show what happens when this form is not considered a lark, or some vestigial way for already-famous names to make a buck, but taken deadly seriously as an emerging genre, a literary outlet for essays and original intellectual work—exactly the sort of things I’ve been striving for here on TIP and can now put my full effort behind.)
FTX: Effective altruism can't run from its Frankenstein's monster: Sam Bankman-Fried embodies the hardcore ideals of EA (paid subscribers only)
Leftovers: An ode to the mathematics of Thanksgiving (paid subscribers only)
The invincible human moth: A short story about the real magic hidden in quantum physics
2 of 13. We all know about the James Webb telescope, as it has led to a rare convergence in media coverage—few are the things as beloved by MSNBC as by Fox News, and its stunning images are shared regularly on Twitter. But are these images, you know, real? It turns out no. They are a mathematical interpretation, mostly of infrared. This isn’t some hidden conspiratorial knowledge—I think most people have heard of, or deduced themselves, that this was common practice for images of space, but personally I’d never read a full breakdown of how it’s done, nor how extreme it is. What’s interesting is that this post-processing affects not just what we see, but that it does so to such a degree it also affects how we feel about what we see. Here’s an example of the kind of image of space we’re shown from the Webb telescope:
But here’s what this image looks like at the start:
I am reminded of a recent exchange no one really knew what to do with it—it was just a bit too sad and honest for virality. Here are the words of William Shatner, Captain Kirk, when he went to space with Jeff Bezos, describing when his (theoretical) love of space exploration met the reality:
When Shatner tried to express this to Bezos immediately after landing, and this was the reaction:
3 of 13. Since I am not yet as disabused as Shatner was, I am still a fiend for space-related news. Consider my childlike joy upon reading the list of companies coming out of alumni of SpaceX. Here’s just a sample of the start-ups that are spinoffs by employees. Truly we live in a renaissance of the space industry.
4 of 13. Is something happening to college students? I know several professors personally who are becoming frustrated that students just. . . don’t seem to care. I’ve run across similar sentiments expressed on Twitter:
Those who spend a lot of time in virtual reality will often say that it makes the real world itself feel virtual. That time spent in VR flattens out reality, makes it appear fake, just another contrivance. Like some of the magic of reality is gone because too much of how it actually works, its mechanisms, has been revealed.
I wonder—after years of Zoom classes, is there a similar disenchantment awaiting education? Perhaps once you’ve experienced a class online, real classes seem somewhat. . . fake? Contrived? Unreal?
5 of 13. It’s been impossible, even for me, to avoid the Kanye/Ye West news, and this has sparked in turn a very public debate around mental health, with immediately some people leaping to attribute Kanye’s actions (like his support of Hitler) to his bipolar disorder, with others immediately leaping to stress that there is no way mental illness could ever lead to such repugnant beliefs. Freddie deBoer skewers the latter view as:
There is no complication: anyone who evinces any sympathy or consideration for Kanye West is simply a handmaiden to bigotry and anti-Semitism. Says Serrano, “Several mental health experts that spoke to Gizmodo stressed that mental illness does not cause antisemitism or racism and should not be used as an excuse for such hateful behavior.” And that is that.
And while I myself agree with Freddie that mental illness can be a cause of extreme political beliefs, even if we’d like this not to be possible, I also think there’s always an uncomfortable element of insanity around politics—all politics everywhere I mean—e.g., instances of mass insanity seem to necessarily involve a political element. In other words, the fact that politics is often a realm in which psychoses manifest themselves does not seem merely incidental to me. It seems fundamental.
Here is writer Sherman Alexie, reflecting in an essay on his Substack about how his bipolar disorder manifested itself into his politics:
But, through DBT, I now understand that my bipolar mania—my impulsiveness, grandiosity, and rapid thoughts—have sometimes transformed my ordinary Democratic politics into far left fundamentalism and arrogance. And I also understand that my bipolar depression—my isolation, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation—have sometimes turned my ordinary pessimism into apocalyptic thinking.
In mania and depression, my disordered thoughts roller-coaster from “I know more about the politics than everybody else” to “The world is gonna end soon so why should I keep living?”
6 of 13. There’s been a host of reactions to ChatGPT. I’ll have some detailed thoughts on it soon, as I feel some of its implications remain glossed over in the popular accounts. But there are things to note around the ChatGPT release, and one is the dominance of Twitter in its coverage. As Tyler Cowen recently observed, ChatGPT was an instance of Twitter coming into its own as a replacement for breaking news stories:
Twitter has reached some all-time highs in the last month. The first was the coverage of FTX/SBF. . . Every day one learned something exciting, almost unbelievable, and new. I learned new words such as “polycule.”
The other issue is ChatGPT. At least as of yesterday (when I composed this post), the NYT hadn’t had a single story about it, and I believe the same is true for WaPo. There is Bloomberg, which in general is on top of things, and also I have heard of a single Guardian piece. Wake up people!
Yet every day my Twitter is drenched in ChatGPT, whether analysis or actual chats. . . More than any other time, if you are not on Twitter, you just don’t know what is going on.
7 of 13. Is there anything left that AIs can’t do? Well, collapsing the wave function might be one of them. Or at least, that’s the implication of a recent study in the Journal of Physics Communications titled “Experimental indications of non-classical brain functions.” Here’s how the researchers described it via a release by Trinity College Dublin, where the research was conducted:
“We adapted an idea, developed for experiments to prove the existence of quantum gravity, whereby you take known quantum systems, which interact with an unknown system. If the known systems entangle, then the unknown must be a quantum system, too. It circumvents the difficulties to find measuring devices for something we know nothing about.
For our experiments we used proton spins of ‘brain water’ as the known system. ‘Brain water’ builds up naturally as fluid in our brains and the proton spins can be measured using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Then, by using a specific MRI design to seek entangled spins, we found MRI signals that resemble heartbeat evoked potentials, a form of EEG signals. . .”
Electrophysiological potentials like the heartbeat evoked potentials are normally not detectable with MRI and the scientists believe they could only observe them because the nuclear proton spins in the brain were entangled. Dr Kerskens added:
“If entanglement is the only possible explanation here then that would mean that brain processes must have interacted with the nuclear spins, mediating the entanglement between the nuclear spins. As a result, we can deduce that those brain functions must be quantum.
Because these brain functions were also correlated to short-term memory performance and conscious awareness, it is likely that those quantum processes are an important part of our cognitive and conscious brain functions.”
I’ll be honest—while I’m appropriately skeptical and want to see a lot more before I become a believer, I think this line of research is definitely worth pursuing. Why? Because it is theory-blind. It’s just about the empirical results. It’s just looking for any sort of evidence of non-classical effects being relevant to brain activity. This is very different than what has dominated this (small) part of the field of consciousness research for years, which is the Penrose/Hameroff theory about quantum effects applying to the microtubules within neurons, a theory with a research program heavily orchestrated in a top-down fashion. I had considered going to study with them when deciding what theory of consciousness to hitch myself to as a graduate student (I ended up working on Integrated Information Theory instead). I had read Max Tegmark’s paper on how it would be, according to his calculations, impossible for something as warm and wet and large as the brain to maintain any entanglement, and this was one of the reasons I chose Integrated Information Theory instead, which seemed radical enough but not bonkers.
I’m going to be writing a lot more about the state of consciousness research, as well as neuroscience’s failures, this upcoming year on TIP—it’s literally my area of academic expertise and I’ve never fully dived into it here.
For the space of an idle fantasy, however, let’s assume that the brain is indeed non-classical. Meanwhile, the AIs we’re building, which certainly seem smarter than some humans already, are entirely classical in their operations. The future is then the sad inevitability that humans will be forced into the “actualization farms” wherein AIs keep us around for the sole purpose of collapsing the wave function, without which they would cease to exist. Strapped to a chair with our eyes forever opened by robotic claws, we have no mouths, but we must scream.