Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Saturday's ride was a 130 mile trip to Cedar Rapids to see family for Easter. I left at 4am after getting about two hours of sleep. That's the way I usually do these things. For the first few hours I was in the dark. Highlights of this section were seeing the horizon to the east covered in the flashing lights from the tops of windmills and getting chased by a dog I could barely see.

Around sunrise I was crossing the Iowa River at Albion and on to the straight flat section from there to south of Vinton. As the sun rose the winds picked up. There wasn't a lot of wind, just 5mph or so, but it was constant and in my face for the whole ride. The wind took its toll on my by the end of the ride making me much more sore than I would normally be after a ride of this length.

There isn't much to say about Marshall county, but as I entered Tama county I was expecting a B road section, but instead got a dead end. I know that I rode on that road two years ago, but now it's a plowed field. I detoured north a mile and continued on. I shouldn't say that it's all flat between Albion and Vinton. There was a long section in Tama county that was rolling hills. I didn't remember it from the last time I had been there.

A few B roads broke up the monotony and were a relief from the often new, soft, and loose gravel I encountered for much of the trip. I wished that I had brought a camera for a few of these classic sections of road. By the time I got near Vinton I was ready for a change of pace.

A few miles north I found myself riding along the Cedar River on a road that I think is one of the best in the state. Not only does it go right along the banks of the Cedar, but it is a minimum maintenance road that has flood warning signs along it. It doesn't hurt that there is a nice park there, the Benton City Fry Access, and it includes a hill to rival those on the Des Moines river. I stopped at the park for my first rest of the trip at mile 107 and drank a Boost and a Monster along with a few Daddy Ray's fig bars.

The food and caffeine woke me up and let me ride the last 20 or so miles into Cedar Rapids. I crossed the river on the Lewis Bottoms bridge and then rode along some fast smooth gravel south into Cedar Rapids. I felt great and the winding roads were just the kind of road that I like. I even managed to find a few B roads in the last few miles before being dumped out onto the pavement.

It always feels weird arriving at my parents' house after biking there. Almost as though I've passed through some sort of space/time warp and gotten somewhere that I shouldn't be able to by bike. I hope to do it again this year, hopefully exploring some new roads along the way.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Savoir c'est pouvoir

"Knowledge is power," I had always taken this phrase to be about the nature of power. As in, if you have more knowledge then you will be more powerful. In this construction the emphasis seemed to be on book learning and smarts. If you are more educated and read a lot then you will be able to press your agenda on others. If you are not educated then you are weak.

But a few years ago, in college I had a TA who appended the French phrase "Savoir c'est pouvoir," to an e-mail. Another student asked her in class what it meant and she replied that it meant, to know is to be able. This I took to be a statement about the nature of knowledge. That is, if you are able to do something then you know it. Or to take the inverse (assuming a biconditional), if you are not able to do something then you don't know it. This takes the emphasis away from book learning and puts it on practical experience and technical skill.

"To know is to be able," has a similar flavor to Pragmatist statements like "Meaning just is use," (Wittgenstein) and "the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking" (James). According to some (pretty unreliable) sources the pragmatists were inspired by the phrase "knowledge is power" (attributed to Francis Bacon). The proverb has the look of a Pragmatist theory of knowledge. As a sometime Pragmatist myself, I am attracted to this idea of knowledge as something which gets its value through practical use.

I hadn't realized that the two phrases were supposedly equivalent until today. The English phrase I had always disliked, because it implied that well educated people were the best able to effect change, while the French version I had liked because of the implication that if you couldn't actually do something then you didn't know it after all.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Thoughts on "I am a Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter

I really wanted to read Hofstadter's "Goedel, Escher, Bach" but it was checked out at the library so I went for this one instead. I had just read Neal Stephenson's "Anathem" and was curious about references to the loops, logic, and the source of consciousness. I figured that Stephenson had used GEB as a reference (it was obvious that he was using references) and wanted to see what he had drawn from it. (It turns out that he hadn't, see http://www.nealstephenson.com/anathem/acknow.htm, but he does reference Goedel.) Anathem was interesting in a sci-fi kind of way. You know that there's some science there for inspiration, but you doubt that it's portrayed accurately. In this case rather than science it was philosophy that was being used, and I could tell when the arguments broke down, but you get the picture. Accuracy has to be sacrificed for the good of the story. I'm okay with that.
Hofstadter's book, so far as I gather, is a re-hashing of his old ideas from GEB. Apparently he wasn't happy with the results of GEB. Nobody "got" it. Rather than focusing on the examples, the math, the logic, the Escher, the Bach Hofstadter wants readers to focus on the consciousness argument. "I am a Strange Loop" is his attempt to rectify that. He fails.
The parts of this book that are easy to focus on and caught my interest are the chapters on logic, math, and proofs. I am sure that to someone with more experience in math most of what he has to say would be trivial, but to me it was an education. It was the first time I had seen Euclid's proof of the infinitude of prime numbers and it was good to be reminded just what Fermat's last theorem was.
I had studied Bertrand Russell's philosophy before, but I had a poor understanding of what his project was in "Principia Mathematica." And as far as Goedel's proof of the incompleteness of PM I was fascinated. More by his method than by the fact of it. I had always wondered what it meant to say that something was "true but unprovable." Now at least I sort of get it. Hofstadter's examples of loops, both contradictory logic loops and other types were fun as well. I've always wondered who shaves the barber.
Early on I thought that he did a good job avoiding reductionism (even explicitly rejecting it). It's too easy to think that the smaller levels (neurons, molecules, atoms, etc.) are the "True" ones. The places where the work really gets done. But in just a few examples he shows that it is just as useful, usually more so, to think on levels of symbols, ideas, and thoughts when we are examining consciousness. Unfortunately though he claims this sort of anti-reductionist position he shows his true reductionist colors later in the book as he combats dualisms (which I generally also reject). He wants there to be a "really real world" down there somewhere and he's willing to sacrifice higher level functions to get it.
He dismisses qualia quickly and without much argument. While I think that the question of "what it feels like to be an X" is metaphysically interesting, like most metaphysics it doesn't get you anywhere. Still I don't think he should dismiss the idea as simply silly.
One controversial subject that he fearlessly dives into is levels of consciousness. He proposes that different beings have different levels of consciousness. A spectrum of sorts with rocks on one end, moving through single celled animals, to insects, fish, chickens, dogs, babies, and adult humans on top. It's a spectrum that most of us believe in to one degree or another and can lead us to some interesting conclusions. Especially in conjunction with his belief that consciousness is equal to moral value.
As far as that goes Hofstadter believes that the more conscious something is the more ethically valuable it is. Therefore something more conscious, like a dog, or adult human, should not be mistreated, killed, etc.. While something less conscious, like a rock, (or Hofstadter's favorite example) a mosquito, is less deserving of respect. Given this we can ascertain his beliefs on a number of ethical quandaries. Obviously he's a vegetarian and a pro-choicer, but one wonders about the ethical status of babies and comatose people. To give a literal lifeboat scenario, think of yourself on a lifeboat with a comatose person and a live dog. Which one would you eat first? What if the person were dead?
Of course it doesn't automatically follow that Hofstadter would eat the human rather than the dog. There is clearly more going on in ethics than just consciousness, but what role does it really play? Hofstadter also makes remarks about war, criminals, and the de-humanizing of enemies as an example of our beliefs about certain peoples' level of consciousness.
More bizarrely he links levels of consciousness with musical aptitude. Musically minded people he believes are more attuned (no pun intended) to emotions, therefore more conscious themselves and thus more moral people. He cites Bach and Albert Schweitzer to support his thesis. I hope it's just a quirk of his. I'm not much of a music person, but then maybe I'm not very ethical either.
The irony of the book is that Hofstadter's heroes are dualists and would likely have disagreed with him vehemently. Goedel was a Platonist who believed that mathematics was a real thing, discovered not created. Schweitzer was religious and his beliefs were the basis for his acts. Moreover Hofstadter would have disagreed with the whole premise Neal Stephenson's novel that started me reading his book in the first place.

Monday, April 06, 2009

April Snow

I decided, rather than sit around all day, to enjoy the snowstorm yesterday. I got out the skis for one last trip around the arboretum. I had to use klister of course, and the stuff is way too sticky for it's own good. It gets on everything and doesn't come off. Most of the time the skiing was slow but okay. Occasionally though the snow would pack up under my ski and stick there. It was like skiing with muddy boots on. It felt pretty good to get out though. It seems as though biking isn't as much fun as it used to be. I rarely go for long rides alone anymore. But skiing is still fun all by itself with no goals or company.