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Were the principles of life invented or discovered?

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The concept of emergence just seems to rub some people the wrong way. The idea that there may be more in the whole than there is in the parts can seem like it’s cheating somehow, like we’re getting a free lunch, going beyond the basic laws of physics or even somehow violating them. This is especially true for varieties of emergence that claim that assemblies of parts can have causal power that the parts themselves do not have.


The basic premise of reductionism – the prevailing principle in much of modern science – is that all the apparent causality that we see in the arrangements of parts is really reducible to and fully explained by the basic forces operating on all the bits – the laws of physics playing out in ways that are certainly complex, but that require no other level of explanation. Any apparent purposiveness is an illusion, an epiphenomenon that plays no causal part in the dynamics of the system.
The alternative to reductionism seems to require an abandonment of the more bas…

Missing heritability found safe and well

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The case of the ‘missing heritability’ has become celebrated, by some, as a supposed indicator of just how abjectly the Human Genome Project has failed to live up to its promise. We’ve known for a long time that many human traits and common disorders are quite heritable. The HGP was supposed to reveal the underlying genetic causes, paving the way for deeper understanding and new therapies. But genetics seemed to keep coming up short, finding some causal variants but leaving most of the heritability unexplained, or ‘missing’. A new study (along with a lot of supporting theory and other empirical evidence) shows that the answer lies in genetic variants that are much rarer in the population than those that had typically been studied.
(https://pixabay.com/photos/puzzle-dna-research-genetic-piece-2500333/)
It is common knowledge that many human traits run in families, as does risk of common disorders like heart disease, asthma, or mental illness. People resemble their relatives, not just p…

Understanding understanding – could an A.I. cook meth?

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What would it take to say that an artificial system “understands” something? What do we mean when we say humans understand something? I asked those questions on Twitter recently and it prompted some very interesting debate, which I will try to summarise and expand on here.


Several people complained that the questions were unanswerable until I had defined “understanding”, but that was exactly the problem – I didn’t have a good understanding of what understanding means. That’s what I was trying to unpick.
I know, of course, that there is a rich philosophical literature on this question, but the bits of it I’ve read were not quite getting at what I was after. I was trying to get to a cognitive or computational framework defining the parameters that constitute understanding in a human, such that we could operationalise it to the point that we could implement it in an artificial intelligence.
So, rather than starting with a definition, let me start with an illustration and see if we can us…

Genetics is Karma - Western science meets Eastern philosophy

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In November 2018, I had the pleasure of taking part in a conversation with Swami Sarvapriyananda, on the relationship between science (genetics and neuroscience, in particular) and Eastern philosophies (Vedantic philosophy, in particular). The event was organised and hosted by the Rubin Museum in New York, and prompted by the publication of my book, Innate.


The conversation was framed around the concept of karma, which has some interesting parallels with evolutionary influences on human nature, genetic effects on our individual natures, and neural mechanisms of learning and memory. But, as you will see, the discussion was quite wide-ranging, touching also on reductionism in neuroscience, subjective experience, the self, perception, qualia, free will, morality, artificial intelligence, and the hard problem of consciousness.
Though I am not a believer in Eastern religions (or any religion), I do find many aspects of the underlying philosophy – especially the emphasis on flux over stasis…