Sunday, December 9, 2018

Karl Friston’s Theory of (Normal) Life

Karl Friston
Wired Magazine calls Karl Friston “the genius neuroscientist who might hold the key to true AI.” Friston, a psychiatrist and authority on neuroimaging, has written dozens of papers on his theory of everything related to life. The heart of the theory is the free energy principle, otherwise known as the principle of active inference, the idea being a generalization of Bayes’ Theorem. All organisms, says Friston, strive to maintain the health of their internal order by modeling the unobservable causes of their sensory states, so as to minimize “free energy” or surprise. This is done not just by making predictions and testing representational models, but by active inference, a type of embodied cognition whereby the organism selectively samples the environment and works to make the world less surprising by modifying it, thus providing evidence that the world isn’t so scary after all. The more energy is allowed to roam free, beyond the creature’s control, the more entropy wins out against the creature’s internal order. With this theory, Friston means to explain all aspects of life.

In a co-written paper, called The Markov blankets of life:autonomy, active inference and the free energy principle, Friston incorporates the machine learning concept of a Markov blanket. This “blanket” is that which “defines the boundaries of a system in a statistical sense,” the authors write. The states that make up the blanket can be “partitioned into active and sensory states,” meaning the states that occur spontaneously inside the organism, such as its interpretations or its voluntary bodily movements, and those states impressed upon the organism from the outer world, such as its sensations. Thus, the trick in life is to infer or control the unknown causes of the sensory states, by employing the active states. When this is done poorly, the organism is bound to be surprised by the world which makes for wear and tear, including ill-health and eventually death. We can control circumstances only for so long, of course, before the universe of unknowns nullifies our feeble schemes for holding them back or transforming them.

Here, though, is how Friston and his cowriters lay out some of the ideas:
Active inference, in its simplest formulation, describes the tendency of random dynamical systems to minimize (on average) their free energy, where free energy is an upper bound on (negative) marginal likelihood or evidence (i.e. the probability of finding the system in a particular state, given the system in question). This implies that the kind of self-organization of Markov blankets we consider results in processes that work entirely to optimize evidence, namely self-evidencing dynamics underlying the autonomous organization of life, as we know it. In Bayesian statistics, the evidence is known as ‘model’ evidence, where we can associate the internal states with a model of the external states.
The writers clarify that
any system that minimizes entropy by acting to minimize uncertainty about the hidden causes of its sensations must have a model of the kind of regularities it expects to encounter in its environment. This means that, over (phylogenetic and ontogenetic) time, an organism will become a model of its environment…In other words, it suggests that regularities in the environment of an organism become embodied in the organism—if the organism or species persists. Under the free energy principle, this implies that organisms are close to optimal models of their local surroundings, i.e. their niche. Organisms become close to optimal models by minimizing variational free energy, which bounds the evidence for each phenotype or individual model [25]. This does not imply that an agent must (somehow) construct an internal model (i.e. representation) of its outer environment. It simply means that an agent becomes a statistical model of its niche in the sense of coming to embody statistical regularities of its world in its physical and functional composition.
Applying these biological concepts to the evolution of culture and of people would amount to a Theory of Everything—for Normies. The goal in human life, too, would be to map and to control the unknown, and the complete elimination of surprise would be dystopian. Friston’s theory arises from the pretense of hyperrationality and so evinces the lunacy that’s commonly mistaken for neutral sanity.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Unique Strengths of Christianity

One trope you’ll find in Christian writings is that their religion is unique because of the life and teachings of Jesus. Invariably, these apologists take their scriptures at face value and rattle off a list of Jesus’ miracles, from his virgin birth to his curing of diseases to his resurrection and ascension. Amusingly, one such article compares Christianity to other religions, summarizing the teachings of Hinduism and adding by way of refutation, “Hinduism as it is actually practiced consists largely of superstition, legendary stories about the gods, occult practices, and demon worship.” There is, of course, no way to take that response seriously without casting an equally skeptical eye on Christianity. The palpable double standard shows that the trope of laying out a case for Christianity’s unique reliability is mere pretense and sales technique.

Obviously, if Hindus engaged in occult practices, why not say the same about Jesus’s magic healings? Or if Hindu stories of gods are legendary, Christianity’s could be the same. As demonstrated in just the last few centuries when critical scholars finally studied the Bible in an objective manner, the case for Christianity’s historicity was never as strong as the official presentation of the scriptures misled the world to believe. The four gospel narratives, for example, aren’t independent of each other, no one knows who wrote them, and they appear to have been written several decades or more after the events in question. Moreover, these narratives find fault with each other as the authors edit unwanted parts of the rival gospel. The earliest New Testament writings, Paul’s letters, hardly ever refer to Jesus as an historical person. Meanwhile, early non-Christian references to Jesus are now infamous for being forgeries (the Josephus passage), confused and irrelevant (Suetonius’ reference to the Roman expulsion of Jews who had been agitated by “Chrestus”), or of otherwise dubious evidentiary value (the second-hand references which show only that there were early Christian practices, not that the Christians’ beliefs about Jesus are accurate). 

If we should take partisan ravings for granted and mistake fiction or myth for history, why not accept that every cult leader was the greatest person to have ever lived or that Hercules was the strongest man because of his epic labours?

Jesus’s Moral Revolution

Leaving aside, then, the preposterous appeals to evidence for Jesus’s supernatural uniqueness, there’s still the question whether the religion’s natural aspects, such as its teachings and historical impact are unique. In particular, says the theologian David Bentley Hart, Christianity improved on the pagan world in that Jesus introduced the concept of the universality of personhood, bestowing on all humans the right to dignity. Originally, writes Hart,
at least in many very crucial contexts, “persons” were something of a rarity in nature. At least, as far as ancient Roman legal usage, one’s person was the status one held before the law, and this was anything but an invariable property among all individuals…To “have a person”—habere personam—was to have a face before the eyes of the law, to possess the rights of a free and propertied citizen, to be entrusted to offer testimony on the strength of one’s own word, to be capable before a magistrate of appeal to higher authority. At the far opposite end of the social scale, however, was that far greater number of individuals who could be classed as “non habentes personas,” “not having persons”—not, as it were, having faces before the law or, for that matter, before society. The principal occupants of this category were, of course, slaves.
To slaves we might add women, since they too were second-class citizens in patriarchal societies.