Thursday, 30 September 2010

I was thinking when I saw this advertisement - Great shot, superb expression, nice and apt clothing too. But... What's up with the sneakers??

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Münchhausen Trilemma And The Presupposition Of Faith

I freaking love Big Bang Theory! No other show would've brought me to the summation of one of my most fundamental troubles with human truth and knowledge - the Münchhausen Trilemma.

I've pretty much always believed in the philosophical assertion that we can never prove anything. Science can only go as far as to increase the probability or confidence that a proposition is true by providing supporting evidence. Through repeated controlled experiments, we can establish a theory to be a 'true' law, but there is always the possibility that it can be falsified. But that's the limits of our human knowledge for you - this is as far as we can go to increase the confidence that a theory is probably right.

Science isn't the only way. We can also attempt to come to a conclusion of truth through logic. Rational reasons can replace statistical evidence to provide support for a proposition. Reductionism helps us break down a proposition into smaller subpropositions, which would strengthen the original proposition, in theory.

However, what makes up those subpropositions? Even smaller sub-subpropositions would have to be established, ad infinitum.

Hans Albert was the first to notice this and concretize the observation, and established three forms of dissatisfactory methods to prove any truth. Interestingly, the Münchhausen Trilemma is named after Baron Münchhausen, who allegedly pulled himself out of a swamp seizing himself by his hair. This trilemma rounds off the classical problem of justification in the theory of knowledge - that all attempts to get a certain justification must eventually fail when scrutinized fully.

The Münchhausen Trilemma essentially states that we have only three options when providing proof in any situation:

1) The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other (e.g. we repeat ourselves at some point)
2) The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof (e.g. we just keep giving proofs, presumably forever)
3) The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts (e.g. we reach some bedrock assumption or certainty)

The first two methods of reasoning are fundamentally weak, and because the Greek skeptics advocated deep questioning of all accepted values they refused to accept proofs of the third sort. The trilemma, then, represents the philosopher's difficulty in choosing among the three equally unsatisfying options.

I think this is yet another demonstration of our limits of human understanding and perception of truth. By virtue of the fact that we exist in a manifest world that is separate from the 'essential' source that we come from, we can only revolve in circles to try and hit a truth we somewhat perceive coming from a more fundamental and transcendental realm, but never come close enough. Only having five senses that perceive environmental input/stimuli within a limited scope (e.g. the light or sound frequencies that we are privvy to) is one good way of understanding this limit of ours. Some people (usually agnostics) see this as good reason to resign ourselves to not bothering because we can never get to the point or know what truth is, but on the contrary I think this disconnect is important and necessary because it will continue to drive us to seek the truth even against all odds. If we could see truth and easily recognize it then there would be no motivation for human endeavour, and truth wouldn't be all that valuable.

Which is why I think every method of truth-seeking is actually a leap of faith to be made, whether the skeptics or rationalists want to admit it or not. Beyond a certain point, science has to concede that something is there just because it is, even if the methods used to get at it still leave much to be desired. The gap can only be bridged by faith, both in terms of the presence of the truth and in terms of our methods of getting there.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Hot Damn

Made an interesting observation today.

I was in my school office cubicle working on some assignment between 1pm to 3pm (on a miserable Saturday). For some reason, the air conditioning was turned way up high today, so the room was literally freezing. I froze my ass off the two hours I was there, glued to my seat.

At 3pm, I left the office and headed for home. It was a scorching hot afternoon, and I must have spent at least 20 minutes out in the open while on the way back (counting all the time I wasn't in the shelter or a bus or the train).

It is plausible that the freezing conditions in the office led to what appears to be a malfunctioning of my bodily sensation of heat, at least temporarily because, despite the killer heat, I went nowhere close to even feeling the sensation of perspiration (you know it when you feel it - that tingly feeling on your skin indicating that your sweat glands are working up). Which is very odd because I think I perspire reasonably easily and those same sunny conditions would've triggered my sweat glands any other day.

But this wasn't any other day. As a result, I traveled home with my sweat glands (or some other correlated organ) pretty much switched off.

What happened next? I had a terrible headache and body aches, as though I was having a fever.

What strikes me immediately is the advise that old folks often give: if you're in a cold place, don't suddenly go out into the hot sun.

The fever probably isn't caused by a virus, because there was no one else I interacted closely with and I have recovered rather quickly too in the comfort of my house.

What I think has happened is that the momentary inability to perspire caused the heat from the sun to be trapped in my body, upsetting our basic homeostasis. Regardless of whether I'm having a real fever or not, a rise in body temperature signals that there is potentially a bacterial or viral invasion, and subsequently fever-like symptoms (which actually functionally exist to protect you, not to make you feel miserable) emerge.

I might be wrong, but the observation is still fascinating. Regardless of whether one stands on the side of determinism or free will, it's still pretty cool to see how a human can survive off chain reactions triggered by the environment without conscious input.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

How The Mind Works

A few friends have indicated their interest for the book How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, so I took it along with me to school today.

As I was traveling on the train, I revisited some of the chapters in the book and, as always, I'm always continuously amazed and impressed by Pinker's sharpness of thought, wit and eloquence. He conveys the most difficult ideas with the simplest analogies.

Also, I first read the book as a student still muddling through psychology courses without a sound plan like I have right now, and reading it again as the person I am today felt a bit like the situation where you rewatch a movie classic a decade later as a grown man.

One of the really brilliant ideas I revisited was Pinker's computational model of the mind. Of course, he wasn't the only one to work on that concept or propose it, but he provides the most logical and insightful presentation by far.

Another more layman concept that Pinker nails down is the idea of intelligence. It is difficult to define intelligence, but we all know it when we see it. So Pinker strives to define it and says that it entails beliefs and desires.

Desires create the end-states (goals) that we wish to achieve, and beliefs determine how we will end up getting to those end states.

This makes a lot of sense if you consider how most people would feel if we saw "an alien who bumped into trees or walked off cliffs, or who went through all the motions of chopping a tree but in fact was hacking at a rock or at empty space".

Pinker says, "for all we know, the creature may have wanted to bump into a tree or bang an ax against a rock, and was brilliantly accomplishing what it wanted." But without a specification of a creature's goals, there is no meaningful basis for intelligence.

Yet more common sense brilliance: "A toadstool could be given a genius award for accomplishing, with pinpoint precision and unerring reliability, the feat of sitting exactly where it is sitting."

With beliefs and desires, "intelligence ... is the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of rational (truth-obeying) rules".

These are bits and pieces of the puzzle that have only just begun to take form to develop the foundations of a credible bedrock for psychology as a science of its own. Physics has had the luxury of many more years as well as physical objects to actually observe and measure. Psychology will have just as much to offer. I've always had this notion that there are two 'infinite' dimensions - one that extends outwards from our eyes towards the universe and beyond, and another that extends inwards from our senses to our mind and the subconscious and beyond. Perhaps Inception has helped many people visualize how much mind-boggling (aha!) depth our consciousness has.

Saturday, 11 September 2010


Some recent logo developments I've designed for my affiliations, Apolitical and Psychothalamus:

Made to reflect the conflicted nature of politics, the snake has a long history of duality. Snakes have been regarded as venomous, harmful and evil and they have also been regarded as medicinal and pure. The white snake thus represents all sorts of 'protagonistic' associations - left-wing, redistributive justice, idealism, social, welfare - while the black snake represents all sorts of 'antagonistic' associations - right-wing, competitive justice, realism, survival.

The sword has always been a symbol of power, so the dual snakes curling around it represent the battle between opposing forces (who take general sides based on the above mentioned points) over power throughout history.

Basically inspired by the idea of a brain in a vat, but instead of a vat I've used a bell jar so that all of its associated connotations - vacuums, science, and even Sylvia Plath - might be conjured.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

"I really wouldn't recommend doing evolutionary psychology. I mean, there is no money behind evolutionary psychology research," the female professor said.

At that moment there was quite an instinctive urge to shove a middle finger into her face, but of course I replied matter-of-factly, "but it's not because of money that I'm keen to pursue research in evolutionary psychology."

"Oh, er, yes of course," she stammered as she attempted to salvage what was the deteriorating impression I had of her in my mind, "we shouldn't be pursuing academics and research because of the money, and I wasn't trying to say that either. It should really be about our interests. But I'm just saying that there's no demand for something like evolutionary psychology out there."

My stand on evolutionary psychology is defensible, but I didn't bother because that wasn't the point (evolutionary psychology is just one out of the many academic means to my own ultimate interests in knowledge and academia). Further, based on my experiences with people, there really isn't a point in arguing with people when they come from very opposing points of view and are emotional or dogmatic (or even ignorant) about their stand.

I also recall another case where the supervisor for my stint in entrepreneurial journalism had a rather prejudiced view against research/academic careers. When I told her that I love to write, which was why I'd signed up for the job, she said, "Yes, an interest in writing is one thing... But wouldn't you also want to learn something from these great entrepreneurs? Like perhaps business skills?" To which I replied, maybe, and one day I may become an entrepreneur, who knows? But at the moment I have my sights set on postgraduate studies and hopefully I'll get to write my own books, linking things back to my writing interests. She then gave me a look and said, "But... Why would you want to do something like that?"

Or maybe she wasn't prejudiced but puzzled because it's rare to hear of such an ambition around here that is, well, so unambitious and unrealistic.

There's just something about the general perception of holding down an important, secure and useful finance or business job in Singaporean pragmatism and culture. But I guess I'm being too harsh on them, particularly the lady prof. She comes from the Business School of the World afterall.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Insect Wars

I'd just come out of watching an amazingly-shot documentary titled Insect Wars, which basically documents how empires of insects attack and defend against other empires of insects. These wars have been waged throughout the history of the animal kingdom, and the rise and fall of these empires are mere flecks in the canvas of time.

It is quite amazing how this parallels the human world so much at parts. I saw how almost every insect colony, be it winged or terrestrial, had universally common defence strategies, such as understanding that the power of an attacking threat can be reduced if you force them to invade only through small channels. I saw how ant or hornet scouts are a commonly employed tactic, and these scouts are specially designed for stealth. I saw how slavery appears to be a very common theme, as is class divides, in ensuring that a powerful kingdom runs efficiently.

And in the last segment, I saw how a 'pretender' ant infiltrated the royal chamber and killed the queen ant, covering herself in the dying queen's bodily fluids, and then emerging from the chamber flaunting her new majestic scent. The rest of the colony, unable to tell her apart from the dying queen, treated her as the queen herself, licking her feet as they prepared to receive her eggs.

Sometimes, it feels as if believing that humans are a higher order of species is getting a little too full of ourselves. We could be anthropomorphizing animals, or we could very well be behaving just like animals. History levels all its earthly subjects, as the patterns turn us into puppets and dictate the rise and fall of empires.

Geek Crack

As recommended by my evolutionary psychology professor,

1. You Can't See Me
2. Hypothesis 1 (Creationism)
3. No Bugs On Me
4. David Buss Message
5. Hypothesis 2 (Spiritualism)
6. The Planter's Dilemma
7. Hypothesis 3 (Social Constructivism)
8. She's Ovulating
9. Short-Term Mating Dance
10. Parental Investment
11. The Evolution of Gayness
12. Olivia Judson Message
13. Hypothesis 4 (Biological Determinism)
14. Twin Studies
16. Wannabe G's
17. Hypothesis 5 (Evolutionism)
18. David Sloan Wilson Message
19. Fame in the Brain

Pretty much in the mould of Big Bang Theory-esque entertainment.

Thursday, 2 September 2010


I've never been as busy and stressed out as I have for quite a while now, thus the lack of updates, but this doesn't mean my mind hasn't been hard at work! Because of an intrinsic need to take down my thoughts, here they are, taken completely out of context so they might not make sense.

1a) Meditation

I don't usually let stress get to me, but for once the heavy workload and the crazy number of deadlines I put on myself got the better of my rational faculties. I think losing my wallet was the final straw because I don't usually lose my stuff and thus I don't set aside adequate mental resources to deal with these sideline things. So when I found out that my wallet was missing after a game of soccer at Kallang Cage last weekend, I think that pretty much did me in and the past few days have been some sort of neurotic hell for my mind.

Thus, I turned to meditation, for a variety of reasons. One, I'd always wanted to give it a try. Ever since I figured that it is possible to actually zone out and shut out all thoughts, I had the personal insight that controlled zoning out could be an element of meditation. Secondly, I've always been quite intrigued with the enlightenments that many zen practices, such as Buddhism and yoga, claim to achieve. Lastly, if there was ever a time to reorganize my head and calm the chatter of my mind, this seemed like a good time.

So two nights ago I gave it a try. For ten minutes, I sat cross-legged with my spine erect, and put into disciplined practice what I'd already been able to do - zone out and think of nothing (this is a paradox in itself but only those who get it will get it). For those who can't not think of anything, a suggestion is to think of something extremely neutral, like a square, and just focus on it for at least ten minutes.

To say that the process was transformative might be a bit too epic for something that involved doing nothing for ten minutes, but it had something to that effect. I slept early and well that night, and have been doing so since then.

Which brings me to my next point...

1b) Circadian Sleep Cycles

Honestly, no other sleep pattern beats sleeping within the circadian sleep cycle. The circadian rhythm regulates our lives according to patterns of day and night, and there are reasons why we are designed to fit into that pattern, such as how our skin reacts to daylight, which in turns affects our homeostatic body states and other important biological and mental patterns. This is most optimal; we were evolutionarily designed to fit in well with the patterns of day and night, so we might as well try not to fight it.

Within two days, meditation and reverting back to my natural circadian cycle has enabled me to overcome pretty much all that stressful buzz in my head and I can't say I've felt better than this in awhile.

2) Evolutionary Adaptations

Ever since I began teaching assistantship for my evolutionary psychology professor, I've noticed during class that there are quite a number of concepts that the layman might find difficult to wrap his or her head around.

For instance, there are two main kinds of adaptations. I don't know if there are technical terms for this, but for now I shall call them fixed adaptations and fluid adaptations.

Fixed adaptations are things like our eyes and legs. We are born with only two eyes, or two legs. Those things don't change unless, because of random mutations, some aberrations might occur. But in general, such fixed adaptations are things we are bestowed with at birth that do not alter over the course of our lives.

Then there are fluid adaptations. Fluid adaptations include things like the ability to develop muscles, the ability to develop callouses on our hands and feet, psychological fears and other cognitive biases.

Fluid adaptations are fluid because they aren't fixed in the sense that they exist in one form and one form only. Fluid adaptations react to environmental stimuli to result in various states. For instance, the ability to develop callouses on our hands and feet is an important adaptive mechanism, because callouses occur only when our palms and soles are constantly subject to contact with rough surfaces. Callouses help us better deal with our environment, only if the environment calls for it; if the surfaces in our environment are quite frictionless, having callouses can be counterproductive. Thus, it is more effective to be born with such an adaptive mechanism that responds to the environment to best suit our needs. Given this train of logic, it can also be inferred how our psychological mechanisms are adaptive.

3) Of Divinity and Spirituality

It is honestly hard to say where all this work is headed. In other professions, such as finance or banking, it is far more clear cut that getting an accounting degree will be the means to such ends. But in the field of research and academia, these means and ends are not so connected. It is only a leap of faith that one can base all his/her hopes upon, that one day this will all pay off.

Sometimes, people justify going through trials and tribulations by saying that it is only by the grace of God that they are able to do so. God gives us strength in pulling us through the hard times. Sometimes that is what I feel, although I do not consciously or verbally attribute it to God the way that dogmatic Christians might.

But the way I reconcile it is that the motivation I get definitely doesn't come from something grounded, realistic or practical. It comes purely from the heart, where I desire to do it simply because I am passionate about it. And in a very profound way, this drive does feel spiritual. It might very well make sense to say that it is indeed by the grace of God that I'm pulling through.

Perhaps somewhere along the way, the connection between our desires, passions, spirituality, the divine and God got severed, as people increasingly wanted the rewards of the belief in God without actually actively participating in what it means to have such spiritual faith. Other political reasons come in too, when powerful people try and exploit such emotions for their own interests, commodifying the concept of God in the process.

Whenever we economize 'goods', we lose their inherent qualities by turning them into quantities.

Gosh, as I type, I can hear one of the economics PhD students somewhere at the opposite side of the office crying. Have faith, you'll make it through.