On causality

Some very interesting thoughts on causality – as well as the interplay between philosophers and scientists.

Footnotes to Plato

Cause and effectCausality is one strange concept. It is absolutely essential to our understanding of the so-called “manifest image” of the world, i.e., the world as perceived and navigated by human beings. (The distinction between the manifest and the scientific image was introduced by philosopher Wilfred Sellars.) It is crucial for us to distinguish between events that happen because (i.e., are caused by) other events, vs things that appear to be the result of chains of cause-effect but really aren’t. We think smoking, statistically speaking, causes cancer, meaning that there are physical events that make it more likely that if you are a smoker you will get cancer. But when a few years ago someone showed a statistically significant correlation between number of births in London and frequency of storks flying overhead, nobody cried out for a revision of human biology textbooks…

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Bachelor Thesis handed in!

After about half a year working on my bachelor thesis, I finally handed it in this past Monday at noon. The topic for the paper was “Definitions of Life” and I will soon give a resume of my findings on this site. What can you look forward to?

The notion of ‘living’ investigated by means of chemical experiments, mathematical models and philosophical concept evaluation – all with lots of examples from current research.

For starters – think about some very life-like technologies such as humanoid robots, synthetic cells like the Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 of the J. Craig Ventor research group, or instances of thought-directed hardware like the advanced robotic-arm prosthesis of Claudia Mitchell (pictured below).

Image Credit:

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Aspergers Syndrome – an autistic type of neurodiversity

What to you think of when hearing the word autism?

How about truthful, knowledgeable, intelligent, just and skilled? not words you would normally link to a disorder.

Just below there is a picture of Dr. Temple Grandin –  a designer of livestock handling facilities and a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University (www.grandin.com or www.templegrandin.com the last one is on autism)

Unless you already know someone on the autism spectrum,” autism” might make you think of the movie Rainman or video clips of children flapping their hands, repeating sounds (stimming) or being lost in the observation of a washing machine. This is a very narrow view of autism, and does not really include the reality, that people with autism can be in either end of the autistic spectrum – and everything in between. We will now take a look at what this spectrum looks like:

Autism spectrum(from http://mypuzzlingpiece.com)

Note that this figure is a simplified version of what the spectrum really contains, but we need to start simple, to get the right basis for understanding this wholly other form of functioning.

For someone with an autistic brain, with average to above average IQ it can be a rather confusing thing to live in this world. These will usually end up getting diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome  (AS) or perhaps the more fuzzy terms such as Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) or PDD Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Most people in the world today have, what is usually called, a neurotypical (NT) brain. This term, however, does not take into account, that normal isn’t always just the larger number. Please take a moment now, to consider that before reading on.

I want to give the world another album to look at, when autism comes to mind. People with Aspergers Syndrome will in many cases never make their friends and family think along the lines of autism (unless they know, are diagnosed, and have told friends and family). They may seem somewhat unique or eccentric, but they will often be popular (with those who know them) because of their intense knowledge in certain subjects that they have a special interest in, because of their high IQ and thus brilliant problem solving brains, because of some servant skills like outstanding memory or magnificent drawing skills, or they will be a nice friend to someone they trust because of their ability to look at situations without emotional bias, therefore being very objective. They will not have the need to be at the top of some social hierarchy, and this makes them very easygoing. Most Aspergers also view truth as holy. They will not lie, or they will lie only for very good reasons such as saving lives and the like. They will also defend the truth, and thus at times do some socially very unacceptable things, because the truth, in their view, is more important than someone feeling good about some fake belief.

Aspergers in books and movies include the no-nonsense Lisbeth Salander in the Stieg Larsson book trilogy (Män som hatar kvinnor / The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (1), Flickan som lekte med elden / The Girl Who Played With Fire (2), Luftslottet som sprängdes / The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (3)) which can also be seen as movies in both swedish and american versions, forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan in the fox series Bones, and police officer Saga Norén in the danish-swedish series Bron / Broen / The Bridge – just to mention some of my own favorites. One could also watch the series Big Bang Theory for male versions in a comic setting, read or watch Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer for a young boy account (I’ve read the book and I loved it), or spend time in the company of Mr. Spock watching Star Trek.

I want to emphasize that autism should be viewed as a neruological diversity rather than a disorder. True enough there are autistic people with great difficulties, but they most times stem from  the clash with the world, and in particular other people, and not from autism in itself. It is rather the lack of knowledge and understanding of the autistic culture which causes these problems, more than it is autism itself. When autism is coupled with low IQ, however, then life becomes tough – as for any nerotypical (NT) with low IQ.

Being autistic also means having other values as first priority, than most other people (i.e. the NTs). It means placing truth over social unwritten rules, knowledge and logic over emotions and gut-feelings, dressing practically rather than cool / sexy / formal. But when you are outnumbered – bad things happen. Many get bullied in school or at work because they are misunderstood. Apartheid was ended in the beginning of the 1990-ies, still raceological minorities many places in the world are being mistreated in their societies. Different cultures and different ways of being in the world – are not inherently wrong! But many forget this.  This is also very evident in my home country, Denmark, where anyone with a different skin color might be seen as a suspicious person, no matter how well they speak Danish. Many cannot find jobs that match their education – I think we might have some of the best educated taxi-drivers in my country. Needles to say – it is not something to be proud of. So what about the autists? This is a minority with a slightly different situation. You cannot tell from the outside that someone has autism. Therefore people expect you to be ‘normal’ or ‘like the majority’ I would prefer to say. When you are different – you will even be rejected or if you are lucky, someone will keep an open mind and try to understand you.

A story:

The Alphapeople of Alphaland were a proud people with old traditions. They were warriors and strength and courage were amongst their ideals. In another place the Betapeople lived. They were the sofisticated inhabitants of the Betaland and held long standing traditions of inner strength and endurance. Nature was, to them, a holy organism and their ideals were to live in balance with all of the natural world around them. Located far from both Alphaland and Betaland was the posh people of Gammaland. These people were engineers of heart and loved to build. This had also become their means of surviving in their environment, since protection from the harsh conditions was vital. They were a practical people, yet with traditions of their own.  

Then came a time, when the Alpha-, Beta- and Gammapeople all had ideas of exploring. The Alphapeople made expiditions by foot and went strongly on crossing mountains and rivers. The Betapeople would walk slowly, but diligently and were able to maintain a constant speed with very few pauses. The Gammapeople had built boats and were sailing out on the sea. On one very special day – all three peoples met on a foreign beach. They were rather surprised to see others that looked to like themselves in one way – yet so different in other ways. Not so long after they had all arrived, the Alphas, Betas and Gammas were attacked by a large group of wild animals that had noticed the many newcomers. They all fought in their own ways, even helped each other where they could, but all three groups had dead relatives amongst them.

The Alphas, who believed the strenght of an individiual could be passed on through intake, cut their relatives in pieces and ate. Both the Betas and Gammas were disgusted by this sight. The Betas, who believed in the natural way, left their deads in suitable places and waited for birds and ants to devour their loved ones. Both the Alphas and the Gammas were horrified by the lack of respect they felt the Betas showed the dead. The Gammas were builders, and they started cutting down trees and building coffins. Then they put their dead in the coffins, sealed them and let them sail of into the sea. The Alphas and Betas thought the Gammas were rather mad to build these little prisons for those who needed to be set free for their afterlife.

Who did the right thing?

I will end this post by reminding us all that what is different is not wrong. There are many ways to live a life, but we should all have that in common, that we try to take different perspectives – even when we think we are right.

Autism should be viewed as a cultural difference within the human species. It has a neurological background, meaning autistic brains function differently from NT brains, and the emphasis is not on socializing and feeling but on knowledge and logic.

Next time you see someone doing something you don’t understand – just ask. Communicating and sharing knowledge will help us all.

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The FLinT web page

The Center for Fundamental Living Technology at SDU (University of Southern Denmark) have updated their web page! Take a look to know more about their work with making life from scratch, by following the link just above.


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Cybernetics – thinking in systems

Have you ever wondered about life’s mysteries? Ever wanted to really understand something , hold it all in at once and see the big picture? Surely it is a difficult task, but cybernetics might be a good place to look for help.


Photo: Rene Burri. Police headquarter (Tokyo?) Central electronic map with TV intersection monitors. 1980.


Cybernetics is literally the art of controlling something (the root in ancient Greek (kybernetes) stems from the word ‘steersman’ or ‘governor’. Comparing it to the way a ship needs to be steered, just like Plato does when in his dialogue The Republic (Politeia), will give you a good picture of what we are dealing with. Studies in cybernetics are a study of the structures of regulatory systems, meaning that it is a way to describe processes simply enough, that only essential parts are included. By making a simpler description, we are closer to overlooking the big picture. In cybernetics, there are furthermore an important notion when making a description, to look upon it as a system interacting with it’s surroundings and, influenced by them, adapting to them.

So the steering includes a point towards which the steering goes. In cybernetics they speak of it as a goal – or telos another word taken from Greek. Well, the next logical question might just be: what does it steer towards? Or how do we find out? If the system is properly described, we can also use it to make predictions – and that is no doubt a powerful tool.

It is an interdisciplinary field, that of cybernetics. It touches upon many interesting studies such as control systems, electrical network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology and psychology. Originally derived from the studies to understand electronic circuits, it has developed and adapted to the modern world, and is used also to describe economic and societal developments.

With some basic models of development, the cybernetician can look upon a system of systems, and perhaps predict the behavior and interaction of the overall system, by help of her models. The 1972 book by Meadows et al. named The Limits To Growth is a more widely known example of a global model. In the book they look at “broad behavior modes of the population-capital system”. Behavior modes are thought of as “tendencies of the variables in the system (population or pollution, for example)” and to see how they change as time progresses, will give an idea of how the world-system will evolve. The authors never claimed to be able to predict anything with precision, only to show what is most likely to happen, given the data available. 30 years later, in a 2008 paper by Graham Turner, predictions of tendencies in the book were found to match very well with the changes in industrial production, food production and pollution. (Quotes are from Meadows, D. (1974). The Limits to Growth, Second Edition Revised, Signet. ISBN 73-187907, pages 99-101 in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth#cite_note-8, ref.#9).

What I am wondering these days is.. how complex can the model get? Can we use some of the models from cybernetics to understand (or maybe as a start explore) some of the more intriguing and fundamental questions that we ask in philosophy? Why is the world as it is? How many possible scenarios are there for a living world? How big? How small? what are the most common or likely ones?  – and how can we benefit from this approach, when struggling to gain an overview of life, and the world, ourselves? I think it could very likely give us the broad perspective needed!

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Nuclear Knowledge

Nuclear Power – a hot topic ever since the troubles started at the nuclear power plant of Fukushima in Japan on March 11th. Events following include the closing of several German power plants, and lately a heading in the danish newspaper ‘Berlingske’ read: “Danish Nuclear Dump Site On It’s Way” – that was on the 29th of March.

Picture from the tv series "The Simpsons"

Because of all the problems with nuclear power lately, world opinion starts to turn against the use of nuclear power. Nevertheless, it is always useful to look on a topic from several angles. Is nuclear power just bad?

Just saying it’s bad because that is what your friends say, is surely not a basis for making useful decisions. So let’s get things straight: Nuclear power plants make energy by splitting atoms – usually uranium isotopes, U-235, or plutonium isotopes, Pu-239 – into fast-moving lighter elements known as ‘fission products’. Since this is an exothermic reaction, heat is produced. From here, making energy is just like we know it from steam trains. Water is heated producing steam. Steam drives turbines, that again generate electricity. Somewhat simple. The good thing about nuclear fission, is that you can get a lot of energy from small amounts of material, compared to f.ex. coal. Also there are no greenhouse side effects with nuclear power. The bad news is, that part of the waste material from the nuclear way is highly dangerous, and cannot be reused. It has to be locked away for thousands of years, until not radioactively dangerous anymore. Also, nuclear fission is not a sustainable energy resource. There is only so much uranium, and when it’s gone – it’s gone.

Every individual should make up their mind about nuclear power, before just saying it’s bad. When that is said, I want to point out, that research in sustainable energy sources seems like a much smarter idea – it surely doesn’t hurt to think many years ahead. Pointing research in an earth-friendly and living-things-friendly direction simply seems the wiser option. Often, in research, is encountered new methods or possibilities when research is done, so why not try and make it smart from the beginning?

Please leave comments to this post! What is your opinion on nuclear power?


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A synthetic cell – what qualifies?

science-art.com J. Craig Ventor‘s name comes up again as The Daily Galaxy today posts an article (“Earth’s 1st Non-Biological Self-Replicating Species” (link)) about the achievement of Dr. Ventor in may last year, when he synthesized an entire bacterial genome and inserted it into a cell. The article calls this a “non-biological self-replicating species”, but I want to question that interpretation. Surely the genome is fully synthetic, and it does replicate, but only because it is inserted into a cell, which is still very biological indeeed. Ken Shirriff and I seem to agree on this point, when he states on his blog:

I wouldn’t exactly call it synthetic life though, since it does require an existing cell to get going. (link)

On the other hand, we are indeed talking about a cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome, which is quite an achievement, and should not be underestimated.

The project as described on the home page of the J. Craig Ventor Institute (link) is called: “First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell”. It is a twist of words to call it a “Synthetic Bacterial Cell” since interpretations allow for an understanding where either everything about it is synthetic or human-made, or where all of the control mechanisms are synthetic.

The project visually:

Ultimately this project’s discoveries might help us with our earth problems of sustainability. Using synthetic biology to “produce clean energy, bio-chemicals and other high value products directly from carbon dioxide, plant biomass and coal.” (link to syntheticgenomics)

In comparison research is carried out at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology (link) at the University of Southern Denmark, to create life from scratch, in a manner entirely different from the ones we know to have happened in nature. Their systemic design principle is to “minimize the structures for the required cooperative functionalities” (link), meaning that they want to create a living thing (a protocell) with the least possible complexity.

Using a consensus definition of minimal life, consisting of only three points, FLiNT researchers will need:

  1. A control mechanism telling the protocell how to proceed. Usually a cell gets this information via it’s genes.
  2. The ability to transform energy, usually called the metabolism. Hereby allowing for growth in a suiting environment, replication and possibly evolution.
  3. A container, so that the life form will have a specific localization

The goal of simplification means that they use a different kind of localization, than we’re used to from the cell. The metabolic and genetic complexes operate at the externA cellal interface of a (fatty acid) lipid or (oil) droplet aggregate, and not on the inside of a cell membrane. Creating these protocells with functionally much simpler than modern biological cells, will allow for containers as small as a few nanometers in diameter. A typical cell is around 10 micrometers (1 micrometer = 0,001 mm = 1*10^-3 mm,  1 nanometer = 0,000001 mm = 1*10^-6 mm).


To follow FLiNT’s progress follow publications here

Above: Visit from National Geographic Channel at FLiNT
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