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Al Fin: Neither Ray Kurzweil nor PZ Myers Understand the Brain

Al Fin's comments on the PZ Myers/Kurzweil tiff:

Lost in all the ballyhoo is the obvious fact that in reality, neither Kurzweil nor Myers understand very much about the brain. But is that clear fact of mutual brain ignorance relevant to the underlying issue -- Kurzweil's claim that science will be able to "reverse-engineer" the human brain within 20 years? In other words, Ray Kurzweil expects humans to build a brain-functional machine in the next 2 decades based largely upon concepts learned from studying how brains/minds think.

Clearly Kurzweil is not claiming that he will be able to understand human brains down to the most intricate detail, nor is he claiming that his new machine brain will emulate the brain down to its cell signaling proteins, receptors, gene expression, and organelles. Myers seems to become a bit bogged down in the details of his own objections to his misconceptions of what Kurzweil is claiming, and loses the thread of his argument -- which can be summed up by Myers' claim that Kurzweil is a "kook."

But Kurzweil's amazing body of thought and invention testifies to the fact that Kurzweil is probably no more a kook than any other genius inventor/visionary. Calling someone a "kook" is apparently considered clever in the intellectual circles which Mr. Myers' and the commenters on his blog travel, but in the thinking world such accusations provide too little information to be of much use.

Past a certain level of popularity, the intellectual standards go to crap. Kurzweil is misleading on some points (the primary factor here is that Gizmodo misquoted him), but it also doesn't take much of a deep critique from Myers to get his readers to chortle in affirmation.

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  1. What’s cool, all I have to do is wait. I’m only 26, so I might live to see who’s been right and who wrong. Be it Al Fin’s climate conspiracies, Kurzweil’s exponentials, Yudkowsky’s risks from recursive self-improvement or maybe Myers and his arrogant bosh. Maybe they are all wrong, even though they are so damn confident and think their position is supported by years worth of disjunctive lines of reasoning.

  2. Myers is an overestimated sleazeball. His own style of reasoning isn’t very different from the creationists he despises. For the Discovery Institute science should be submissive to God, for Myers it should be submissive to his own preoccupations, like egalitarianism or feminism.

    • Completely agree. He is partially a shock artist. Radical atheism and liberalism are nothing new. The Digg crowd is stupid enough to be excited by this.

      At least Kurzweil has his own, new ideas (though more of a master synthesis of dozens of thinkers…) — what new ideas has Myers come up with?

  3. I’m dissapointed in Myers. Myers is, like us, on the side of science and reason and against religion and irrationality. He publishes an excellent blog in this regard.

    But as soon as he sees a speculative, but arguably plausible set of ideas like Kurzweil”s, his mind classifies as “religion”, and he goes on the ad homenin offensive.

    • What you’re saying reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould and his peculiar status within evolutionary science. Yes, he fought against Creationists and such, and so served a purpose, but he was also trying to re-write the science of evolution to fit his peculiar notions which were so far outside of mainstream thought as to be eccentric to say the least. So friend or enemy? This is the first I’ve heard of this PZ Myers character and I’m not impressed by what I’ve been reading about him on the Internet. A lot of flamboyant, drmamtic, attention seeking behavior, intolerance of thoughts other than his own, angry outbursts, and so on. Classic attenuated grandiosity.

      In this particular episode:

      1. He reacted to a report of what Kurzweil said rather than a direct transcript. That’s awfully sloppy.

      2. His tone is dramatic, flamboyant and insulting. This is intellectualism? More like a primate threat display.

      3. I’m sure Myers is still absolutely sure that he understands Kurzweil’s information theory argument, but he doesn’t. I’m not a mathmetician and I actually had the same doubts about Kurzweil’s agrument as Myers, but now that I’ve seen arguments and explanations from mathmeticians I can see that while what Myers is sayng is true… he’s responding to the wrong argument. He doesn’t understand information theory and won’t educate himself about it. That is not the sign of a first class mind. Again I see grandiosity getting in the way of his intellect.

  4. “Myers is, like us, on the side of science and reason and against religion and irrationality.”

    Is he? Sure he’s against traditional religion, but at the same time he’s a high priest in de Church of the Blank Slate.

    Over on Pharyngula, Michael Anissimov would be quickly dismissed as a racist for writing the stuff he did under /category/iq. I have no doubt many PZ fans regard the whole subject of transhumanism as a modern form of eugenics.

    • Arie & eablair (who commented above):

      I don’t know enough about Myer’s ideas about the blank slate to have an opinion if he is, like SJ Gould, far outside the mainstream.

      I agree with both of you that Myers attitude, in adressing another scientist’s arguments, is pathetic and offensive. But Myers engages in culture war battles with religious fanatics in Fox News style slap downs. He erroneoulsy classified Kurzweil as a fanatic that he needed to slap down rather than as a fellow scientist who’s ideas he needed to respectfully critique.

  5. A) Who on earth is Al Fin? Not a neuroscientist as far as I can tell.

    B) Myers is well known for being controversial and acerbic. That doesn’t make him wrong.

    C) You should also link Myers’ new post: Kurzweil still doesn’t understand the brain.

    • Myers’ response falls on its face before it even gets going. “Hocus pocus”? Really? “I don’t care”? If my writing had such low intellectual standards, I would gladly erase the whole thing and put myself out of my own misery.

  6. Myers new post:
    “So what exactly is the basis of Kurzweil’s expected magic great leap forward?”

    Brain scanning. According to Kurzweil the tools for accurate realtime imaging and modeling of the brain will be available in the 2020’s. This is ofcourse an extrapolation of current trends in imaging technology and computing power. The leap of faith he seems to be taking, is that this model will be useful enough to run a simulation on a machine. Kurzweil expects that a machine will pass the Turing Test by 2030.

  7. Arie: Kurzweil has faith in a lot of things, like the mega-supplements he’s taking / selling.

  8. I read Myers’ blog daily, and most of the time I enjoy what he has to say. I think he’s a very important voice when it comes to atheism and religion. I do, however, also like Kurzweil, and judging from what I’ve read by him I think it’s unfair to dismiss him as a kook. But whatever. It’s not like I expected Myers to agree with me on everything.

  9. Myers seems be trying to use Kurzweil’s name in order to attract attention.

  10. “Kooks,” lol.. I happen to like kooks. They are at the very least, interesting and entertaining. As Michael has said before, “lots of interesting ideas come from the fringe.”

    “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”
    – Albert Einstein

    I know, overly quoted on the internet, but still relevant. The question I have is, how do you get original thinkers to work well together, and in a manner that encourages them to become even more eccentric?

  11. There is a division among scientific rationalists in our attitude towards what Drexler calls “theoretical applied science”. Applied science (ie engineering that can be done today) is universally held in high regard. Theoretical pure science (ie questions about the nature of physical law), including the most outrageous thought experiments involving for example manipulating black holes, is also universally held in high regard. But if we engage in thought experiments asking whether known physical law permits a technological capability, it is suddenly beyond the pale to some people.

    Imagine if Myers heard about Stephen Hawking’s ideas that black hole entropy corresponding to surface area. The conclusion sounds ridiculous to Myers, so he calls Hawking a kook on his blog without even bothering to read or understand his equations about entropy and information. His readers would be aghast.

    Yet if we apply similar, and simpler, information theoretic arguments, to the idea that computers can simulate physical processes such as brains, we are suddenly “kooks” beyond the pale of acceptable science.

    “Transhumanists” (I hate that word) are simply people who view theoretical applied science, like the rest of theoretical science, as an intellectually acceptable activity.

    • Transhumanist is a fine word. People should just go ahead and accept it. I can’t wait to force it around some more.

  12. If you think you understand the brain you don’t understand the brain.

    • >>> “If you think you understand the brain you don’t understand the brain.”

      If you mean that as a commentary on the present state of brain science, then obviously, yes.

      But if you mean it as some sort of mystical a priori truism about the brain, then certainly, no. The brain is a machine which obeys the laws of chemistry and physics down to the last molecule, atom, and charged particle. Because it contains no magic, and weighs only 3 pounds, and has a high degree of redundancy, it is just a matter of time before its principles of operation are understood.

      Eventually it will be possible to write a book describing exactly how the brain works, though it might be a long book.

  13. In the Kurzweil/Myers debate, I think that Kurzweil is…

    Less wrong!

  14. “If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.”
    – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  15. Hi,

    I realize this discussion has already long ended, but here are my thoughts:

    1) Ray Kurzweil has made a prediction based on science (mostly science with respect to computer hardware and software). It is that humans will be able to “reverse-engineer” the human brain within two decades.

    PZ Myers has not disputed this prediction. He has not made his own prediction. If he were a good scientist, that’s what he’d do. Because PZ Myers has not had the ability/nerve to make his own prediction, there is no real “debate.” In order for there two be a real scientific debate, there have to be two sides.

    2) My guess is that part of the PZ Myers/Ray Kurzweil confrontation is that PZ Myers is a biologist, and also not an engineer. In contrast, Ray Kurzweil is essentially a software/hardware engineer. Ray Kurzweil’s prediction offends PZ Myers because it essentially diminishes biology. It says that we can copy (with silicon and other non-biological materials) what is arguably one of the great achievements of evolution. That diminishes biology.

    My guess is that Ray Kurzweil is right, plus 20 years or minus 5 years. Of course, part of the problem with testing Ray Kurzweil’s prediction will be that the phrase “reverse-engineer” can have different meanings.

    P.S. PZ Myers has never taken me up on my offer to debate him with regard to Ray Kurzweil’s predictions:

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