Friday, June 19, 2009

Colour Blindness, Critical Reasoning and the Hard Problems of Consciousness

You might have noticed from the previous email that I went and got my eyes tested.
The good news: I don’t need glasses yet.
The bad news: I got told to sit further away from the computer monitor or else. I think ‘or else’ is going to occur, because I have this urge to lean in whenever I’m playing computer games and watching films on my computer; I think it’s the effect of immersion, or maybe one required condition for immersion is me leaning in close to the screen. Either way, I’m not giving up computer games and films just so I don’t have to wear glasses some day.
So yeah, that was the 20/20 part of the test. Not really funny, exactly, but mildly interesting.
But the other part of the test was fascinating. The colour blindness test. I already knew I was colour blind, and there is in fact a great story behind that, which I’ll tell first.
I started in 2007 when I got the medical test needed for my Chinese visa (I was still in Brisbane at the time). The nurse giving me the colour blindness test laughed her head off while I kept on failing to see the numbers I should have been able to see. Everything was going according to the standard type of colour blindness until the last two pictures. I couldn’t see anything, but apparently normal colour blind people can see those last two. Me and the nurse just shrugged it off as a little weird.

Later, another significant event occured while I was studying in Beijing. In between classes me and my friends would meet in the corridor and joke around. My friend Haakon from Norway turned up wearing an interesting shirt. It was just a plain black t-shirt with some cool patterning in the shapes of circles of various green colours and some red circles too. I’m writing this from my perspective at the time, naturally.
I strongly believe that my friends were telling me the truth about what follows. They have never lied to me before. What happened was they started giggling as though I’d made an odd comment. They stared at me quizzically. And then Haakon asked me the question which gave birth to my growing suspicion of empiricism.
“You can read it, right?”
“Read what?”
There was a moment’s pause, and then my friends all broke into uproarious laughter.
They were laughing at what was written on the t-shirt. I couldn’t read it so I didn’t realize what was funny. It was this t-shirt:

Now, my recent test:
The optometrist was cool and collected for the majority of my negative answers. But when we got to the last two, she sounded irritated. What she was about to say blew my mind and made me burst into laughter. I’m sure she didn’t like that. But I couldn’t help it; what she said ranks quite highly on my mental list of contradictory quotes which I’ve had the pleasure of hearing within my lifetime.
“Look closer. If you are really colour blind, you should be able to see something there.”
But let’s put the surface absurdity of the statement aside for a moment… Should? Based on what? There are two possibilities here.
A. I can see the answer
B. I can’t see the answer
If it is A, then I’m lying when I say B. Surely there is nothing to be gained from lying to her. There is no draft that might send me to an overseas military conflict. There are no financial aids given out to the colour blind. All factors are equal, and given that she doesn’t know what the likelihood of me telling a lie is (i.e she has no record of the truth/falsity values of every statement I’ve ever made which could suggest a tendency to lie), how can she assume that I “should be able to see something there”? There is some probability for B according to the small amount of reading I’ve done on the subject; there is a type of colour blindness with a much lower presence in the population than other varieties.
Now, here’s my question (and please do answer in the comments if you have an opinion, or especially if I have gotten something wrong factually):
Is it something to be concerned about that a philosophy student can (apparently) have a better grasp of critical reasoning than someone who told me a contemptuous tone that she was “more scientific [than people who are enrolled in non-science courses]”?

There's something else really interesting at work here though. We seem to be running into an epistemic barrier in a situation like this. My optometrist can't actually see the world the way I see it, no matter how hard she wants to. And I can't see the world the way she does. This is starting to scratch the surface of what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers talks of when he uses the phrase "hard problems". Although I think some of his arguments are quite weak, I think he's right to speak of the hard problems. I’m really curious as to what condition I actually have, so I have requested to go back for another appointment. We’ll see what happens.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Multi-Lingualism in Australia

My friend sent me a link to an article in the Australian. This one. Have a read, it is interesting for all the wrong reasons.

I sent the following reply:

Ah, the classic ivory tower attitude to languages! Blame the students for not taking the subject seriously enough! I'm surprised he's not a Latin professor! But then again I guess French is the closest thing these days.

And you know, in typical 'French scholar' fashion, he completely misses the point. Notice how actual language competence wasn't mentioned once throughout the article? And how he blames people not taking foreign languages seriously enough? In fact it didn't actually mention the current rate of bilingualism in Australia, and whether it's higher or lower than in the past.

My answer to him would be, if you had a program which worked, and was fun, then people would do it. Maybe the real reason for drops in enrollment is that people are finding out that there are better ways to study languages, and that it's a massive waste of university credit (and, by extension, money) to take uni language classes. I would point out to him how I will never take another university language class again, and indeed failed at Russian, yet my Chinese is pretty good. Not perfect but good enough to take university subjects for native-speakers of the language, write essays, and generally understand everything a native speaker would (films, the news, etc). And I'm in the process of acquiring Cantonese. Yet people double-majoring in Chinese, with high distinctions, still can't order a coke in a restaurant without repeating themselves five times and gesticulating like an orangutan.

Or maybe mention the possibility that since it IS a fact that the Anglo-Saxon population of Australia is declining, people don't feel the need to take courses in a second language because they already speak one. Or more than one!
I mean, for example, sure Indonesian enrollments may be lower. But maybe that's because Indonesian native-speakers form a larger part of the student population, whilst the English-only percentage drops. Seriously, when I walk around UQ campus, the last thought on my mind is "these people need to learn a language other than English". On the contray, it's unusual if I do hear a conversation in English! I would in fact put my money on genuine 'polyglottery' being on the increase in Australia- which is a fantastic thing. But it certainly wouldn't be reflected by higher enrollment rates in langauge courses in universities.

He also, being a French scholar and all, should have mentioned Canada's 'French Immersion' system. I read about it with great interest. Except of course he wouldn't mention it, because that program- in spite of it's huge net of enrolment- fails to produce even 1% of graduates who have a proper command of French!


On a more positive note, I've got an appointment at Clarity optometrists this afternoon, so I may be joining the hallowed ranks of the bespectacled.


Monday, June 15, 2009

May All Your Wishes Come True

I have this history exam tomorrow, which I thought was going to be the day after tomorrow. If I had known it was going to be so last minute I might not have gone in to uni today to hang out, but I'm kind of glad I went anyway. It's cold and rainy at the moment, which I actually quite like. This is probably because it is good weather for books, video games and films. And beef noodle soups from the Half-Time cafe in Sunnybank.

But I digress. It was raining when I was planning on walking back home from uni, so I took the ferry instead. They have some banal television program on for people who don't want to look at the awesome view of the river, and as my eyes were passing contemptuously over the screen I saw "Words of Wisdom" in large comic-book letters next to a broadly drawn tree. And then the following faded in to the center of the screen:

"May all your wishes come true." (Ancient Chinese Curse)

This sounds off to me. The only way I know of saying something like this in Chinese is 万事如意 wanshiruyi, and I'm pretty sure it's never used as a curse.

I mean, seriously. I could be totally wrong, but...what kind of Fu Manchu bullshit are they trying to pull here? Even if this was an ancient Chinese curse, it would still be stupid. Can you imagine the bearded villain wriggling his fingers whilst uttering some incantation, to harness the forces of darkness so that the hero... loses some weight, meets a nice girl, gets the kid through college, becomes an astronaught and dies peacefully surrounded by family and friends?

It's moronic, is what it is. "You might not know the entire consequences that would follow from a particular set of conditions" or "If you could see the entire chain of events, you would not wish for it" seems to be the point they're trying to make. Which is actually quite different from getting everything that you wish for.

Let's assume that there really is a curse you can make, which will bring about the actualisation of all of someone's wishes. Firstly, you can't wish for something that you have no conception of. That's not what wishing is. Now, say that drinking a beer would entail stumbling across the street which would entail getting hit by a bus. Unless I harbour a deathwish, it's unlikely that getting hit by a bus is one of my wishes. In fact, I probably would wish for the non-occurence of that event.

Now assume that I didn't know about the causal necessity which would bring about my flattening, and we've established that you can't wish for something unknown. So suppose I wish to have a beer, and I wish that I don't get hit by a bus. If some asshole has put a curse on me so that all of my wishes come true, he clearly hasn't thought it through very well. I will drink the beer. And I will not get hit by a bus; non-contradiction ensures this.

At which point, I like to think that the prick who cursed me has a Cronenberg moment, looking something like this:

In fact, if that curse existed, I would want someone to try it on me. Because one of my wishes is that those dropkicks who try and justify ridiculous ideas by claiming that the idea is ancient and Chinese will have their heads explode. Not to mention all the other awesome states which would be brought about.

Not such an ingenius curse now, is it? My points here are that a) most 'ancient Chinese' stuff is not that ancient, not that Chinese, or just plain fabrication, and b) rationality doesn't discriminate.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Exotic Tattoos

Once I was sitting in a Cairns cafe with my then-girlfriend, who was literate in Chinese. She burst out laughing in the midst of our breakfast and I turned around to see what was up. I saw a tough looking bloke in a singlet, who had a Chinese character tattooed on his shoulder. Here's what must have happened:


This bloke goes into the tattoo parlor and asks the artist, "Give me the Chinese character for 'man'"
The artist looks up his folder for the correct character. There it is, man. And so the shoulder goes under the knife, ink goes in, and all is as it should be.

Or is it?

See, the thing was that it was not the character that means man, but the character that was pronounced man. With the fourth tone. Written:

And that word means slow.