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Friday, May 26, 2017

Where Will The Legend of Zelda Go Next?

With the release of the Nintendo Switch this March came the company's new masterwork, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This game achieved its goal of reinventing the franchise, with its giant world, open exploration, and the ability to do anything and go anywhere in whatever order you want. Link can climb up almost any vertical surface, can glide through the air using a piece of cloth and some sticks, and gets all of his tools in the opening area of the game. And of course, we cannot forget the most shocking feature Breath of the Wild brought to the series: a jump button.

The Legend of Zelda follows a simple yet powerful formula. Link, the hero, has to fight Ganon, the evil demon, with the support of Zelda, the princess. The three of them are represented by a set of three golden triangles, the Triforce, bound together in an eternally recurring struggle. Link must search the land of Hyrule for dungeons, where he can find tools which help him reach new places, and artifacts that will open new ways forward.

25 years ago, after a few early Zelda games, the series was defined by A Link to the Past. It was the first to bring out the full potential of all the elements of the formula, which all Zelda games since have followed. A Link to the Past struck the video game scene at the perfect time, when the industry was just seeing its first signs of maturity and developers had started to learn what types of features make games good and what just make them frustrating. The first really good Zelda game, A Link to the Past became the gold standard by which all future games were measured.

Since then, the games have gotten more and more linear. No longer could you choose which order to brave the dungeons, and Link had a companion character constantly nagging him to stop exploring and move on to the next story-related target. While helpful for those who wanted to casually experience the story, it took away some of the joy of exploring a strange new world by following whatever took your fancy.

Then came Breath of the Wild, redefining the formula while at the same time going back to the series' roots. Once again, the world was open for you to explore to your heart's content. If you wanted, you could pick a direction and just run for hours on end. But you would not want to, because something would catch your eye, and you would investigate and find a camp of goblins or a stone puzzle or a beautiful forest glade. If you saw a mountain peak in the distance, you could run there and climb to the top, and then hop off and glide half a mile high above the world.

It seems like this is the culmination of all Zelda games. Where else is there to go, besides making a Breath of the Wild 2, with an even bigger and more diverse world? Well, I don't think that is going to happen, because it is not Nintendo's style. Nintendo is all about innovation, taking the best parts of what it has done before and making something new. Instead, I can see them taking the new ideas they brought to the table and expanding on them. Breakable weapons, choosing whether to upgrade your health or your stamina, and being able to climb most walls are all features that worked really well, and I think we can expect to see them return in future games.

Also, it is worth noting that there are some aspects of Breath of the Wild that leave me disappointed. Sure it's nice to be able to go anywhere, even across mountain ranges, but at the same time the tops of those mountains are often barren, as if they are unfinished. Being able to come to towns and other interesting places from any direction instead of just following the road is a neat idea, but it makes it feel like I'm running around a map instead of a world. In addition, I'm a completionist. When I play a video game, I have to find everything the game has to offer. For Breath of the Wild, which was not designed to be completed but to always offer something new to find no matter how much you have explored before, this took a long time and a whole lot of patience.

Looks like the graphics team messed around in a 3D modeling program
and forgot to do anything else.
Though it may be tempting to see Breath of the Wild as the ultimate pinnacle of the series, I see it as bringing plenty to the table that can be expanded and improved upon. As video games reach a new stage of maturity, I think Breath of the Wild will be the new gold standard for Zelda games, as A Link to the Past was before. It will be the nostalgia game that everyone looks back to and says, “remember how awesome it was? That's what The Legend of Zelda is supposed to be.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Do We Have Free Will?

What career do you choose? How many children do you decide to have? Will you mow the lawn now or some other day? Every waking moment of every day we make hundreds of decisions about what to do and what not to do. But are they really our decisions, or are they made for us by our environment, our society, and our genes? Do we get to choose our futures, or is everything already set? This is the question of free will, and for most people the way we think about the answer has a huge impact on our senses of self-worth, autonomy, security, and many other things. For some, believing that things are decided, that all will turn out well in the end, is a huge comfort. For others, including myself, believing that our choices can have life-altering consequences motivates us to work hard and push for the best possible future.

With one’s belief about choice and fate being a major source of motivation in their life, we might ask whether it is wise to search for the truth about this topic. After all, there can only be one true answer, and whatever it turns out to be, it looks like some number of people will be left feeling helpless, either at the overwhelming freedom and responsibility they have, or as a prisoner inside their mind, held by the strings of fate. The things I talk about in this discussion might be upsetting to some people, so I won’t hold it against you if you stop reading now. Still, to me, the search for truth is always more valueable than the answer, and I have found that the process of learning to accept and live with the truth no matter what it turns out to be, or even uncertainty if the truth is beyond our grasp, is worth it.

Traditionally, there are two philosophical options: free will, the idea that through our choices we can make the future or change it from what it would have been; and determinism, the idea that the entire future of the universe is already set down to the smallest particle. There is also a third option, called compatibilism, which suggests that even if determinism is true, we still have free will. Compatibilism may seem contradictory, but as we will see, the topic is a lot more complex than it looks at first glance.

It certainly feels like we have free will. Everyone has decisions that they have had to face over and over again, and sometimes they choose differently than before. For instance, we have each woken up thousands of times, and sometimes stayed in bed longer than others. But even though the circumstances might seem exactly the same, they are really different. For starters, every air molecule in your room is in a different place morning to morning, mixed with air from outside and around the world. More importantly, your brain has changed. If you truly were in the exact same situation twice, an exact copy of the scene down to the last molecule, the last neuron firing in your brain, then suddenly it seems much less likely that you really could make a different choice after all.

According to classical physics, the study of the motion of everything larger than small molecules, everything goes according to cause and effect. Every object, every particle, every piece of anything, has a present state, which means it has properties like position, velocity, and energy. When it interacts with something, they will exchange properties in a predictable way, resulting in a new state. In other words, time goes by and things happen. In this view, if we know the state of everything right now, we can calculate what the state of everything will be one second from now, one minute from now, and on and on until the end of time. We can also work backwards and figure out what happened in the past one second ago, one minute ago, and on and on until the beginning of time.

In a classical universe, then, everything is determined. But you may have noticed that I said classical physics only applies to things larger than small molecules. For smaller things, classical physics no longer works, and we have to turn to quantum physics. Now there is a myth that quantum physics is the study of consciousness. That is false. Quantum physics is merely the study of the motion of everything smaller than large molecules. At this level, things happen that seem unrealistic, which our classically-adapted brains struggle to comprehend. One aspect of this is that two systems that are set up exactly the same—same particle, same energy, same position, etc.—can lead to different outcomes. But we can still calculate the probability of any specific outcome. To many experts, this suggests that quantum physics is probabilistic rather than deterministic, but there is still debate, and the question is far from settled.

There is also debate about whether the brain uses quantum physics in its processing, or if the mechanisms of the brain are completely classical. But even if our decisions are made partially by quantum processes, and even if quantum physics is fundamentally probabilistic rather than deterministic, that still does not allow for complete free agency. After all, we want to make our own decisions; determination by mechanism or determination by roll of the dice, it is still determinism. In fact, any way you look at decision making, there is going to be a set of causal chain mail you can follow backwards until the big bang. The only alternative left would be spontaneity, things happening literally for no reason, and even that does not sound like free will to me.

Right now, it doesn’t look good for free will. But maybe we are forgetting something. So far, I have presented a case that determinism is almost definitely true, but I have actually said very little about free will. Let’s go back and examine what we mean by “free will.” What do we really want when we ask the question? Free will would allow us to make our own choices because of reasons, ideally good reasons. We also want to be able to choose our reasons. But the decisions to choose our reasons must be based on deeper reasons, which in turn must be based on deeper reasons. Here we run into a problem: if we want to choose our reasons for choosing, we find an infinite regress. It would seem that the very idea of free will is logically incoherent.

But perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps free will doesn’t have anything to do with how events happen in the universe. Let’s go back and examine why we are asking the question in the first place. Why do we want to know whether we have free will? For me, it is because I want to know that what I do affects the world. That if I push myself, I can accomplish more and affect more people, and can leave a mark on society. I don’t mean that I want to be able to push myself for no reason; the reason just doesn’t matter to me, except in so far as I can cultivate it to push myself more. My efforts playing a part in the causal chain would be enough for me.

Let me introduce the idea of effort. “Effort” is a common word, so all English speakers have an intuitive understanding of what it means. But when I talk about it I have a particular meaning in mind. As intelligent animals, we have behavioral systems put in place by our DNA, including instincts, gut reactions, and the ability to form habits. But we also have the ability to break from these things. When we do, we get an uncomfortable feeling that leaves us tired. This specific feeling is what I mean when I talk about effort.

For an example, let’s walk through the beginning of a hypothetical daily routine. You wake up, and get up either because you feel like it or because you know you have to in order to get to work on time. You brush your teeth, eat breakfast, drink coffee, and all the things you always do in the morning. Then you go out the door and start walking to work. Actually you probably drive, but I walk, so imagine you’re walking. Your legs are set on autopilot, taking you down the sidewalk. You wait for clear intersections and turn corners, your mind thinking about whatever your stream of consciousness takes it to, your body taking you where you need to go. In every part of this routine so far, it has been as if you were an observer, passively watching as the environment guided your body and mind through the motions of life. But then, ahead of you you see someone else coming toward you, right in your path. Your autopilot wants to keep going straight, but if you do, you will run into this person. Your mind goes into problem solving mode, projecting possible futures. What will happen if I step this way, or that? And then you break from your pre-established program and step to the side so that you will pass the other person without touching.

That step, that subtle adjustment of direction, is one of the most difficult things you have done all day. It was harder than stopping for cars, harder than taking 90 degree turns, even though it took less physical work. It may have even been harder than getting out of bed. It was harder because everything else was taken care of by your pre-programmed routine, and this time you had to think and act at a higher level. That feeling of “this is hard, and I’m bringing it upon myself,” is what effort feels like.

Effort is not only possible as a reaction to unexpected events, but you can inject it into your behavior at any time. You might choose one day to say no to coffee, or get up on a weekend even though you are still tired. While writing this, I got up and went to the refrigerator to pour myself a glass of water, my body and mind set on autopilot. When it was full, I took a step toward my computer before realizing I had left the pitcher on the counter instead of in the fridge. The natural course would have been to walk out to my desk and set the cup down before walking back, putting the pitcher in the fridge, and then pacing the width of the room a third time to get back to my laptop. Instead, I chose to expend effort, and retracted my step and put the pitcher in the fridge before taking my cup to my desk. By taking the “harder” option, I saved time.

When we talk about using effort with a goal in mind, it ties back to free will. When I wonder if I have free will, what I am really asking is if my efforts make a difference to the outcome of what I am trying to do. To me, the opposite of free will is not determinism, but fate. Are events set in stone, that no matter how hard we struggle, how much effort we give, whatever choices we make, there is nothing we can do or fail to do that will change where we end up in a year from now? I think not. Experiments and statistics show us that our actions really do have consequences, and that we have at least some control over those consequences by the things we do. Sure, perhaps the reason we are motivated to make effort because we have thought about the topic, and we thought about the topic because we read and heard people speak about it here and there throughout our lives, but to me that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the results are different from what they would have been if we hadn’t made effort. Whether the universe is deterministic or not, this gives me everything I want from free will. When I expend effort, it makes a difference, and that is compatabilism enough for me.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Nostalgia – Glimpses and Memories

When I was growing up, there was a tree outside the back door of my family’s house. Old Jack, we called it. The trunk split into three about a foot off the ground, each perfect for climbing, and my brothers and I and our friends spent a lot of time sitting among its leaves. One of the great branches was so thick that if two of us stood on opposite sides and reached around it, we could barely touch each other’s hands. Small two-by-four blocks nailed to this trunk made steps up to a place where the branches forked into a perfect seat.

As time passed, we saw sad signs. Old Jack was dying. One day, a bough broke in the wind and fell onto our car while we were inside it. It only made a dent, but we knew Old Jack had to go, and soon after, he was just a stump. Of course there were other trees to climb, but gone were the days when we could dash out the door and up Jack’s steps to sit around in that place where the branches spread out.

Nostalgia is the fond memory of times once enjoyed. The good old days. It can strike us at any time, any age, from many things. The steps of the house you grew up in, an old favorite movie, or that song you and your friends and family used to listen to all the time, but now you only hear a few times a year. For me, it is “The Answer Lies Within” by Dream Theater.

Even as a child I remember a feeling I had when I saw the grass swaying a certain way in the summer breeze. It was as if there was something wonderful, home-like, and perfect that I had forgotten, but could never experience again, and all I could glimpse of it was a shadow of a feeling.

There is a time when we are children, that I call the “golden zone,” when we are especially open to nostalgia-forming experiences. That is why your favorite books and movies are probably the ones you saw and read when you were young. This is why every popular movie from the last 50 years is getting remade, and why I walked out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens upset that the writers completely ignored what the prequels brought to the table, and why I have not gone more than a year without playing through Super Mario 64 or one of its many full game hacks since 1997.

Still gives me the chills just looking at it.

When thinking about nostalgia, it is easy to get caught up in the past, and feel as if life will never be the same. On the one hand, this is correct; you will never have that exact same tree in your backyard. On the other hand, though, you still have the trees that you have now. And your home, and your friends, and your family. For the past two years I have walked the two miles between my apartment and the university twice a day. Most of the time I don’t notice the trip, but I can imagine that some day I will look back and remember fondly passing the Lutheran church, the bridge over Capitol, the high school, the bank with its flowing modern art metal mesh sculpture, and the cupcake shop with the jokes on its blackboard floor sign.

Times go up and down, but we don’t need to be lost in the past. If we open our eyes and see the wonderful things around us, we will realize that the good old days are not something lost forever to the past; the good old days are now. And the more we live in the moment, the more vivid the memories we will make to look back upon in the future.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Consciousness: the Most Baffling Mystery of All

The Great Mysteries:
Fermi Paradox

Recommended Pre-Reading:
Cosmoid: A Definition
Cosmoids In Our Image
What is Science?
The Scientific Jigsaw Puzzle
Realism and Idealism

Science is the best tool we have for understanding reality. It has taught us about matter at the fundamental level, the relationship between space and time, how complex systems function, how humans and animals behave, and innumerable other things. But there is one thing that science has been uncomfortably quiet about, something that is closer to home and more obvious than anything else: consciousness.

Consciousness is the experience of subjectivity, the awareness we have about our senses. Consciousness is what it is like to be something. It is experience itself. It is what we have while we are awake or dreaming, and what we do not have when we are in a dreamless sleep or not alive. It is the difference between a purely mechanical universe and a universe full of color and music and meaning.

We say we know many things, but all ideas and experiences are brought to us in our consciousnesses. Everything else is, at some level, open to question. 400 years ago, the philosopher Rene Descartes famously said, "I think, therefore I am," meaning that the only thing one can be fundamentally certain of is one's own consciousness, and thereby one's existence. Similarly, less than 400 days ago, neuroscientist Sam Harris said, “Consciousness is the one thing we can absolutely know is not an illusion.”

A crucial factor in the nature of reality and how we know things, consciousness is what we in the philosophy fan club call "a big deal." Yet science is deafeningly silent when it comes to the subject. Some would say that it cannot be studied. But it exists, and we know it interacts with the rest of the universe by the fact that we can have conversations about it, so there must be some way that it interacts, which can be studied. After Isaac Newton discovered his three laws of motion, it was said that no law would be found for a blade of grass. Yet we now have the huge, booming science of biology. Now it is said there will never be such a law for consciousness and subjectivity. I believe it is the same now as it was for the blade of grass. We may not know how at the moment, but I believe it is a cosmoid barrier, not a physical barrier.

The problem with studying consciousness is that it is hard to find a place to start. We can hook people up to an MRI and correlate the sounds, tastes, and colors they describe with which neurons are firing, but without knowing more, that is about it. And right now we are woefully restricted to our fellow humans; we cannot ask and animal or a bug or a rock about its conscious experiences. It is almost as if we need to know the answer before we begin. Modern-day philosopher David Chalmers has called this the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

There are a few things we do know about consciousness. We can be reasonably justified in assuming that all living human beings have it, because we can talk about it with them, and it would be very strange if someone knew what consciousness was without having it themself. We can guess that animals also have consciousness, at least the ones whose brains are most like ours. We know consciousness can be divided, from experiments with patients of split brain surgery. But just about everything we know is by subjective observation and self-report.

Some people have suggested ideas to consider regarding consciousness. Some like to say the mind cannot comprehend itself. It is poetic and feels satisfyingly bittersweet, but it is also bogus. No one has ever offered any supporting evidence or argument, other than it feels like it might be true. Some say consciousness is epiphenomenal—that is, it exists, but it merely observes not interacting with the rest of existence. But this cannot be true. We can think about and talk about consciousness, which means our brains must have information about it, which means consciousness must affect our brains. Some people—scientists mostly, to my surprise—suggest that consciousness might not actually exist, and instead just be an illusion. To them, I say, “speak for yourself.”

A panel of science celebrities had an amusing discussion 4 years ago about how little we know about consciousness.

Still, just because we do not know how to begin studying consciousness yet does not mean we never will. There is one attempt at a description of the physical systems in which consciousness as we know it can exist, called Integrated Information Theory. It posits three main axioms, the information, the integration, and the exclusion axioms.

Information: Consciousness is defined by states that could be different. The experience of seeing a blank TV screen is recognized as a blank TV screen because it could have been a scene from anything—Indiana Jones, Star Trek, or a documentary on jellyfish—instead. Blind people do not see black; sight in itself is not a part of their conscious experience because there is no other possible state their visual experience could have.

Integration: Conscious experiences cannot be broken down into individual parts. A momentary experience is like a frame of a movie, impossible to cut into pieces. Each mechanism contributing to consciousness affects and is affected by every other one.

Exclusion: Conscious experiences are individual phenomena. They have what they have, and nothing more. Perhaps I don't fully understand this one, because it seems to me like the Reflexive Property, which is so trivial that it goes without saying for basically everything.

Integrated Information Theory attempts to describe consciousness as we experience it, and the systems in which it makes sense. The brain is a bunch of interconnected switches (neurons), which function as a whole, taking in a vast number of sensory inputs and capable of producing a vast number of responses. On the other hand, if a stone statue were to become conscious we could not recognize it, because stone is just a jumble of molecules. It would have no way of taking in information from the world, and no way to respond to that information. Integrated Information theory explains this, but does not solve the Hard Problem. It does not explain the nature of consciousness or how and in what capacity it exists, nor how we can know about it and talk about it.

The first question that comes to my mind with regards to consciousness is, is it a thing in itself, or is it a property? It may be interesting to explore what it might mean if it were a thing in itself, but it makes more sense for me to think of it as a property, and every idea I have ever heard treats it like a property. The question is, of what? There are two main paradigms that people have held in their cosmoids, though no attempt that I know of has been made to build scientific models of either. Be wary of googling these terms; you will get pseudoscience.

The Soul Hypothesis. This posits that consciousness is a property of a heretofore unknown substance that comes in indivisible packets called souls. Souls inhabit living bodies, and leave when they die.

Panpsychism. Perhaps consciousness is a universal feature of reality, present everywhere, brought into more organized states by complex structures such as the brain. Panpsychism suggests that consciousness, or perhaps an underlying potential for consciousness called protoconsciousness, is an inherent property of all things, known and unknown.

Or the answer might lie somewhere in between. Consciousness or protoconsciousness might be a property of some forms of matter but not others, like electric charge. With what little data we have now, any one of these is as good a guess as any other. This might even be the wrong avenue to explore, and the answer may be something else entirely.

Some say that, since we can mimic the functions of neurons using transistors, we can create consciousness using computer programs. This is an assumption that I find dubious. Mimicking the function of a machine does not mean you also mimic all of its physical properties. For instance, we can mimic the behavior of a computer using a wooden abacus, but we cannot get it to conduct electricity. Similarly, we may be able to mimic all the functions of a human brain using transistors and bit storage, but that is no guarantee that we get consciousness in a computer.

In contemplating consciousness, a few questions arise in my curious mind. These questions cannot be answered yet, as they depend on the nature of consciousness. But perhaps one day they may be tested.

I wonder if qualia are linked directly to the physical processes they are associated with, or if they are only definable in relation to their alternatives. We know that raw experiences are caused by physical events in the brain. Consider a process that causes the experience of pleasure. If the same physical process happened without a brain, would there be a fleeting sense of pleasure in the universe, instantly forgotten because there is no way to store the memory?

Are conscious experiences themselves pleasant and unpleasant, or is it the physiological reactions our DNA has coded within us that decide? Imagine a hypothetical human-like being exactly the same as us, except the physical triggers for the experience of pleasure and pain have been swapped. Suppose this person would react to pleasure the same way as we do, describing it as pleasant and being biologically driven to have it again, but his conscious experience is the same as what we call pain. Is he then really experiencing pain and unable to express it, or does the reaction of the body determine whether qualia are seen as good or bad, and he truly is experiencing pleasure?

These questions and a thousand more like them keep me thinking, wondering, and marveling at the mysteries of the cosmos. There are many possibilities, each as reasonable as any other. But what excites me even more is that for each question, only one answer is true, and it will not only be true after it is discovered, but even now as we ponder.