Monday, January 24, 2011

The C Word and Emergence: Absent-minded Science, Part IV

At a recent talk I attended at UC Santa Barbara, Professor Marcus Raichle, one of the pioneers of brain imaging, jokingly referred to consciousness as the “C word.”

His little joke highlighted the fact that for many working neuroscientists and others who think about the brain, trying to explain what consciousness actually is – as opposed to explaining the various functions of brains – is still a bit frowned upon. It also seems that many neuroscientists who do think about the “hard problem” of consciousness – the mind/body problem by a different name – believe that once we explain the functions of brains there’s really not much, if anything, left to explain about consciousness itself.

I find in my discussions on consciousness that arguments about “emergence,” well, emerge as a response from critics time and time again. Consciousness is, in this view, simply an emergent property of complex biological structures like brains.

I’ve written a number of essays (and an unpublished book) defending the alternative panpsychist view of consciousness. The type of panpsychism I find compelling is that developed into a comprehensive system by Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, Charles Hartshorne, David Ray Griffin, and many others during the 20th Century. It is growing in popularity, but still a minority view.

Read the rest at the Independent.

The Peak Oil Catastrophe-in-Waiting

The United States continues to slumber while a catastrophe lies in wait. Increasing numbers of analysts and policymakers are warning of another super price spike for oil and the likelihood of "peak oil" more generally.

Peak oil is the point at which global oil production reaches a maximum and then declines. The speed of the decline is a key unknown and if it is relatively fast, the results could be truly dire for economies around the world.

We saw prices as high as $147 a barrel in mid-2008 (the dominant factor for gasoline prices well over $4 a gallon), which played a strong role, perhaps the dominant role, in the global Great Recession -- as high oil prices have in most recessions over the last fifty years. Once the recession hit, oil demand dropped and prices plummeted as low as $33 a barrel.

Prices steadily recovered since their low in early 2009 and are back to dangerous levels in early 2011 (about $90 a barrel). We can expect far higher prices as the global recovery continues. An increasing number of analysts are projecting prices as high or higher than the 2008 peak in the next couple of years.

More importantly, global net exports of oil continue to drop as major oil exporters increase their own consumption at the same time as their production is stagnant or falling. As a major oil-importing nation (about 2/3 of our oil is imported, by far the largest import dependency in the world), net oil exports are far more important to the U.S. than total oil production. Even if global oil production increases in the coming years, if there is less available for oil-thirsty nations like ours the situation will be far worse than total oil production figures would otherwise suggest. More on this below.

It is time for public discussion of this issue to reach the same prominence as climate change. Indeed, many solutions to these “twin crises” are the same because reducing petroleum dependence will ameliorate peak oil and climate change.

Read the rest here.

Why Electric Vehicles Will Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A recent article by John Peterson argued that electric vehicles will take us backward in our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that today's hybrid cars are more effective in reducing GHGs. Peterson's commentary rests on recent research by Carnegie Mellon University regarding life-cycle emissions of various vehicle types.

I believe Peterson's highly negative view of electric vehicles is unwarranted and inaccurate due to a number of reasons that I describe below.

I have some familiarity with these issues in that I represent the Green Power Institute (a non-profit policy outfit based in the Bay Area) at the California Public Utilities Commission in the electric vehicle proceeding R. 09-08-009. This proceeding is considering numerous issues related to utility rate design for electric vehicles and state policies for integrating potentially large numbers of electric vehicles into the grid in coming years. Our comments in this proceeding can be found here.

I also was the lead author of the Community Environmental Council’s 2007 report, A New Energy Direction: A Blueprint for Santa Barbara County, which examined in detail how Santa Barbara County could wean itself from fossil fuels and save substantial money at the same time. I wrote the report not only as a detailed blueprint for one county, but also as a template for other counties and regions contemplating similar goals. I wrote in that report that alternatives to driving, driving smaller vehicles, and relying on hybrid vehicles were the best short-term options for reducing fossil fuel use. However, in the longer term, electrification of our transportation infrastructure was the most promising path.

Read the rest at

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On Solidity: Absent-Minded Science, Part III

For those of us who are contemplative, there is a tendency when encountering a philosophical system that is initially appealing to become overly excited. It is the system, the approach to explaining all of this (arms out-stretched), which we have been looking for and failed to find for so many years.

This happened to me a few years ago when I first encountered Alfred North Whitehead’s ideas. I’ve read widely in philosophy for decades now, but it was only when I was sufficiently inspired to write down my own ideas, my own theory of this, that I got serious about examining other serious theories. Whitehead was a British mathematician, logician, physicist, and philosopher. He spent the last decade or so of his academic life at the Harvard philosophy department and became, ironically, a key part of the American 20th Century philosophic tradition, along with William James, Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce, etc. Before then, he spent many years at Cambridge, where he famously collaborated with Bertrand Russell on the three-volume Principia Mathematica, a tour de force that attempted to reduce all of mathematics to simple logic. It failed, ultimately, but that’s a different story.

Whitehead is best-known today for his “process philosophy,” which he himself called the “philosophy of organism.” The basic idea of process philosophy, as with all Buddhist schools of thought, is that all of this is impermanent, flux, constant change – process. Whitehead wrote a number of books in the last phase of his career that fleshed out his incredibly rich philosophy. None is more rich – or more difficult – than his Process and Reality, which first appeared in 1929. This book presents Whitehead’s theory of everything and situates it within the Western tradition of John Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hume, and others.

Whitehead’s system is compelling for a number of reasons, not least of which are its adequacy to the facts of human experience, its logical consistency, and the pedigree of its creator. It’s hard to find someone more qualified than Whitehead to create a comprehensive philosophical system, due to his background in mathematics, logic, and physics at the highest levels of academia.

Anyway, I became infatuated with Whitehead and his intellectual successors David Ray Griffin, John Cobb, Jr., Charles Hartshorne, and others, and here’s why.

Read the rest here or here.