Saturday, 27 February 2021

upcoming projects

I'm presently working on research on fake news and conspiracy theories and how they relates to epistemology (the study of knowledge, or how we know what we know) and the psychology of religion. 

My prima facie opinion of fake news is that it appeals to human sociability, and combined with our instincts to believe things that fit into our world view, it leads us to share this information online without checking its validity.

My prima facie opionion of conspiracy theories is that they're an emergent form of religion (ie a cult). They have many features in common: a larger than life enemy, persecution of a chosen people who know the truth, a prophetic leader, an ingroup/outgroup distinction, a doctrine which is not questioned.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Three types of Fake news in the academic world

 How to tell if something is a fake publication

Fake publications come in three forms: prank publications, predatory publications and just plain bad science. For more on predatory publications and how to identify them, please see our earlier post below. An example of an AI that generates prank mathematics publications is here.

On the matter of prank publications, those are generally easier to detect since they make obviously ridiculous claims. However, the ability to detect whether the claims in the publication are indeed ridiculous depends on your academic backround. A particularly notorious case is the Sokal Hoax. In brief, a physicist called Alan Sokal sent a nonsense paper to a humanities journal:

"In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor, and specifically to investigate whether "a leading North American journal of cultural studies—whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross—[would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."  Unfortunately the article was published. You can read more about it here

This prank demonstrated that academics are prone to Confirmation Bias — that is, that we are inclined to believe more things which are similar to what we already believe, or, which support our existing beliefs. Confirmation Bias is the bias which leads us all to fall prey to fake news and fake science. Most people fall for such things due to some or other cognitive bias. A definitive list of cognitive biases is here. You can obtain a nice poster about biases here.

On the matter of bad science, these are cases where the scientist or research has an ulterior motive behind their research. This is why declaring your funding source is so important, as is a literature review. Because unless you show an understanding of the existing literature, and show who is funding your research, it remains suspect. As an example, consider the case of Wakefield, 1998. His article caused hysteria around vaccines which still has not died down, despite the article being retracted.

"The final episode in the saga is the revelation that Wakefield et al.[] were guilty of deliberate fraud (they picked and chose data that suited their case; they falsified facts).[] The British Medical Journal has published a series of articles on the exposure of the fraud, which appears to have taken place for financial gain." (

The same rubric applies as with fake news. If an article (be it from a professor or not), sounds hysterical and incredible, it probably is not worthy of serious consideration. Science is a sober serious business. Anything that is radical should be looked at with very careful scrutiny, and a replication of its experiments should always be performed to validate the findings.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Different positions on "the mind"

The reason philosophy of mind exists, is because the physical evidence generally does not support the view known as dualism. Dualism is the position that we have "spirits" or "souls" and our minds are not somehow dependent on our bodies. Most of the work in this area of philosophy is an attempt to account for why it feels like dualism is true, when the evidence seems to show that it is not. 

There are many more positions on the nature of the mind than just the view that it is activities of the brain (the simple scientific position), or the view that it is due to a soul (the default theistic or spiritualist position). I am aware of ten positions:

1. Epiphenomenalism
2. Supervenience
3. Functionalism
4. Eliminativism
5. Central state materialism
6. Dualism
7. Extended mind theory
8. Panpsychism 
9. Emergence
10. Temporal model

I last studied this material in around 2005 so I may be rusty and mis-remember authors and how to present the cases, but here's a summary. If I've left any out, please contact me on social media and advise. Any material mistakes or corrections welcome.

1. Epiphenomenalism: Author: Daniel Dennett. The mind is a side-effect of the brain's activity, like a shadow is a side-effect of light shining on a body. It is visible, it exists, but it has no significant effects. Dennett argues that our belief in our own causal efficacy is little more than that; a belief. The actual bodily movements we make are controlled mechanically by brain processes. Dennett skirts dangerously close to eliminativism at some stage when he disparages mental "seemings" (e.g. that it seems to me that I now see pink), as "qualia" and "figment" (a play on figment of your imagination and "pigment"). I am sympathetic to this view, because it explains certain anomalies in how we can respond fast to physical threats but only become aware of them consciously afterwards. The main trouble with the position is that if the mind is not causally efficacious, why does it exist?

2. Supervenience: the mind somehow "floats" or "supervenes" or "sits" on the brain. More like a field. I believe John Searle (2001 articles) would hold this position. The trouble with the position is it seems to be quasi-dualism; like it wants to separate the mind (to give it its magical first-person perspective properties and subjective properties) but still make it physical. A similar problem affects this and epiphenomenalism in that neither seem to explain how the physicality of the mind makes consciousness possible. It just allows that the mind is physical and the brain is physical, without saying how the mind is generated.

3. Functionalism: Author: David Lewis (Article: Mad Pain and Martian Pain). The mind is caused by the brain, and the physical substrate itself doesn't matter as long as it's functionally equivalent. So if a Martian has a hydraulic brain rather than an electrical one, we won't deny him consciousness even though his brain is different. 

For AI to be possible in the true sense - that is, conscious robots - we'd need functionalism to be true, since robots' minds are implemented with doped silicon and metal circuits. Not neurons. That means that if functionalism is false, robots will never be conscious unless they're made of cells, neurons, etc.

The problem is best explained as the emulation-vs-instantiation problem: Even if you emulate the behaviour of neurons in hardware or software, you're still not instantiating a mind, you are emulating or copying one. 

I am sympathetic to functionalism because I think if we're committed to the scientific world view - that ultimately everything is just matter and interactions between particles of matter, forces, etc.,  - then necessarily functionalism follows. The position is however not really able to explain why human brains have the qualitative experience of consciousness in the first place, because it just makes it possible for any suitable system to have consciousness. In short, it is not discriminating enough in what it would count as conscious. It doesn't say how it's caused or why it feels like that. 

4. Eliminativism: Author: Patricia Churchland.  Position: There's no such thing as a mind. There's only the brain and its activities. The mind - consciousness - is eliminated. This is a strong form of epiphenomenalism in the sense that it denies the epiphenomena are real. I cannot recall the argument for this position other than to say it is a strong form of central state materialism (below). I have presented it very poorly here. 

I think it's clear that this position is just throwing the problem out rather than answering it. We all do very clearly know that we feel conscious. Even if eliminativism were true, that there's no such thing as a mind, it still doesn't explain this experiencing now, or for example why we feel like a colour-blind person really does have a different experience of the world to a non-colour-blind person. There's a thought experiment called "Mary the scientist". It goes as follows. Mary grows up in an all-white room where everything shown to her is shades of grey. She never has a mirror. When she goes outside finally into the outside world and sees coloured objects for the first time, does she learn anything? All of us, I think, would say yes, she would be startled. Churchland however has to bite the bullet and say no. But I seriously doubt it - Mary would definitely notice. It can be empirically demonstrated. Give colour-blind correction glasses to a colour-blind person and watch how dramatically they respond even though they are generally only unable to see half of the colours. They definitely learn something. Now imagine someone who has never seen colour ever! They'd be overwhelmed. You can also find videos of deaf children hearing for the first time. Their astonishment is visible. To me this is a demonstration that eliminativism is false.

5. Central state materialism: The mind is just the activities of the brain or central nervous system (CNS). Author: DM Armstrong (1968). This is the default position in science, I think, but it doesn't answer the question of how the brain produces the mind, because computers are very brain-like but give no sign of having minds of their own (well, except when they crash or play other pranks on you). 

The simple and obvious explanation of why CSM must (largely) be true comes from the Ancient Greeks: if you drop a block or object on your toe, your toe feels painful. If you drop the same block on your head, you are knocked unconscious. Therefore, consciousness is inside your skull. The issue of why we feel sensations e.g. in our limbs is well-explained in terms of how the mind maps the body in space. Hence the phenomenon of "phantom limbs" in amputees who still "feel" their limb even though there is no limb. Similarly, it is very clear that the neural density of the body is maximal at the brain, and if nerves are severed, then consciousness of that extremity is severed (well except when people get phantom limb illusions. For more on that, google "false hand illusion"). So we know that consciousness has something to do with neurons. 

Similarly, when people are placed under fMRI, we are able to see changes in the energy use in the brain at various locations depending on the mental task used. The Japanese have even been able to extract images from the brain. So consciousness resides in the brain; that much is conclusive. Whether it depends on the brain, or whether it is limited to just the brain, or whether it can be instantiated elsewhere, are open questions.

6. Dualism: David Chalmers (older work) and Rene Descartes. This is the default theistic or spiritualist position. It denies the materialist premise that minds are created by or caused brains. It claims that there is a separate mind (or soul, or spirit), which correlates with or follows the body. It appeals to our intuition that there's something special about the mind and its unique "incorrigible" first-person perspective, that is, that we have access to our private thoughts and experiences. However, there are a number of problems with the position which easily demonstrate that it's not correct. 

Firstly as mentioned, if the brain itself is struck, we lose consciousness. This suggests that it is tied to the head. 

Secondly, commissurotomy studies demonstrate split consciousness (Marks 1981 disputes this but I believe he fails to make his case). So if the commissures (joining area between the two sides of the brain) are cut in a commisurotomy operation, the two halves start behaving like separate people. For example, one hand pulls up the trousers, the other pushes down. One hand writes something under a concealing surface, the other cannot draw a picture of what was written. Yet both sides are individually aware of what they did. If speech is localised in Broca's area on the left, it means the right side of the brain only can talk, and the left side has to draw pictures or similar to communicate. There are also experiments which show we are not aware of our brain activity, e.g. Soon et al (2008) show that our brain "Decides" what to do about 10sec before we actually do it, yet we're only "aware" of the decision about 300msec before we move. 

Thirdly, it's trivial to show that our access to our mind's contents is not incorrigible (faultless) and in fact it is very poor. For proof of this, google "visual illusions", "Elizabeth Loftus memory reliability", "blind spot", "cocktail party effect". You'll find many other related cases where in fact it can be shown that we're mostly aware of what we're looking focusing on, and only for a short period of time. We are actually barely conscious at all. 

Fourth, the causal efficacy problem. Descartes was a famous case of a dualist in the scientific era. His problem is the well-known pineal gland problem. He discussed the matter of the mind and concluded that it must have a way to control the body. He proposed the pineal gland as the interchange point between the spiritual and physical. However there's no modern scientific evidence or reason to support that choice, or to explain why that part of the brain can transmute spiritual events into physical world events. So this is the problem of causal efficacy of the spiritual. If you commit to the view that the spiritual is causally efficacious, you commit to the view that the spiritual just is physical. Maybe it's a field, or particles, but it's physical, because it manifests effects in the physical world through presumably contact. The same argument can be extended to any spiritual entities (ghosts, demons, deities, etc). Either they're not able to make effects (do not exist, even?), or they are physical (and therefore testable by science).

Chalmers used to support dualism, as I read him, and I do not believe he was successful. He now seems to have migrated to Clarke's view below.

7. Extended mind theory: This is Andy Clarke's position and it's a relatively new one (this century; I first encountered it in 2008). It supposes that the mind is extended - not just the brain, but extended to things like our social circles, memory storage methods, the environment, etc. More like a hive mind. It is characterised as an "active externalism", meaning the mind isn't just in the skull. 

I do not see that it solves the problem because it doesn't account for the first-person perspective, even if it's true. And I find it problematic to make the claim simply because of the existence of individual consciousness. While I am sympathetic to the idea of a hive mind - like we see in say, termite colonies - it's not really one mind with one point of view; it's just coordinated activity. I am sure I am parodying the position, however, so see the below videos for more detail.

8. Panpsychism. This position is that everything has a mind - even particles of matter. There is something-it-is-like-to-be an electron. And so, we should not be surprised that brains have minds. A nuanced defence of a similar position is available in my paper on 

I also explain why it's not useful. The pantheism model explained in the paper relies on a version of panpsychism, so don't be distracted by that difference. Pantheism is the view, roughly, that the universe is God. Panpsychism is the view that everything has a soul or mind. So, these two theories may well be coextensive if God is just an infinitely large soul. (To put it more pedantically: If God is an infinite soul - pantheism - and if the universe is infinite and all things are conscious - panpsychism - then panpsychism and pantheism have the same extension even if they have a different intension).

The trouble with panspychism is that it just makes consciousness an unexplained phenomenon or a property of matter, like "charge" or "mass" or "extension". It also creates further problems, e.g. with ethics. It means that, for example, we can't mine minerals anymore because we are literally hurting the earth by so doing. But the most implausbile thing about panpsychism is that it is just "kicking the can down the road." If our neurons are conscious because electrons are conscious, that doesn't explain why electrons are conscious. It's still not answering the question except to offer us a brute fact (matter just is conscious).

The main advantage to panpsychism is you would now have good reason to swear at the coffee table when you stub your toe.

9. Emergence. I suspect the correct answer to the problem of consciousness lies in a combination of epiphenomenalism, functionalism and emergence theory. 

We want a model which creates consciousness out of specific arrangements of forces, energy, matter, etc., just like life is made out of, or comprises, DNA, cells, osmosis, energy transfer, mitosis, meiosis, etc. all of which are mere physical/mechanical processses. So we want a model of emergence; that is how a certain arrangement of matter/energy gives rise to consciousness; in the same way that traffic emerges from cars, or ocean currents and whirlpools emerge from water molecules, or fields of energy emerge from many energetic particles. 

To return to the life question and provide an analogy: people debate whether viruses count as "alive". They reproduce using other cells, they do not have respiration or combustion, and they contain a cell wall and DNA. They're more similar to organelles inside living cells than living cells. So it's clear that there are certain threshold conditions for something to be alive. A similar emergence model must be found for consciousness. In virtue of what do we get consciousness, and how many neurons do we need? Is a jellyfish conscious? A tapeworm? A bacterium? What about an amoeba? A starfish? A lizard? A spider? Etc. I think the matter relates to (a) complexity and (b) neurons, nothing more.

But even if we succeed in making a robot with a brain which operates exactly like ours (except made say of silicon), we can at most say that the robot looks conscious and says it is conscious and says is is having conscious experiences, but we can never know; it could just be lying or programmed to say so. As Nagel observes: we do not know what it is like to be a bat, and feel the experience of using the sense of echolocation. So we would not know what it was like to be a robot.

10. Temporal model. A temporal model of the mind would argue that the mind either just is the same as time, or, it exists in time only (4th dimension), or it is supradimensional (e.g. 5th dimension). I've heard this view from a few people but I've not thought about it enough to give it either a positive or negative response. In some sense, the experiencing of time is fundamental to our consciousness (e.g. how a dream seems to be a few minutes but actually in real time is an hour). And our awareness of time passing is something central to what we consider consciousness. However, whether the mind is coextensive with time, or coextensive with another dimension, or whether it merely accesses another dimension, is interesting but speculative and would need some significant argument.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Detecting fake news

1. Detecting fake news.
- Does it make you frightened?
- Does it make you angry?
- Does it come from social media?
- Did you see it on a website with lots of adverts?
- Is it sensational?
- Does it agree with your existing biases or prejudices?
If your answer to any of the above is "yes", it could be fake news. If you answer "yes" to most of the above, it is almost certainly fake. The purpose of fake news is to stir up political sentiment or just to spread like a virus, or sometimes to drive you to a commercial site, e.g. a site that spreads fake news and encourages you to buy a product, such as a conspiracy book or a fake medicine.

2. How to verify
Before assuming something is fake news, learn how to verify.
- Take the image and upload it into google image search. You can only do this from a laptop or PC. See what the search returns. If it returns lots of sites with similar content, it is probably fake. If it returns links saying it is fake, then it is probably also fake.
- Look at common "debunking" sites like and (
- If it is about a medication, check
- if it is about a get rich quick solution, check
- look at a reliable site on the topic.

3. Lists of reliable sites
Reliable websites are as follows:
- Universities: their website addresses end in (South African), (British), (New Zealander), .edu (American), and (Australian). I mention these website "domains" simply because they are in the english-speaking domain. If you want to consult other academic sites, German and French university sites are also reliable.
- Wikipedia. Speaking as a PhD researcher with published papers, I can tell you for certain that Wikipedia is highly reliable, as it references journal articles (academic research papers)
- Journals. Academic journals vary in quality. You should trust those published by Taylor and Francis, Elsevier, Springer. Avoid journals published by predatory journal publishers (most of which are based in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and similar areas).

A Predatory journal is called such because it tricks academics into submitting papers with promises of publication. When the paper is submitted, it is always accepted, and then the academic is asked to pay "fees". It is a money-making scam. The reason predatory journals are fake, is that they do not do peer-review. Peer review is the process whereby academics "mark" each others' work to check the quality is good enough. Proper journals do peer review, predatory journals do not. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Useful article on how to read a scientific paper.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Watch out for predatory journals

Predatory journals accept journal articles without peer review. What predatory journals do, is they offer to publish your paper, then accept your paper as-is, then charge "page fees" for publication.They do not review for quality. This lowers the quality of academic work worldwide as researchers who are under pressure to "publish or perish" assume that it is a legitimate offer from a legitimate journal. And when other academics search for content on a topic, they might accidentally download the content from the predatory journal without realising the quality is poor.

Consider for example (we just made this name up as an example) - say, 'Journal of Business and Economics Studies.' This journal does not appear on the Department of Higher Education and Training, Science and Technology'accredited journalslist, which you can get from here:

And here is the list of predatory publishers:

If you Google such journals (not on the list), you may find that they are published by for example "Academic Stellar" (not their real name) publishers or something like that. Is its content entirely about economics? No; you will probably see that it has a range of topics. So it is not in fact a real journal. It is a predatory journal.

There are also conferences and book publishers which do this - they approach you to publish your work, because they assume you're desperate to get published and will therefore pay for it. The following article from a University of Johannesburg academic explains further.

Here is a South African author who reported this particular journal. As you can see, a trivial google of any journal will show you whether it is legit or not:

And here is a real journal just for comparison:

See the difference? Look at the work quality, content, and topic adherence. Look at the publisher guidelines. Google the word "scam" with the journal name.

We hope the above is helpful. You can find out more about reputedly fake book publishers here:

In this case, what the publisher does is try to get recently graduated postgraduates to surrender their copyright in order to see their thesis "published" as a book. However, the book, once published, is so expensive that no-one will really read it or buy it, and you obviously have to pay to get it "published".


Tuesday, 18 August 2015

animated cave