Sunday, April 20, 2008

Animal minds: Art produced by animals: Is it art?

Recently, I was asked about claims that some animals can produce art. Here is one example, an eight-year-old Thai elephant known as Hong, trained by mahout Noi Rakchang and art teacher Khun Tossapol Petcharattanakool:
Two years ago, Hong began painting with her mahout, Noi Rakchang, and has steadily developed her skills. After learning how to paint flowers, she moved on to more advanced paintings. She now has two specialties. One is an elephant holding flowers with her trunk, and the other is the Thai flag. An elephant with so much control and dexterity is capable of amazing work. Just for clarification, with these realistic figural works, the elephant is still the only one making the marks on the paper but the paintings are learned series of brushstrokes not Hong painting a still life on her own.

In other words, what Hong has learned to do is execute a series of manoeuvres in an order that produces a picture recognized by humans. Hong is not expressing her own ideas, nor is it clear that she recognizes what she has drawn.

As Snopes explains, introducing a video,
The above-linked video is "true" in the sense that it represents the real phenomenon of elephants who have learned to paint — with the caveats that "painting" in this sense means the animals outline and color specific drawings they've been taught to replicate (rather than abstractly making free-form portraits of whatever tickles their pachydermic fancies at the moment), they work under the direction of trainers, they don't all exhibit the same level of proficiency, and the quality of their output can be highly variable

Some elephants are apparently able to remember a long series of actions to perform.

National Geographic provides some background to the story:
Asian elephants have been trained for centuries to haul logs for the forestry industry, but deforestation and restrictions on logging have meant the loss of jobs for many of them. Animals that can no longer earn their keep are frequently abandoned, mistreated, and starved.

For the past several years, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, Russian-born conceptual artists based in New York, have been teaching domesticated elephants and their mahouts (elephants' lifelong trainers) how to paint.

Clearly, a key purpose of the project is to provide a living for out of work elephants and mahouts:
"The paintings are collaborations," she said, "a way of communicating between the animal and humans. The mahouts frequently are choosing the colors, and the elephants are applying the strokes. The elephants quickly master the fundamental techniques of painting, and also develop distinctive sensibilities and styles." allows people to purchase beautiful art and give money to a worthy cause at the same time, said Milk, adding: "Our rallying cry is 'An elephant painting in every home.'"

Most elephant art, as displayed here for sale, is not at all remarkable - it is simply series of strokes made by a paintbrush held in an elephant's trunk, and imaginatively titled by the marketer.

Obviously only a few elephants can learn a precise series of brush strokes that map onto a human perception of a figure.

Here's a painting elephant at the Milwaukee Zoo, who is joined by a sea lion (pictured at the site) and various other animals that can be taught to hold a brush and rub paint on a canvas.

If by "is it art?", you mean "Will people buy it and hang it, to help the cause?", well then - if it is in a frame, it will look like art to them, right?

Dinesh Ramde's recent MSNBC story (April 7, 2008) explains,
Of course, beauty — and artistic talent — are in the eyes of the beholder. People who buy animal paintings are rarely art aficionados. Instead, they're typically animal lovers who know the money is going toward a good cause.

Ramde also notes the interesting case of the chimpanzee Congo three of whose 1950s works recently sold to a collector for about 13 times what the auction house expected. To a human, these three abstracts appeared suggestive, like patterns in the clouds, but we have no way of knowing what they meant to long-deceased Congo.

Other animal mind stories at The Mindful Hack:

Researchers ask: What does it mean to be an animal?

Deception in humans and animals: The differences

Medical journal published article on cat's death predictions


Are there really innate ideas of God?

Speaking of the April edition of Touchstone, Discovery Institute's Logan Paul Gage argues therein that "Innate Religious Beliefs Are Evidence of God, Not of Evolution":
Those whose education emphasized the diversity of world religions may find it surprising, but many researchers think some religious beliefs are innate. Research is showing that "when forming God concepts, not just in theistic traditions but even in non-theistic traditions ... we have a natural tendency to believe that divine beings have [certain] characteristics," says [Michael J.] Murray. We naturally believe in a super-knowing, super-perceiving, super-powerful, immortal creator.

Various research is cited on the opinions of small children.

I must admit I am skeptical about what this research really amounts to. Small children rarely found religions, and the adults who do found them must convince other adults of their divine origin.

Many religions have featured mortal gods (Norse), limited gods (Greeks), gods that are emanations of a single divine (Hindu), ancestors with limited power that take the place of gods (animists), or gods that are only somewhat relevant to the key issue of salvation (Buddhism).

I think that the diversity of world religions is real, rather than an artifact of biased education. Of course, two factors may leaven the lump: Small children may imbibe their parents' understanding of God in a number of ways other than explicit teaching. Also, globalization of culture means that ideas about God from other cultures will also enter the mix.

Once again, Gage's interesting article is not yet on line.


Why can't philosophy alone kill off materialism?

Campus Crusade for Christ's Tom Gilson reviewed The Spiritual Brain for Touchstone Magazine (April 2008). On the whole, he seems to have liked the book, though he wonders why we cannot demolish materialism through philosophy alone.

Myself, I would answer that materialists have their own philosophers and their own way of doing philosophy. They aim at convincing us either that our minds do not really exist or that they are simply the buzz of our selfish genes, trying to get themselves passed on in our offspring. Yes, of course, that would also b e true of their ideas, but their second move is to shut down discussion and debate - see the Expelled movie for how that happens.

Philosophy alone cannot decide the issue. We must look at evidence from science as well.

Never mind that for now. I was glad that he picked up on one of my main intentions in the book, which was to expose the way in which popular science media promote materialist ideas out of all proportion to the evidence. I wrote a letter to the editor, saying, in part:
Materialist science is a narrative, and, as it happens, a fictional one. The advent of quantum mechanics should have killed materialism off, but Darwinian evolution - as a faith position - appears to be keeping it in place. That is, in my view, the key reason that the controversy is so hot.

Here is his blog, The Thinking Christian.

Note: The text of the review is not yet on line. When it is, I will link to it.

Labels: ,

Civil rights protests force extinction of Olympic torch

Speaking of the Dalai Lama and his monks (see story below) , notice how they and their sympathizers co-opted the Olympic Torch, which went out a number of times thanks to civil rights protests organized against China's chronic human rights violations. Matchless control of symbols, that!

Friend David Warren wrote recently,
We have the pleasure this morning of catching up with the mounting Tibet protests that are following the Olympic torch around the world (the "aubergines" in Paris today have twice had to pull the torch to safety on a bus, which necessitates extinguishing the flame), as it gradually dawns upon the Beijing Politburo that they have laid out so many billion yuan to achieve one of the great publicity own-goals of the century.

Let us hope so.

Here's another story about monk-led protest for civil rights in Eastern Asia.

It's interesting to reflect on the number of situations in the last century when religious figures played a key role in organizing civil rights actions, whether in South Africa, Poland, Romania, the Philippines, the southern United States, or Eastern Asia. I suspect that a lot depends on whether the government has co-opted the religion of the people or, alternatively, despises and persecutes it. In the latter case, it can quicky become a focus of resistance to tyranny.


Mayo Clinic co-sponsors Dalai Lama's Mind and Life Conference

As we recount in The Spiritual Brain, Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and his doctoral student Vince Paquette got a chance to study spiritual experiences in contemplative Carmelite nuns (= Catholic Christians). However, a number of researchers, including Andrew Newberg and colleagues, have studied Eastern meditators, especially Buddhist monks as well.

Generally, such studies show that deep spiritual experiences are complex rather than simple, so there is no one simple explanation like the fabled God gene or spot or glitch that explains them.

One major backer of such studies has been the Dalai Lama, and his most recent Mind and Life conference, (XVI) was held at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester:
Mind and Life XVI convenes the Dalai Lama, scientists, clinicians, other contemplatives, and an audience of Mayo Clinic professionals to review the current science and clinical applications of meditation and to identify new lines of research on and clinical applications of contemplative practices such as meditation within medicine.

Here's the brochure, which reads in part:
These collaborative studies are beginning to elucidate the extraordinary capacity of the human brain for plasticity that may underlie the development and cultivation of positive human qualities such as compassion. In the course of these investigations, discoveries are occurring that suggest that meditation may have specific beneficial effects for helping patients cope with certain diseases, particularly chronic illnesses, and further indicate that some of the biological processes that underlie some of these diseases may be affected in beneficial ways from the practice of meditation.

Whether sponsored by Buddhists or others, study of the role of contemplation/meditation in helping ease chronic pain and other symptoms is very worthwhile. As our population ages, many people find themselves taking several medications that do not always agree with each other. Where medication can be supplemented by mind-based symptom relief, the person may be healthier and happier, and feel more in control.

Apparently, there is a live Web link, but it does not seem to be accessible as of April 20, 2008.

Labels: ,

Artificial intelligence: A look at things that neither we nor computers can discover

Recently (April 15, 2008), Robert J. Marks II, Distinguished Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Baylor University in Texas, addressed a joint meeting of the local American Scientific Affiliation and the Baylor Society for Conversations in Religion, Ethics and Science, on the limitations of computer models of life and mind:

Computing has no theory of everything (T.O.E.). We're uncertain whether physics has a T.O.E. as revealed in M-theory but, due to the genius of Kurt Godel 75 years ago, smart people like Stephen Hawking are starting to doubt it.

This is because of a new startling mathematical idea from algorithmic information theory (AIT): There exist things that are true that cannot be derived from fundamental principles. Some things are true simply because they are true.

Many claim God cannot be proved. (Although I'll show you Godel's short mathematical proof of God's existence). There are some things we know exist that we can prove we will never know.

Most doubt a computer program will ever write a deeply meaningful poem or a classic novel. How about something simpler? Can we look at an arbitrary computer program and decide whether or not it will ever print out the number 3?

We can for some programs. But Alan Turing, the founder of computer science, proved it is impossible to write a program to analyze another arbitrary program to tell us whether or not a 3 will be printed.

In fact, we can't write a computer program to determine anything another arbitrary computer program will do. (This is called Rice's theorem.) To find out, we need to run the program.

We can also prove there are numbers of finite precision numbers a computer can't compute. One of these is Chaitin's number, an astonishing constant between zero and one we know exists.

If we knew Chaitin's constant to finite precision - one single number - we could solve many open problems in mathematics. These include the Riemann hypothesis, Goldbach's conjecture and whether or not there is an odd perfect number.

Chaitin's constant exists, but we can prove we will never know it. These and other mind bending properties in the field of AIT [artificial intelligence theory] seem too far fetched to be true, but with a minimum of math, I will convince you otherwise.

Sounds interesting. I have written to ask him how it turned out.

By the way here are some other Mindful Hack stories on how the human brain differs from a computer:

Mind vs. meat vs. computers - the differences

Let the machine read your mind (We offer an installment plan!)

Free will: In fruit flies yet?

Emotion machines - so that's what we are! (?)

Mind-computer blend: Who believes in this?

Artificial intelligence: Making the whole universe intelligent?

Brain cells release information more widely than previously thought.

Labels: , ,

Service Note 2

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.