Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Where did the universe come from?--- Part 2

When we ask “Why is there something rather than nothing”, we are not necessarily asking the exactly the same thing as “Where did the universe come from?”, or “What caused the universe?”

The last two forms of the questions might, in a sense, be viewed as “physics questions”, whereas the first is a philosophical, or metaphysics, question. Consider this: it might conceivably be possible to someday show that the laws of physics of the vacuum imply that sometimes a universe can spontaneously form. For example, maybe it could be shown that a virtual process like the “vacuum bubbles” that inhabit and comprise the vacuum in quantum electrodynamics could sometimes happen on a grander scale and produce a universe out of something like a “Big Bang”. Once a complete theory of everything (a “TOE”) is arrived at, perhaps it will be evident that a vacuum state, governed by the laws of physics, is unstable, and must “explosively collapse” into a realm of matter and energy.

Today, one can find on the internet many examples of people postulating guzillions of parallel universes, maybe all with different laws of physics. Is it totally unreasonable to suppose that a set of meta-laws exists that can spontaneously determine the form the laws of physics can take in a newly emerging universe? Of course, I do not see at present how we could ever discover these meta-laws using our presently conceived form of the scientific method. Physics, as it is understood by scientists today, is empirically based. That is, it must be verified by observation and testing.

Physicist David Deutsch argues, in his book The Fabric of Reality that quantum theory, well accepted among physicists today and largely verified by experiment, implies that there are parallel universes, comprising the multiverse. But this does not really address why things exist (since these parallel universes just consist of more "things").

The point I want to make here is that when we ask the age old question “Why is There Something Instead of Nothing?” we are asking something quite different than the physics question, even recognizing that there may be meta-laws behind the physics laws of our particular universe. We are asking the fundamental existential question about existence itself. “Nothing”, in this sense, would be absolute nothingness: no laws, no possibility of virtual process, no anything, just a blank everywhere. It is inconceivable what this kind of nothing is, we do not even seems to have the words to describe it, we cannot imagine it, and yet the odd thing is that to those of us that ask the question and wonder at it, it seems somehow logical that that Nothing should be the “default” state of affairs.

Is this existential question a meaningful one? Well, it is not answerable by any conceivable method that we might think of. In fact, we cannot even think of what an answer to it might look like, partly because any explanation we might proffer for anything always uses concepts from a realm where there are things (i.e., there is something).

William James apparently studied, or pondered, the “Why is There Something Instead of Nothing?” question, and referred to the associated vertigo like emotional rush that occasionally comes to some of us as “Ontological Wonder Sickness” . A sort of pompous sounding name, perhaps. But it is, I suppose, rather like the psychological phenomena of “déjà vu”, rather unsettling and bizarre. According to logician and philosopher Martin Gardner the protagonist of Sartre’s novel Nausea experiences the emotion as being darkly disturbing and depressing. For others, such as me, it is not a bad feeling, but rather usually one of astonishment and wonder, intriguing and maybe even awe-inspiring.

Let me return to the issue of whether, intellectually speaking, the question is a meaningful one. I actually think it is, but that it is unanswerable. But just as Godel’s Proof says that there are mathematical and logical questions that cannot be decided (as being true or false), with a given logical system, it seems to me there are analogous metaphysical questions. There may be a reason why there is “something rather than nothing”, but we cannot know what it is. It is fundamentally unanswerable, not because of the accidental limitations of our human brains, but beyond the ken of any physical intelligent entity.

Of course, it is common to hear people say that “God” (or “gods”) is the reason why there is something rather than nothing. In spite of the absurdity illustrated by the “Turtles all the Way Down” story---basically, using God to explain the Universe just shifts the question to “Why is there a God rather than Nothing?”. But does it really, I sometimes wonder? If I understand quantum mechanics at all (and I readily admit I probably don’t, at least not very well) there is a hint that consciousness may be a more fundamental existent than any kind of “stuff”. There are many web sites that attempt to develop or put forward this idea. Unfortunately many of them seem to me to be in the rather kooky sphere, along the lines of the dubious film “What the Bleep do We Know” ; a google search on “the primacy of consciousness” turns up a great many sites that seem to me to be of the same type as that film (for example 1, 2, 3).

However, the late John Wheeler, without a doubt one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, felt that consciousness, if not primary, at least plays a key role in the existence of the universe, and asked “Does the Universe Exist if We Are Not Looking?”

However, it seems to me that his explanation, or intuition, of why things exists is really an attempt at an answer of “Where did the universe come from?” rather than the metaphysical one of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The opposite view, that consciousness is not primary, and that things exist independent of our consciousness was propounded by philosopher Ayn Rand (4).

It is all quite confounding. But at this point, the plausibility of this “primacy of consciousness” idea is one of the reasons I deem myself an agnostic instead of an atheist. And I greatly enjoy contemplating “Why is there something rather than nothing”, even knowing that it is surely unanswerable.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Where did the universe come from?

Where did the universe come from? Why is there anything at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?

Well, you won’t find out from me… fact, if you know, please tell me . It is a well know argument from philosophy 101 that postulating that “God” made the U out of stuff from a higher supernatural dimension doesn’t really quite cut it as a satisfactory explanation, because one must then ask the same question about where did God come from…that is, who made God? The old joke Bertrand Russell told was that someone said that the earth rested on an elephant, and when asked what help up that elephant answered that it was another elephant. On being asked what held that one, the person sidestepped with, “suppose we change the subject”. The more recent “It’s turtles all the way down” is an amusing variation on this.

For example, this website seems to confirm what I recall about Stephen Hawking giving this fictional account in A Brief History Of Time:
“A well-known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady atthe came up and said: ‘What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.’ The scientist replied, ‘What is the tortoise standing on?’ ‘You're very clever, young man, very clever,’ said the old lady. ‘But it's turtles all the way down.’”

Here is a kind of crazy metaphysical idea that does in a sense say “it’s turtles all the way down”: Suppose that God A made the universe we inhabit. Now, let’s suppose that God A was made by, or is in some was subservient or dependent upon God B. And so on, an infinite succession of higher Gods, God C, D, E, F….on to an infinite number of Gods. Now let us imagine something analogous to “renormalization” in quantum field theory, where the infinities are not considered an absurd result, but rather lumped into a single infinite God that subsumes in some sense the infinite sequence of Gods.

Consider a sort of analogous argument from elementary particle physics. For example, some scientists have speculated that the level of elementarity never really stops. That is, perhaps there is no smallest building block: atoms are made of electrons and nucleons, nucleons are made of quarks, quarks are made of some even smaller more elementary particle, and so on…it keeps going, never getting to the bottom. Why couldn’t this be true on the other end of the scale, and in a supernatural sense, as described above, where there is an infinite succession of “Gods”, all of which can be in a sense lumped, or renormalized, into a single infinite God?

Of course, can we imagine such a “being” as the kind of personal being that, for example, the Abrahamic religions believe in? I do not know. Nor do I necessarily believe that such a succession of Gods or even a single God in any sense exists. I simply put this forward as what seems to me to be an interesting idea, and one that I do not recall seeing mentioned as a possibility in any other speculative theological writing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A few random musings

What is more likely? That there are countless billions of universes, and ours just happens to be the one suitable for life?….or that there is some mind behind the one we are in, and that it is in some sense specifically designed to support life? Probability estimates are not of much use here……but somehow to me the latter seems more plausible. Is the Mind, or Designer, the God of any particular religion? Not necessarily….it could be something totally beyond our comprehension, as far beyond our ken as quantum mechanics is beyond a dog’s understanding.

So many on both sides commit the fallacy of arguing for or against a specific religion based on its usefulness or harmfulness. For example, many Christians seem to argue for their belief on the basis that it is needed to ensure moral behavior. On the atheist side, many argue that a religion has harmful effects, and we’d be better off without it. Both are largely wrongheaded….only the truth matters. If a particular religion is not based on it being true, then one should reject it. Similarly, an atheist that argues that a particular religion has harmful effects should, one would think, regard that as irrelevant it were somehow given that the religion is true. It does not seem to me that many think about the truth on both sides. High points must be given, I think, to such atheists as Richard Dawkins (an evolutionary biologist and author of the brilliant book, “The God Delusion”) and Stephen Weinberg (Nobel prize winning theoretical physicist) for clearly stating that truth is the issue. Bertrand Russell, did, I believe, also often evince this attitude in his writings on religion. On the other side, John Polkinghorne , theoretical physicist and ordained Anglican priest, emphasizes the importance of truth, and quotes David Pailin: “Attempts to defend theism by ignoring the question of truth…are fundamentally atheistic. They worship human wishes rather than ultimnate reality”.

Will we ever understand consciousness? I do not see how that is possible, given that it a purely subjective phenomena, locked inside the skull of each of us, inaccessible to any outside observer. For that reason it will never be understood by the canons of objective science, although conjectures will surely continue to be made as to why it has evolved, how it can be created artificially, etc. But if an entity passes the Turing test (that is, gives responses indistinguishable from a human’s), maybe we will have to give it the benefit of the doubt and view it as having consciousness (and concomitant rights). The implications of this are serious: if we do succeed in creating seemingly conscious robotic systems, then to consign them to drudgery on behalf of the human race would seem to be a form of slavery.

It is interesting to consider who among ones friends, colleagues, and family are optimists or pessimists. There are, I guess, two levels to this way of dividing people. The higher level is a philosophical or metaphysical one, where one asks like whether it is a good thing that the human race exists, whether human life is basically worth living. The more mundane level involves a sort of instinctive every day attitude where an optimist might tend to always try to make the best of things that happen and grumble only occasionally, while the instinctual pessimist would always be seeing the bad side of what is going on around him or her. The practical optimist might often, I suppose, be a metaphysical pessimist, and vice a versa, though I am not sure how often this is the case. And there are probably cases where the two levels merge, and a pessimist at both levels might be dour and grumpy and also hold that it is a bad thing that life and the universe exist.
I would think that the practical optimist would tend to come across as “merry”, with a good sense of humor, but also might quite often—even usually—be serious. The practical pessimist might not always have a sour expression, but probably a key trait is that there are a great many grudges that weigh on him, and he may sometimes come across as angry at the world.
I do not think that a person who suffers from depression is necessarily a pessimist…I see that ailment as being more subtle, perhaps largely a physical or medical shortcoming.
Perhaps here is a practical test: one may ask oneself if he/she is glad to be alive…glad to have been born. Is the realization of the mere fact of existence a happy grateful thought, or is it a “gee, I wish I had never been born”. I guess a suicidal mood would be one in which one decides to act to take oneself out of existence….such as was evident in the musings in Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be…” soliloquy.

Will the human race be here for thousands, millions or trillions of years? Will war be abolished? Will all of the present religions of the earth become extinct, and new ones take their place. Or will all religions come to be regarded as relics of the infantile imaginings of our race. Will we become, as many have imagined, intermingled with artificial forms of intelligence? Will we become intermingled with alien races of other star systems, perhaps occupying ourselves regions of the universe vastly removed from our present region (new forms of space-time travel having been discovered)? Will humans go through some sort of spiritual metamorphosis such as Arthur C. Clarke has imagined in his novels “Childhoods End” and “2001”? Or are humans just an intermediate stage that is only useful for creating another more important form of life, one we would call artificial (perhaps silicon based)?

I must say that I am puzzled by rather oft-quoted remarks attributed to atheists Richard Dawkins and Stephen Weiberg. Both seem to have said, in effect, that the universe strongly suggests that there is nothing deep or meaningful behind it. Weinberg has been quoted as saying that the more we learn about the universe, the more pointless it seems. Huh? What has been learned in physics that even bears on it being pointless or not pointless. I wish he had given examples. Dawkins has said that the universe appears to be just the kind of place that we would expect if there is no deity involved in making it. Hmmm, again. What kind of evidence would there be if there were a creator behind it, one wonders? Also, in Dawkins’ generally excellent book, “The God Delusion”, I think he may have misrepresented the religious views of Albert Einstein. While some of Einstein’s writings do suggest that he was using “the mind of God” in a purely materialistic sense, in other places it seems to me that Einstein was open to there being some actual Mind behind it all. But there is no doubt that Einstein rejected the Judeo-Christian concepts of God.

The Problem of Identity

There are a number of problems that might be termed “Identity” problems, or issues. Many of these have bothered me all of my life, and I have had trouble even framing some of them in words. But I am going to try here.

Basically, they are all related to “why is something one thing and not another”?

One question is: How does the identity of the whole depend on the identity of the parts?:
I have often heard that our cells that comprise our bodies are replaced every seven years. There is the old classic “Ship Puzzle”, which was apparently posed by the ancient Greek: a ship, lets call it “The Proud Mary”, is replaced one board at a time. As the old boards are taken off, they are placed in a scrap pile. Eventually all of the boards are replaced, so that not one of the original boards is still in the ship. Since this happens gradually, the ship retains its identity as “The Proud Mary” at all times. Then one day, someone goes and puts the original boards all back together and says that one to be the true original ship “The Proud Mary”. The other one, he says, is a copy or duplicate. To some people this seems a frivolous problem, but to me it has always seemed to contain some genuine grounds for puzzlement. This puzzle would seem akin to the issue of how we maintain our personal identity in view of the fact that our individual cells are replaced.

Teleportation of bodies, such as is imagined to be possible in the Star Trek TV show, raises similar, even more daunting, paradoxes. If your molecular configuration is radiated to some other location and reconstructed there, is it really you? What if the original is not destroyed In the process of sending the molecular information? Which is the "real you"?
Consider cloning, which in spite of some the popular misconceptions does not pose an identity problem, any more than does the phenomena of identical twins. A few years back, a sheep was cloned. This caused some controversy. But I do not understand why. I suspect that it threatens people’s underlying concerns about identity, though they do not know that that is the cause of their uneasiness about it. In fact, cloning, in contrast to the teleportation problem, poses no such problems. The cloned organism is a different organism, and as it grows it will have no connection with the cell donating original.

What if my leg were replaced? Would I still be me?--of course, there's no problem with anyone accepting that. What about all of my internal organs being replaced? Again, I don’t think there is any question that it would still be “me”. But what about the brain itself? It appears to be an organ, but it is the one that appears to be responsible for my thoughts, for me being who I am. So if Bob's brain is replaced by Mary’s, isn't the being in Bob’s body now really Mary? That is, the person you would perceive in Bob’s body would in fact be Mary. This would clearly argue that the real me is my brain. Just as the real nature of a computer is defined by its processor and memory. All of the organs and limbs are just “peripherals” that have little to do with the personal identity.

But can we imagine dividing the brain somehow? That is, what if the memories are Bob’s but the processor is Mary’s. Is there some reason why this is inherently a contradictory achievement? Is the person standing in front of you with Bob’s body, Bob’s memories, but Mary’s processor Bob or Mary?

Consider this question: “Can two separate or distinct entities be exactly alike?” In our everyday experience, this is of course not something that would ever occur to us, because compound or complex objects (trees, chunks of concrete, baseballs, rabbits, and so on) always have numerous traits that would allow us to label distinct members of their class. Maybe it is not always evident (as with baseballs where they all look very similar), but surely no one doubts that there are differences that could be discerned upon very close inspection. To carry it even further, we note that even if one insisted that there were no discernible differences, then differences could be added (the basketballs could be numbered, or the owners name etched on the surface somehow, etc.).

I have never heard of any set of parents, or even close friends, who have trouble distinguishing the separate identity of twins (although casual acquaintances may have a great deal of trouble telling them apart). In other words, there are always some small distinguishing characteristics that permit the distinction between them to be made.
But electrons are imagined, in physics, as being fundamentally indistinguishable from each other. The same is true of other sub-atomic particles, and even all molecules or atoms of a given type are identical to each other. But, in our experience, can any entity be exactly the same as all others? What insights into the identity problem can the Pauli exclusion Principle give us? The electrons may be in different states, but in a sense the basic electron is assumed to be in every way identical as every other electron in the universe.

Reflect that physics/chemistry/biology do indeed say that our bodies are comprised of particles, atoms, and molecules. As groups of molecules string together, the possibility of distinguishing the configurations becomes possible.

Is it meaningful to imagine being someone else? Why am I me and not someone else (or how do I know I’m have not been someone else, but have just forgotten?). Maybe the question makes no sense, but why does it seem to arise in our minds? What does it mean when we refer to “being in someone else’s shoes”? We seem to be imagining, at least to some extent, what it would be like to be somebody else? Does this make sense, or can it be in any way imagined to be meaningful? While it seems relatively easy to imagine our selves being positioned somehow in another’s body, that would not really seem to be being them. As Douglas Hofstader asks in his anthology “The Minds Eye”, “What is it like to be a bat”? Does it make any sense to ask this, or related questions, that involve our self being transplanted into some other beings consciousness? Does it depend on whether the transplant involves beings of the same order of complexity and intelligence (i.e., does it make sense among humans, but not between say a bat and a human?). Is it possible that our self will really cycle through all possible people’s lives? Would this be a just eschatology? (sort of an analogy with Feynman’s one electron scattering back and forth in time).
Does this have some bearing on what Christians might believe about the nature of Jesus Christ and the incarnation--that is, is it possible, consistent, or reasonable to imagine that Jesus Christ was God but was somehow limited by having to occupy a physical body?
Ann Rice, in Tales of a Body Thief, simply imagines without dwelling on the difficulties, that such an exchange is possible. In fact, this very ingenious and imaginative author has depicted many variations of the mind-body switch scenario...

Aren’t such moral principles as the “Golden Rule”, and Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” based on the perception that it is possible to imagine being someone else? Maybe even on the possibility that in some sense you are or will be that someone else. You are sympathetic at least in part because you can imagine being them.

Isn’t the Marquis deSade’s arguments that he puts into his philosophical (but perversely randy) villains mouths about how morality is a ruse and that no one really has to care about anyone else base on his perception that we are all utterly removed and detached from each other, that there is no reason to care about another because you will no, can not, could not, ever be that other person.

But where does this stop? That is, how different can the being be before it is clearly impossible to imagine being the other? The old Jewish prayer of thanking God that I am not a woman springs to mind. It seems to assume that “I” could have been either. But does the “I” come into existence after my body, or was it there before? Is this just the issue of whether we have a soul or spirit? (Could this be related to the abortion arguments?)I can imagine being a woman, so it seems to be a reasonable switch. In fact, people even have sex change operations. Does a man really become a woman with such an operation? With the above example involving interchanges or transplants involving Tom’s brain and Mary’s body it seems clear that such a switch is possible or at least plausible.

But what about a being interchanged with another being of a different level of complexity? Of course, this could even be an issue within the human realm: IQs differ (but how widely in an absolute sense?)...But can I imagine being a slug, or a sheep, or any living animal.

What if I maintain that in fact you are always being interchanged with other people? That one moment ago you were John Smith, but now he is you and you are him. He has all of the memories and capabilities of me, and vice-versa. Maybe this just keeps happening, involving large numbers of people (or maybe all people). But his probably makes no sense, as it would be indistinguishable, would it not, from no interchange taking place at all.

And of course the big question: What is it like to not exist? Of course, we have in a sense all known this, as we presumably did not exist before we were born (or if we did, I for one do not remember it). Woody Allen said, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. “To be or not to be” isn’t the only question (even if that is an option, and Hamlet went on to question that)--there is also, what is it like to “not be”?

Related to this is the issue of, or the position of, solipsism, and the question of how this differs from materialism/atheism picture (where death involves annihilation and hence non-existence). In other words (and this is hard to explain, so bear with me), if we are annihilated at death, then for me the universe does not exist anymore. If it is inconceivable or meaningless for me to imagine being another conscious organism or being, then might I just as well argue that for all practical purpose, solipsism is true. At least in a practical sense.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Determinism Part 3: Laplacian Determinism and how we can imagine animals are not bound by it.

Here I want to indulge in some speculations—admittedly a bit “out there”---on how an argument can be made to escape “Type 1 Determinism”. That type of determinism is the mechanism carried to the extreme, and was first advocated, as far as I know, by Laplace. I think it is also sometimes referred to as “naturalism”. In this picture, the universe is really just a collection of “mechanical” entities (particles and fields in the modern view) that obey fixed mechanistic laws, and any collocations of particles that comprise life forms are really just passive puppets moving in external forces. The apparent existence of choice and the ability to initiate movement are regarded as being just an illusion. All the dynamics of the universe, including the behavior of all life forms, is seen as just a huge extension of a small number of particles bouncing around in a box, but is thought to be, in principle, no different. No novelty will really ever emerge, taking the universe as a whole. Time is just an illusion also, because the future is every bit as determined as the past. The universe, as complex as it is, is really just in a static state.

I should point out that the strength of the mechanistic argument in no way depends on any assumption about how complete our knowledge is regarding the laws that matter and fields obey. Rather, it just hinges on the assumption that there are such laws, which may or may not eventually be exhaustively discovered.

It is not easy to see a way out of this mechanistically constrained picture, but I think a way out can be found: I want to suggest that life originated as a kind of Phase transition, maybe analogous in some ways—although far more astounding----to a phenomena such as superconductivity or Bose condensation. Perhaps it is an inherently quantum mechanical transition, involving coherent interactions among the parts of an incipient life system. Now, the “laws of physics” are not, to my notion, really laws in the sense that the particles and fields must “obey” them. Rather, we human observers have inferred that the particles and fields behave in certain ways that can be described by laws, which usually take the form of equations. These behavioral laws have been abstracted from observing non-living stuff, i.e., inanimate matter, matter that is not in the phase transitioned state we call life.

So I suggest that a living system involves motions of its constituent particles that are partially but not completely described according to the way inanimate matter behaves. When the phase transition occurs to a non living system---i.e., death occurs—then the motions of the parts of the matter that constituted the living system are again entirely mechanistically determined. Now of course the mechanistic behavior exhibited by non living matter always partially—maybe I should say largely---determine the motion of the living system. If an animal decides to jump, its possible motion is still constrained by gravity. If I jump out of an airplane, gravity will pull me down to earth, but by choosing to maneuver my arms and body in some allowed manner and affecting the drag forces I can still affect the trajectory, at least in some small way. I cannot prevent the ultimate disastrous crash into the surface, but I can slightly alter exactly where and when I hit. The centrifugal force of a turning car we ride in will affect our body, by we could decide to stand or lie down, and hence alter the exact manner of how we are pushed or shoved by the apparent inertial force.

Now one might protest that Quantum mechanics is still deterministic, and that postulating that life systems are quantum mechanical does not afford a way out of mechanism. The argument would go that there is still a wave function of the total Universe, and this evolves deterministically when all forces, energies, and fields are accounted for. But as I understand Quantum mechanics, the wave function collapses to a definite state only when a conscious subject interferes with the surrounding physical system, makes a measurement of it in effect, and forces it into some definite state that we can understand ‘classically”. So the point is that we have no reason to think we can apply the ideas of quantum mechanics to the Universe as a whole, since conscious beings are known to be part of the Universe. Only a being outside the Universe could view it as being deterministic. Conscious beings within it can only look at portions of the non living world, and it begs the question to try to imagine that we can talk about the wave function of the universe, as that would require a conscious being or beings outside the universe. It can only be a part of the universe that is described by a wave function.

Once the phase transition to a proto living system occurred, I can imagine that it “gave off fragments of itself” that remain in a coherent state. Rather in the way that a small fire might give off sparks that give rise to other small fires. Evolution, as imagined by conventional evolutionary biology (Darwin-Dawkins) might then occur. Perhaps a contributing factor to the first phase transition to life might have been the radical non-equilibrium nature of the earth-sun interaction, to take an example from earth.

Is this a form of “Cartesian Dualism”? No not really; rather it is just an argument that the laws of physics that apply to inanimate matter only partially apply to living matter, a collection of matter that has gone through a phase transition to a coherent state that can initiate motions not determined by all the rest of the matter and energy in the universe. Maybe we could say that universe is so configured that it permits the phase transition to living, and perhaps ultimately conscious, sub-states.

Now, this argument does nothing to escape from Type 2 Determinism---the idea that an information system can only do what its hardware and its experiences lead it to do (and well, we can throw in random, or haphazard influences as well). None of these leave any room for that odd ability we all think and assume we have, namely free will. I want to turn to that next—so, “to be continued”.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

More about Determinism

This is a continuation of the last blog entry dealing with the conflicts between the two types of determinism and our commonly held belief that we all have free will.

If we buy the idea that physics applies to everything—that is, that in principle everything is reducible to physics—then Type 1 determinism is inescapable. The universe is just a set of particles and energy fields which evolve according to set rules of behavior. It does not matter if the particles and fields are the ones we think we know of today, or whether the laws of physics that we think we know are even correct, or even approximately correct. The point is that the perspective of physics assumes that there are laws, and that all is mechanism deep down. The “conglomerates” that form, whether they are rocks, planets, molecules, or animals are not only subject to these laws, but all of the behavior of these forms is basically mechanical. The apparent ability of life forms to initiate movement is in this picture an illusion.

This picture is not changed even if we imagine that the idea of parallel universes is valid, for in the sense I am using the word universe it applies to everything that is, all of reality, whether we can see or detect it or not. Nor does anything change in this mechanistic picture if we suppose that the laws of physics or the associated “physical constants” change with time, provided we assume that there is some “meta law” that prescribes how these change.

To formalize this argument in a simple way, let’s denote the universe (in the sense described above) as U. Let’s imagine that a particular object (a clump of “stuff”) within it is X, and further that X is an animal that seemingly can spontaneously decide to initiate movement or action. On the mechanistic view, U’s future state is in entirely determined, as is every portion of it, including the component X. In fact, in a sense, there is no “future’ in this picture, because if we include time as a parameter, U is simply static. Let’s also imagine that there are no other life forms other than X---that is, U-X is non-life, so that from X’s viewpoint U-X is only undetermined because of his own influence on it. That is, X “imagines” that it is free to move and to create a future for itself that is not determined in advance. And since its “stuff” is part of U, it influence through mechanistic interactions U-X. But in the mechanistic view, X is not justified in believing this (of course, this belief is forced on X in the deterministic picture, which is just one of the many absurd aspects): X is just a portion of U, and evolves without any novelty emerging …all is essentially static, time is just a parameter. The future state is entirely fixed, and nothing creative or surprising can happen. The closed system never really changes…nor does any portion of it, such as our subject X.

In particular, as I said in the last blog entry, unless we assume that life forms are somehow different and at least partially outside the mere influence of mechanical forces, this picture is inescapable. Now if we imagine that the U is “tinkered with” on the outside (in some ‘space” or supernatural” realm) then non predictability enters, but it is not really due to the spontaneous motion of the animals(X’s), but rather it is being altered intermittently (or perhaps constantly) by an outside agent. This still does not seem to offer an escape from mechanism with the U….it just means that the U is an “open system”. It might still be closed, but at a “higher level” than U. Maybe we call refer to a meta U, U*, or something along that line.

Now, I argued in the previous blog entry that Type 2 determinism (the view that nature plus nurture plus randomness causes all animal behavior) is incompatible with the above Type 1 determinism. Type 2 tends to be the favored paradigm of the modern person, especially the social scientists of today (who also usually emphasize the “nurture” side of the mix, possibly for “politically correct” motives). If we try to imagine that both Type 1 determinism and Type 2 hold, then the behavior of X would seem to be “over-determined”. That is, the action of X must be “caused” (the premise of both types of determinism), and the action cannot be caused at once by both mechanisms. Either physics mechanisms (broadly understood) or nature plus nurture plus randomness must cause the animal’s action at any given time, not both.

Now, maybe the advocates of Type 2 really believe in Type 1, but think that this is not a useful picture, any more than it would be to try and understand the behavior of a computer purely in terms of the electron motions and currents in the wires and chips. That is, the Type 2 advocate might claim that they are taking a higher level of integration perspective, recognizing that, at some unfathomable level, Type 1 still rules. OK, but this would be beside the point philosophically---the point is that I do not see how one can avoid accepting Type 1 unless one postulates that life is something fundamentally different than the non-life stuff that obeys deterministic (mechanistic) laws. There is no way to get outside of this deterministic picture otherwise.

The key ingredient that is left out of this picture is “consciousness”, which is surely the most amazing and mystifying phenomena in the universe. Does anyone doubt that nebula and planetary system are subject to purely mechanical forces, and in fact would be totally determined by mechanical forces if there were no consciousness in the universe to inject novelty? Now, galaxies and nebula we know from Hubbell can be amazing and surprising to us viewing them, much in the way that fireworks displays astonish and wow us…but no one would claim these is any novelty in the sense of these being anything unpredictable in their behavior.

Somewhat oddly, it seems to be the people in the hard science of physics that tend to speculate that all is not physics. For example, the well known theoretical physicist A. Zee, in his masterful popular science book Fearful Symmetry says

“Ultimately, the discussion [regarding consciousness] comes down to the question of whether science can explain life; that is, whether there is a “life force”, for lack of a better term, outside the purview of rational thought. Is human consciousness merely the result of a bunch of neurons exchanging electromagnetic pulses? Is the thinking brain just a collection of quarks, gluons, and leptons” I don’t think so. Do I have a cogent reason? No, it is just that, as a physicist, I do not have enough hubris to believe that physics can be all encompassing……”.

I am pleased to see that I am in such good company in questioning whether all is mechanism. And today it must be hard for anyone in physics or cosmology to be smugly dogmatic in the opposite direction, in view of the recent discoveries of dark energy and dark matter. Though these do not fall outside the realm of mechanism, they do suggest we might be in for a lot of surprises about the nature of reality. And though I do not want to go into this here, some of the recent work in quantum mechanics suggests non local effects in the universe that seem to violate the classical thinking of cause and effect in a space time continuum.

But after all of this, I have to say that I find it very hard to escape from Type 2 determinism. What other factors could possibly be involved in a mental or physical decision and action? There seems to be no way to even frame the concept of “free will” that involves any factor outside of the nature-nurture-randomness axis. Anyone that is at all interested in this free will issue should read Martin Gardner’s chapter on this in his book “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener”. In this brilliant essay, “Why I am not a Determinist or a Haphazardist” (the latter being the term he uses for a person believing that human action is caused by random influences), Gardner considers the relevant views of a great many philosophers and artists: Immanuel Kant, William James, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sarah Teasdale, Alfred North Whitehead, C. S. Lewis, Spinoza, Samuel Johnson, and H. L. Mencken, to list just a few. Gardner seems to conclude that the best we can do when considering the issue of free will and determinism is to fathom its incomprehensibility.

[to be continued]

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Two flavors of determinism

Imagine a universe that is simply set of particles in a box with hard reflecting walls. Let there be n particles, and imagine that they interact with each other according to some fixed set of mechanical laws (these laws need not be the Newtonian laws we are familiar with). The particles can bounce off each other as well as off the walls, they can be sticky so that they sometime form clusters, and they exert forces on each other and can alter trajectories through some kind of force fields. But it is a closed system, and in a sense it is a static situation: the future follows without any novelty from the state of the system at any given time. The future is an illusion in this mechanical universe, and time is simply a parameter.

For example, suppose n = 1. The simple particle just bounces around like some simple kind of “pong” game, where its collision with the walls is the only thing that can happen. Make it two particles, n = 2, and it isn’t really any more interesting, although now there are some times where the particles might bounce off each other. No matter how big we make n, the situation, in principle, stays the same. It is a strictly deterministic system, closed, and no novelty can emerge.

In such a system, if conglomerates of many particles form, maybe they will appear to make complex motions and would, were anyone watching it from without, maybe appear to be alive and initiating such motion voluntarily. But we can see this is would be an illusion….it is still the forces within the closed system that are completely determining the evolution of the system.

Such a picture of our universe was, I think, what Laplace had in mind. Indeed, here is his famous quote about it (taken from the Wikipedia site on Laplace):

“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

The term “Laplacian Determinism” is often used to describe this vision of the universe, and within this picture all animal activity in particular is imagined to be caused by forces on the particles comprising the animals. The seeming ability of life forms to initiate motion and perform actions is an illusion in such a model. Otherwise the actions of an animal would be over-determined---that is, one could not introduce voluntary action in this model, as it would result in inconsistencies.

Here I am going to call this “Type 1 Determinism”. It is my suspicion that no one really believes in this type of determinism today. Rather the determinists of our age generally seem to subscribe to a “higher level” of determinism.

I will refer to this as “Type 2 Determinism”. In this picture, the emergence of novel forms and animals that can in a sense initiate motion and actions is not contested, but it is argued (maybe even subconsciously in a great many cases) that an animal can only act based on its physical nature in concert with its memory of lessons learned from the past. This is analogous to what we think about the PC’s on our desks or our laptops. They have a certain physical architecture and hardware (which is analogous to the bodies and genes we are born with), but a wide variety of applications (programs) have been installed that make each computer virtually unique. But the computer cannot initiate anything….its behavior is entirely set by its resident programs and its basic hardware (the hardware that the computer was first configured with plus any hardware devices that have been added).

Perhaps we can add the possibility that “randomness” could also be involved. The animal, as well as the computer, could be hit by a cosmic ray that flips a bit or diverts a neuron. Chance meetings and exchanges with other animals could be included here, or they could be counted as environmental interactions.

So hardware plus installed programs plus random interactions with the environment seem to exhaust the possibilities here. How could an animal, in particular a human with conceptual awareness, perform an action for any reason other than these three? Action has to be caused does it not? It does no good to say it is caused by ones free will, for there seems to be no way to even frame that in a way that does not involve these deterministic factors.

In contemporary terminology hardware corresponds to "nature" (i.e., genes), while the acquired experience (analogous to installed software) corresponds to "nurture". There has been an ongoing battle between these two camps in recent decades, although it seems that today most everyone accepts that both nature and nurture play important roles in how people behave. But both of these mechanisms are deterministic, and if they are considered to exhaust the causes of action, leave no room for free will.

Let me add that in no way do quantum mechanics or chaos theory present ways out of either Type 1 or Type 2 Determinism. The former still involves deterministic evolution of a state, while chaos simply limits an observer’s ability to precisely predict the future. And if quantum computers become available, it is not clear how they could escape the limits of hardware plus installed programs.

Yet the odd thing is that I believe that we all assume that we have free will (we may well assume that other people do not, however). I emphasize that this is not a conscious assumption in many cases (though among philosophers and physical scientists it may often be so). As far as I can tell, there is no mass movement to stop punishing crime, although it is not clear how anyone could attach blame to an entity limited by “Type 2” (or Type 1) determinism.

My intent in this particular note is not to solve the problem of how humans might nevertheless have free will---indeed, I do not think it can be solved----rather, I just want to illuminate the fact that the kind of determinism that so many 19th century scientist and philosophers believed in was different than the form generally accepted in our age (especially by those trained in the social sciences).

But the puzzle has some confusing aspects to it: for one thing, I think both types of determinism are plausible and persuasive, and yet they logically collide. That is, they cannot both be true. It would have to be one or the other that specify behavior, because taken together they would over determine it. Type 1, though apparently largely ignored today, really seems to be hard to argue against. Isn’t it just physics carried to its logical, reductionist conclusion? And do we really think there is anything in the universe other than entities that are subject to the laws of physics? On the other hand, Type 2 Determinism also seems very cogent, for what else could determine our behavior, other than our accumulated past experiences acting in concert with our genetic makeup?

So to summarize: we have an enigma. There are two distinct, mutually incompatible forms of determinism. Both cannot be right, because either physics mechanism or nature/nurture must cause behavior. Yet both seem like they have to be correct. And on top of that we all seem to believe we have free will, which is clearly incompatible with both Type 1 and Type 2 determinism. Philosophy----“ya gotta love it!” If nothing else, it should keep us humble, and just reveling in the mystery is enough for me. And, OK, it is fun too!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Thinking on the Vastness of the Universe

The Universe is very, very big…I think we all know that. Probably most people don’t think about that very much, as it doesn’t really impact their everyday lives. But I’ll bet that a significant number of us love to think about it, and find it a source of awe and wonder.

And some that think about it seem to find it existentially disturbing. A good example is the attitude consistently expressed by the great cosmic horror writer, H. P. Lovecraft, whose stories often refer to "vast gulfs of time and space”, and tend to regard human beings as insignificant when compared to the vastness of time and space.

In his short story “The Call of Cuthulu”, Lovecraft begins with:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity……some day the piercing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we will either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Lovecraft combined this feeling for the awesome sweep of space and time with a sort of gothic blackness along with a distinctly misanthropic tendency. In particular, one feels that to some extent he was using the hugeness of things to show how puny the affairs of humans are. This is, I think, a bit of a fallacy, because our importance (or lack thereof) should not really have anything to do with our relative size.

The attitude that the magnificent size of the universe does render us insignificant is brilliantly spoofed in Monty Python’s film, “The Meaning of Life”, in the “live liver donor” scene: in this skit, some medical technicians collecting organs from donors try to convince a woman to let them rip out her liver while she is still alive. To persuade her, they materialize a guy (Eric Idol) in a vested suit who sings a catchy song to her about the dimensions of the cosmos. Interestingly, the lyrics to the song appear to be based on, for the most part, reasonable estimates of galactic and cosmic parameters. The skit can be viewed on the web, and the lyrics to the “Galaxy Song” can be found at many sites. My interpretation of this scene is that it shows that our personal pain and agony are real, essentially filling ones "subjective universe", and the size of the universe is irrelevant to making a decision involving subjecting oneself to live liver removal.

In the case of Lovecraft, I think there was a another attitude at work with him, in that he was truly fascinated by physics and cosmology (probably way ahead of his time in that regard) and his cosmic horror fantasies allowed a playful way for him to indulge the emotion and to stretch his imagination.

Another person who made some relevant remarks about the dread that can accompany thinking on the cosmos, and man’s place within it, was the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. For example, some of my favorite Pascal quotes (taken from his work “Pensées” of 1670) are:

“Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

“Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.”

“[I feel] engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me.”

Note that, in that last quote, Pascal throws in the interesting twist that it is the “eternal silence” of the spaces that he finds scary. I wonder if by that he meant that we earthbound animals seem to be totally alone? Or did he mean something else by it? In any case, I find it to be a nice poetical touch.

I think everyone can agree on the utter impossibility of really comprehending the galactic and cosmic sizes and characteristic times the way we would with most everyday objects and events. However, we can write down the numbers, and, in a way, understand the magnitude of what is involved. The use of analogous ratios can help put things in some perspective, and give some insights. Some of these will be considered below.

Based on information gleaned from various wikipedia sites (1,2), the following are some of the dimensions characterize galaxies and the cosmos:
(1) A typical galaxy diameter ranges from 1000 to 100,000 parsecs, or about 3000 to 300,000 light years. This is about 20 million billion miles at the small end of the range…wow, an inconceivable distance, really.
(2) A galaxy can contain anywhere from 1E7 to 1E12 stars…that is, ten million to a trillion.
(3) A typical spacing between galaxies is even bigger, perhaps about 1 Mega-parsecs, or 3 million light years. Thus, the distance between galaxies is about 10 to 1000 times the size of a galaxy.
(4) The number of galaxies in the universe has been estimated to be about 1E11, or a hundred billion (the Monty Python song actually overestimates the number of galaxies as being “millions of billions”---so maybe hold on for giving up that liver!).
(5) The average density of the universe is very small, about 30 orders of magnitude smaller that the density of water.
(6) The estimated radius of the “known universe” is 46 Billion Light Years.

A number of amusing examples can be considered to give some insight into these facts.

The average size of an atom (e.g., Helium) is about 100 pico-meters (or an angstrom, 1E-10 meters). The spacing between molecules in a gas at 1 atmosphere is about 3 nano-meters, or about 30 times the size of an atom. It is amusing to note that this is in the range of the ratio of a larger galaxy to a typical inter-galactic spacing.

How long would it take for a jet airplane to cover the distance equal to the diameter of a typical galaxy? If we take the small end of the range, 20 Million Billion miles, and consider the plane to fly at a steady 500 mph, this is over 4 billion years. Longer than the time that life has been on the earth. Indeed, it takes 3000 years for light to cross it, which of course is what 3000 light years means. And since a jet flies about a million times slower than light speed, it takes it a million times longer to traverse a given distance. If we consider a plausible spacecraft traveling a hundred times faster than a jet, it would take it a mere 40 million years to cross this ‘small” galaxy. We can see that any kind of conventional spacecraft will not be able to do the kinds of exploration depicted in the Alien movies. Now, if Star-trek like “warp speed” or worm-hole travel becomes possible, who knows what the limits might become (maybe there would be none).

So, a galaxy can contain a trillion stars. Consider the human body—according to most of the web sites (do a google search on “how many cells in a human body”) there are about 50 trillion, more than the number of stars in the largest galaxies.

According to point (5) in the above list, the average density of the matter in the universe works out about to correspond to about one hydrogen atom per cubic meter. (Cosmologist Alan Guth has been quoted as saying that this is about 10 million times a better vacuum that can be attained in our laboratories). This low density seems to suggest that the universe is mostly nothing. If one can buy that, the answer to the old puzzle, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” would be, “Well, it is nothing”. Maybe that would be an amusing quip. But seriously, there are significant regions of the universe where “something” is clearly happening….not only galaxies and black holes and Quasars, but the amazing, seemingly so unlikely, phenomena of life (at least on one planet that we know of).

Now consider the range of the number of stars (1E7 to 1E12) in a galaxy. If we scale the population of Tokyo (12 million) to the larger number, then the smaller galaxy corresponds to about 100 people. Hmmm….we wouldn’t call that a city or even a town, really. Makes you wonder if cosmologists are right in classifying the small guys as galaxies?

But another kind of vastness arises when we consider how small things can be. If string theory is right….I have no idea if it is, nor, I suspect, does anyone else….then the smallness is equally baffling, and can be somewhat scary also. According to string theory, the characteristic dimension of strings is ~ 1E-35 meters, about 20 orders of magnitude smaller that the nucleus of an atom (a proton or neutron, of which several make up a nucleus, are about a femto meter, 1E-15 m, in extent), and this in turn is many orders of magnitude smaller than the typical size of atoms (1E-10 meters). And bigger yet, though still small by macroscopic standards, a typical human cell has a characteristic dimension of the order of ten microns.

A fascinating video, “Powers of Ten” can be watched on the Internet. It is based on a program and a book created by Philip and Phylis Morrison. This brilliant show takes you in steps of ten in both directions from the human scale dimension of one meter, down to the string theory dimension of the small side, and up to cosmic dimensions on the big side.

There is something about all of this that I find stranger, or perhaps I should say more unsettling, than the awesomeness of all these cosmic scale comparisons. Namely, that there must be countless trillions of planets out there that are solid like our planet, and contain rocks, mountains, and maybe even some water. Although some tiny fraction of these might support life, probably the vast majority of them do not, and in fact no conscious observer will ever see any aspect of them from close quarters, or walk around on them. And yet, if any of us were there, we could see them, touch them, etc (provided a suitable space suit environment were provide us, of course). It makes you think about the objective reality of the physical world. Is it really “there”, if no one ever sees it? I suppose I believe it is, but it gives me an odd felling. Much the same feeling is evoked in thinking about our planet in the millions of years it existed without any life yet present. Yet all of that time the wind blew, seas and storms raged, and so on. It suggests something along the lines of the old puzzle “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound”? Many regard such a question as silly, or rather one that just requires an analysis of what is meant by “make a sound”…..but to me the question is not so silly, and makes us dwell on what is meant by objective reality. In what sense are all of these portions of the universe that will never be observed objectively real?…does this kind of thing perhaps hint as to why consciousness exists?…that is, does it suggest the necessary, or at least important, role of conscious observers? But in any case, at the present time and into the near future, all of us humans, no matter how well traveled or worldly we are, will observe and interact with only the most minute portion of the universe.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this, and I find it emotional to think about, is that we human beings have evolved from apes in just a finite number of generations (an almost "countable" of them, perhaps on the order of a million) …and we remain genetically very similar to chimpanzees, according to most evolutionary biologists. Isn’t it stunning to realize that we, related so closely to our ancestral apes, can now can grasp some truths about the physical universe, a universe that is so far “out there” from us and in a sense so far below us in size. I am sure that at the present time there is still much to learn. I know a lot of people, outside of science usually, that seem to almost enjoy gloating about how “we really don’t know much of anything”. Well, for my money the human race will continue to learn more about physical reality, and it will continue to amaze us, and the more stunning it will be the more that is learned.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What causes aging?

In Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) the elves are immortal in the sense that they do not die of old age. They can, of course, be killed by accidents or in battle, be murdered, etc. Man, by contrast, is “doomed to die”, the phrase that appears in the poem about the Nine Rings that opens the novel. Of course, JRRT had a Christian perspective, and viewed an inherent mortality as a planned condition that is part of a scheme to save humankind from a worst fate that would await him if death did not deliver him from the corrupting evils of a “fallen world”. It presumes a sort of “planned obsolescence” that would pave the way for a second life that would, presumably, be free from such spiritually corrupting influences.

Well, me, while I love the mystery and the strange ambiance of LOTR, I don’t know anything for certain about any such second lives. For one thing, I cannot imagine what reality such a second life might be like, and in particular how it might be free from the potential for evil. But this is a complicated issue, to say the least, and it is not what I want to dwell on at the moment. Rather, all this leads me to thinking: what is the scientific reason for the human body ageing and, on a time scale of-- for most of us--- “four score” (80 years), rather rapidly wearing out and dying of “old age”? (if something else doesn’t get us first, of course.)

I always look at such issues from the game theory perspective of evolutionary biology. And it seems to me that the situation of Tolkein’s elves suggests the reason for the body wearing out and the body’s processes grinding to a halt. Namely, there is some expectation value of elapsed time before an accident causes death, and nature does not want to waste any efforts in assuring that the body and mind will last much beyond that average time interval. By the way, by “accidental death” I mean to include all of the causes of death that are not associated with the total body simply wearing out. That is, everything except “dying of old age”.

It is often noted that once the organism has produced offspring, and has ceased being fertile, we can expect it to be on borrowed time for some interval after that. But this begs the question. Why is fertility of finite duration? I suspect that the answer is again, that there is little to be gained by engineering a body that can continue to reproduce for a time that greatly exceeds the temporal expectation value for accidental death.

The wikipedia page on fertility in both human males and females has, in this regard, an unsatisfactory section called “the cause of the decline”. But the title of this section is incorrect because it really just deals with the statistics on when fertility falls off. In other words, it does not address what the real cause of the decline is.

I want to add---perhaps unnecessarily—that when I speak of such things as “nature engineering something” I do not mean that I impute conscious design to any entity outside of nature, or to nature herself. I view this in a Smithsonian sense as being one of those phenomena under the control of an invisible hand, and consider genetic evolution to be a sort of computer that through natural selection reaches an optimal solution.

I look forward to looking into the popular evolutionary literature on what is thought to cause aging and death. The above comments are really intended to simply raise the issue, and I plan to revisit the topic after I have done a bit of research. I noted today a chapter in J. Diamond’s book “The Third Chimpanzee” that speculates about the issue of aging, and I plan to read that first.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Concerning putting "In God We Trust" on Coins

A friend sent me one of those “pass this on to everyone you know” emails today. I don’t think I have ever actually passed such an email on, and I certainly did not this one, mainly because I couldn’t disagree with it more.

The post---which turns out to be wrong--- said that there is a new US dollar coin out that does not have “In God we Trust” on the coin (I shall assume that I am not being naïve, and falling for some kind of gag….at first I thought it was something like that). The post went on to urge everyone to boycott the coin, that is, to refuse to accept it for monetary exchanges.

The fact is that the coin does contain the “In God We Trust” inscription on the edge of coin. I think this is unfortunate. It would be better if it were entirely absent.

I claim that whether you are Christian, Deist, Atheist, etc, you should in fact insist that all references to any Deity be absent from all government issues. Now, maybe there are other reasons for resisting the circulation of a new coin---though I cannot imagine what they might be---but one should not resist the circulation on religious grounds, regardless of his or her affiliation.

Here is the main reason why: we have, and should have, a secular government. Having such is in fact a requirement of a state that insures freedom of religion. It is unfortunately true that the “founding fathers” did put the term God into some of the founding documents, but a clear reading of the climate in which these things were created shows it to be a rather generalized term for a common ideal, not a theistically conceived God. In particular, there is, as far as I can tell, no mention of Christianity or Jesus in any of the state papers. The spirit of that age, which gave rise to a free society, and put an end to any justification of there being a “Divine Right of Kings”, was that of the Enlightenment. While many of the framers of the American documents claimed to be Deists, some were Christians, but I believe all felt that religious freedom was vital, and that adherence to a state recognized religion was very wrong.

What is a person thinking that says such things as “Now, especially in these dire times, we do not want to remove God from our coins!” Do they think that God will look favorably upon the citizens living under a government that puts His Name on government property? That He will favor a society that does this, and tend to bring misfortune on a country having a secular government? To me this is absurd, even from---or maybe I should say especially from---a Christian perspective. As I recall, there is a scene in the New Testament where Jesus asks whose image is on a coin, Caesar or God’s----the clear intent of it is that it is Caesar’s. He does not say that it should be God’s--- rather it is, I think, implied that a government is by its nature neutral from a religious perspective. Some Christians may disagree with my interpretation, but I hope they will at least think about mine. (Speaking for myself, I am an agnostic, not a Christian, but I believe I can see things from their perspective).

Do they think they are going to “fool God”, and He will think favorably of people who hypocritically put His name on coins and intone it in state-related oaths? And why pretend that we all have essentially the same concept of God? I am pretty sure that this is not the case, even among the various Christian denominations, even less so among the different religions represented within the United States.

There is the practical issue that it sets a very bad precedent. How will such precedents play in the future? Suppose “God” gets changed to “Allah”. Granted, Christianity is no doubt a majority religion at the present time, but this may not remain true in the more distant future. If you are Christian or Jewish, think how you would feel if the coins were minted with Allah on the face. Not happily, I am pretty sure. And in any case, it is central to the idea of religious freedom to protect the rights of those belonging to minority religions (or to no religion at all).

Everyone should rejoice that we have a government that makes no reference to any particular religion, even allowing for a more generalized concept of a Deity. Look around the world and observe how so many states have a dogma ingrained into their government. There are of course dogmatically infested states that are godless, but these seem to often involve the worship of an “Emperor” or such, and in effect are a sort of theocracy (think of North Korea). Theocracies abound, and the irony is that the US is at odds (even if not actually at war) with many of them. And quite often these theocratic governments are flagrant violators of human rights; I doubt that this is a simple coincidence.

As far as the government is concerned, let it be neutral about the existence of a Deity. This issue should be left to each individual’s conviction (and of course to the churches, denominations, or sects to which an individual freely chooses to belong), even if some decide that there is no such being
God, if He exists, will be able to tell who believes and who does not. Above all, He would not be fooled by a cheap and unjustifiable ploy of putting his name on coins, thus surely making hypocrites of a great many citizens.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Resolution of the "Unexpected Hanging Paradox"

The Unexpected Hanging Paradox:

Here is a short version of a paradox that has intrigued me since I was in college: A condemned prisoner is told by the warden on a Sunday evening that he will be executed at noon on one of the upcoming weekdays, i.e., M-Tu-W-Th or F, but he will not know in advance which day it is until the time comes. The day of his hanging will be a “surprise”. The prisoner reasons that if Thursday noon passes and he has not yet been hung, then he can rule out Friday since that is the only day left and then he would know what day he was to die, in violation of the conditions specified by the warden. But having crossed Friday off the list, he quickly realizes that he can cross Thursday off too, since once Wednesday noon is past Thursday is the only day left (since he has already eliminated Friday). Going on this way, he realizes that he can eliminate all 5 weekdays, one by one, and he is happy to realize that he cannot therefore be hung (let’s say that he strongly believes the warden to be a truthful man). But here is the (sad) paradox…the executioner comes to his cell on (say) that Wednesday, and informs him that he is now to be hung. His last thoughts before dying are that the warden indeed spoke the truth: that he, the prisoner, was indeed going to be hung, and he was certainly surprised by it too. Where did his reasoning go wrong? It seemed so logical that he could not be hung if the warden was telling the truth……and yet, in the end, the warden did tell the truth. Seemingly, a paradox!

The Resolution:

Here is my understanding of the resolution of the paradox (and I think I follow, essentially, Martin Gardner’s explanation from his book with the paradox as the title). The prisoners’ reasoning goes wrong on the very first step. He cannot rule out Friday even if Thursday noon has come and gone. In somewhat formal logic terms, I see it as follows. Let the wardens statement to the prisoner be written as C =A + B, where A = “you will be hung”, and B = “you will not know in advance of the day of the deed”. First, suppose A = true. That would mean that B = false, and hence C = A + B = false. Next, suppose instead that B = true. Then this would mean that either A or “not A” can be true; if A is true, then C = A + B is true, and if instead "not A" is true, then C = A + B is false. This makes sense because even if he doesn’t know the day of the hanging, then he could still either be hung or not hung. Thus, considering all of the above possibilities, we see that C can be true or false. It could just as well turn out to be true as it could turn out to be false. So, if it turns out after the fact that C is true, this does not really entail a contradiction. What the prisoner should have realized is that the warden’s statement could turn out to be true or false, and since he could not be sure ahead of time what the truth value was, he could not logically deduce the outcome from it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

More on the topic of concealed ovulation in humans

There was an entry in this blog a few weeks about what seemed to me to be a puzzle, namely, how can we understand “concealed ovulation” in humans from the perspective of evolutionary biology. I recently happened upon the book “The Third Chimpanzee” by evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond. He writes, on page 78 of my paperback copy, that “…the most hotly debated problem in the evolution of human reproduction is to explain why we ended up with concealed ovulation….”.

I suppose I must admit I found it gratifying that at least I wasn’t being a dunderhead in writing about this puzzle. That is, if distinguished professional biologists cannot agree on the reason for this trait, then a layman in the area (such as myself) certainly has the right to be puzzled by it.

At any rate, Diamond goes on to say that there are at least six current theories about why the trait evolved. As I understand his more lengthy explanations, it evolved for one of the following reasons:
1. To enhance cooperation among males (he considers this one to be rather male chauvinist for some reason)
2. To cement the bonds between mates
3. To enhance the probability of the female to receive her fair portion of meat from male hunters
4. To force the male into a permanent marriage bond (he considers this one to be “gender neutral” in a gender politics context)
5. To encourage seevral males to help her, and to at least not kill the infant (this one, by Sarah Hrdy, he applauds as a welcome “feminist” perspective)
6. Because a woman that had a tendency to conceal ovulation could not avoid the risk and pain of childbirth, and hence left more descendants that did those that did not conceal it (this is the theory that Nancy Burly suggested in about 1979, and the one that I mentioned as being a common sense explanation in my earlier post).

I find it rather regrettable that Diamond seems to place so much emphasis on being politically correct. For example, he approves of number 5 because it “overturns masculine sexism and transfers sexual power to women”. This seems an odd reason to like a hypothesis, for shouldn’t scientific truth be the only guide for favoring an explanation of any natural phenomena? Nevertheless, the several pages he devotes to this issue involve some intriguing speculation, and I find it quite interesting.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Would you do it all over again?

A friend of mine recently asked me if I would live life all over again if I had a chance. Clearly an academic question, but it leads to some interesting speculations, and of course some juicy metaphysical questions.

He first phrased the question, or maybe I should say “posed the thought experiment”, in a way that suggested that I might be a baby again, identical to what I was at birth. Well, of course, right away that brings up the questions, “what is meant by identical”, and “would I know as a baby what I know now?”. Otherwise, I might note, I would probably repeat many of the mistakes and committed the same foolish acts that I have in this life. But what would it even mean, to have the knowledge that one has now? Surely, there is no way to model how a baby, in the true sense of that term, could have the conceptual knowledge that an adult has. A baby has to learn language and concepts, and so there just seems to be no way to make sense out of that idea.

It also raised the question of, “would the world go back to being the exact state it was in when I was a baby?” (we are having fun here, remember, not taking the possibility of this return to a baby thing seriously, but just dancing around some peculiar conceptual problems of identity that I want to return to in a minute). One might imagine, or for the present purposes model, one’s life as a movie, and this would amount to rewinding the film and having it played again. It seems like this would be a meaningless action to choose to do even if one could. What would be the point?…..wouldn’t everything just unfold again the same way (well, maybe, or maybe not, given the possibly chaotic nature of such a historical re-enacting)?

And one might even say, how do I know that hasn’t in fact been done, many times or an infinite number of times, already, in some sense (think of Nietzsche’s idea of “eternal recurrence”). But there would seem to be no point in it……and who would be behind it (what entity or being), and to what purpose? Improvement in one’s character? Hmmm---but without any memory, or at least faint recollections, of the previous cycles, how could one “learn from ones mistakes”?

Some of this territory was explored, or maybe I should say suggested to the philosophically minded viewer, in the film “Groundhog Day”, where a man (Bill Murray) lives one particular day over and over, only seemingly dimly aware that he has done it before, and has repeatedly botched it in some way (the idea was to get him to improve to a point where he was worthy of the female star that he hoped to win over, an unfortunately rather trivial spiritual “chick-flicky” motive for bettering oneself).

Now suppose one agreed to become a baby again, but without the amassed knowledge or memory of his life up through adulthood, and placed in the world in its present state. Well, now we move into a more practical area, as it is interesting to note that one could almost do that now (or probably would be able to in the not too distant future): one would simply have oneself cloned, then one would immediately commit suicide. The cloned cell would develop eventually into a baby, very nearly identical to what you looked like at birth (some inert gestational induced variations might be present, but these would presumably be very small). This illuminates the identity issue that of course your clone would not have your personal consciousness, and would not in any sense of the word, be “you”. But wouldn’t it be essentially the same kind of transformation of somehow magically returning the present you to a baby state, without implementing any of the acquired knowledge or character into the baby?

The same kind of issues arise with the concept of human teleportation, such as is depicted in “Star Trek” (“Beam me up Scotty”). How would one ever know that the teleported human had the essential consciousness, the same sense of being oneself as the original being had? This raises the question of what is consciousness, and what constitutes the peculiar fact of conscious identity. This even arises when we realize that our cells are replaced every so often, such that after several years we are not exactly the same person we were earlier. I suspect this is what bothered the ancient Greeks in their “ship paradox” (although they would have known nothing about cell development and replacement, they would have known that people change over time). In what sense do you retain your identity as your body sheds and acquires new “building blocks”?

These issues are explored very insightfully in Chapter 1 of the book “Riddles of Existence” (by Conee and Sider). In my opinion, they do not “solve” the myriad identity problems, but they do rather thoroughly explore the issues.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Moral issues raised by artificial consciousness

I wonder if many people have thought about ethical issues that may be raised by systems that embody artificial intelligence, and that are possibly conscious (but I would guess that anyone who has seen Spielberg & Kubrick’s AI might have). There seems little doubt that humans will eventually, perhaps even soon (on a time scale of tens of years), create artificial systems that exhibit intelligence. The issue will be, of course, are they conscious?
Now, as everyone who has taken a college philosophy class knows, we only infer the consciousness of other humans (and, to some more questionable extent, that of other animals). Each of us only directly knows our own consciousness (thank you, Rene Descartes). Consciousness is subjective, and I do not see any way it can be objectively proven to exist in another entity. While we may all infer it as being virtually certain that biological systems have it, it is by no means clear how we can determine whether a human-made system is conscious. That is, if it has a sense of self. Or, to put it in the terms that present day students of consciousness use, whether a system has that peculiar feeling of what it is like to be someone. But no doubt it will eventually come to seem that some artificially produced systems do have it. How then will we deal with them? Will it be ethical to deny them the rights that humans have? Will it be right to use them as servants or as slaves? Will it be right to terminate their existence, scrap them, and interchange central processors (or whatever would serve as a brain). Can they be punished for “crimes”, or will they be considered as lacking free will and hence be immune from punishment? These questions are just a partial list of any of the issues we could all come up with. Spielberg & Kubrick’s entertaining film aside, how many philosophers have begun to address these issues?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Some Random Thoughts about "What I Believe"

To a reasonably high degree, I believe the following things to be true:
We humans are animals--apes, basically---with brains that have evolved to solve certain mental tasks better than any other animal. This enhanced mental capability is the human animal’s tool of survival. But, reason is very hard for most people when it comes to thinking about things of a more abstract nature, or in the heat of emotion. Our brains are only wired for reason or critical thought in certain kinds of circumstances (e.g., understanding how mechanical things work, predicting danger, how to acquire food or how to obtain sexual gratification).
Everyone is by nature selfish (although the appearance of altruism can be very convincing in some cases, it ultimately serves a genetic succession purpose—or in some cases a socially egoistic purpose).
Biological evolution, per Darwin, Dawkins, etc---has occurred, and explains most of the biological world, including human traits and tendencies.
The “Hell” many religions have imagined to await unbelievers and evil doers does not exist. If there is an afterlife and a God, Hell is not part of the package, at least not in an eternal lasting sense. Rather, Hell is something that certain human institutions have dreamed up to try to scare people into their camp, or in some cases, to enjoyably imagine themselves having the “last laugh” (yes, I fear some people can be that spiteful, although to be fair I don’t think they have really thought about how cruel a wish that is on other people—at least, I hope they don’t). Institutions that have subscribed to the concept have in some cases thrived, because it serves as "an offer you can't refuse" (if you were to be convinced that Hell is real), and hence membership in, and associated donations to, the religion tend to be obtained.
Humor and joyous merriment are great boons to humankind. But humor can sometimes turn nasty, mocking, and cynical, and hence can serve evil purposes.
Morality is not relative. Rather, it is based on human society, the nature of the human being, plus on something along th elines of the “prisoners dilemma" of game theory.
With a somewhat lesser degree of certainty, I am inclined to believe that our brains are not designed to (i.e., have not evolved to be able to) solve the “big metaphysical questions”, for example, that of existence: “why is there something rather than nothing?”; The riddle of free will vs. determinism: “do we have free will, what is free will, etc”; and the mystery of “consciousness” ---who/what has it, how does it emerge from biological tissue, can we create it artificially, etc.
With these issue it seems it is very likely beyond our mental capabilities to even frame the right questions. Rather, the human brain is limited to practical things That is, questions and issues that can be solved by engineering, science, and technology. This we are potentially superb at.
Regarding politics, I think that the “Libertarian” view of limiting the power of the government to securing "negative rights" is correct in most respects. But it will be a long time before most of the earth’s population can be converted to this view. And, there may still be improvements to be made in framing a fully consistent libertarian political philosophy. Socialism in it’s various forms and degrees is wrong, but is at least partly driven by a prevalent human strategy of trying to manipulate other people for one’s own benefit. In particular, it is usually attractive to an “elite class” (many academics, for example) because they resent the success of the practical humans, and sense that a strong central government will actually lead to privileges for the elite class. Of course, Orwell exposed these motives in 1984 and Animal Farm.
My strong suspicion is that the world’s religions are wrong, in most respects. While some may have intuited or captured some of the truth, they have not got most of it right. Among the theistic religions, Christianity is the most plausible and highly developed theoretically (i.e., theologically), while, from the little I know about Buddhism, it seems a reasonable "philosophy" about a lot of things. Hinduism also seems insightful in some ways, from what I have read about it. Islam I would give almost a zero chance of being true.
Now for a few predictions for the distant future. What the human race will likely come to understand, accept, or do eventually.
First, my optimistic, hopeful perspective (my pessimistic, fearful side in a moment): in this first perspective, in most respects, life on the planet will eventually become much much better: It will become widely and generally accepted that religious dogma has no place in the state (government), and should never be coerced, and never be the cause of war (5 to 10 thousand years).
And it will become generally accepted that war is an intolerable evil, and peace will prevail for all the earth (but this will take perhaps 5 to 10 thousand years). Science will learn how life began, and it will be widely accepted and understood (5 to 10 thousand years).
Much more will be learned about whether there is life elsewhere in the universe, but this may not be for a very long time, perhaps eons. New, as yet unimagined, modes of communication and travel will eventually be discovered to make this possible.
Crimes, such as murder and robbery, will become exceedingly rare, if not altogether vanished (this also will take a very long time, something like 5 to 10 thousand years).
Science will continue to progress and learn. In particular, physics, the most basic science, will progress to a point that we can not even imagine right now. A physics book from the year 2500 would completely mystify our most brilliant physicists of today.
Artificial life will be perfected, and robotic forms of life will be virtually indistinguishable from natural. The human body parts will be intermingled and replaced by artificial forms as they wear out or become diseased or injured; at some point, where what is a human and what is a robot will become blurred, as parts are intermingled. Perhaps only the brain will stay organic--or maybe even not that.
The natural life span will be dramatically increased, and disease made much more rare (I doubt that it will be eliminated entirely). Accidents will become less rare, and less fatal due to the availability of artificial parts.
Biases and prejudices (ethnic, racial, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) will eventually vanish, on a time scale of perhaps hundreds of years.
Music will merge into other art forms, although the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart (and others) will remain effective and emotionally edifying to humans (and robots?).

Now, an alternative, Pessimistic view (in this perspective, life on the planet will get worse): The religious dogma will prevail, become embedded in the state (government); at present, it seems like many Muslims would do this if they could.
A nuclear war might occur, or a nuclear device will go off, triggering a catastrophic war, and the state of human society will suffer a great setback.
Governments will gain more power, and a statist world will prevail. This may be driven by an evident human tendency toward envy, which tends to want to create sameness, and equality in all things (like Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House vision).
Some natural catastrophe (like an asteroid) will decimate human civilization, and humankind will revert to a more primitive state.
While I view it as dubious, it is possible that the ecological doomsayers are right, and mankind’s activities will bring about disaster for the planet.
What I definitely do not know or understand:
Why there is anything rather than nothing? (my long time psychological obsession).
If there is a purpose or plan for humankind, by some outside agency…and if there is, what it might be.
If we survive death in any sense…and if so, what might that be like.
If there is a God or gods, how to imagine or model Him/Her/Them.
How to make any sense out of the concept of free will; how to make any sense out of the concept of strict determinism; how to imagine any reasonable alternative, since these seem all inclusive.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Can the stimulus package and the bailouts really help?

Re the stimulus package and the bailout, as of February 2009

I have bad feelings about these things. I haven’t looked into the details, or into all aspects of them. But on very general principles I am inclined to think it will not help pull us out of the bad economic situation we are in. I dearly hope I am wrong.
My reasoning is that neither have much to do with increasing the actual wealth of the US economy. Taking money from the taxpayers---or worse yet printing more money---and doling it back out to the taxpayers seems to be at best a null action, and at worst a step backward.
I suspect that the real problem is that we tend to be too light in terms of production of goods; that is, I think we lack sufficient activities such as manufacturing and invention of new tangible products, which together really constitute the substance of wealth. True, we have an active service sector, which generates a lot of paper products---a few years back in a Dave Barry column he cynically (but insightfully) referred to “that great American product, the polished final report”-----but too much of this seems to be in the realm of government and defense related areas, not in the commercial sectors where it might count the most.
It is true that Americans seem to have become, in the last 20 or so years, the workaholics of the western world, but it is not clear that the kind of work we tend to do contributes much to tangible wealth, but rather is often paper shuffling and services of dubious desirability or worth to the average consumer. Perhaps way too much of it is “white collar” work either aimed at government markets, or aimed at persuading or convincing the general public to buy things that they probably really do not need or want. Perhaps one might say that we have too many MBA’s and lawyers, and not enough people willing to roll up their sleeves and do real work.
Today all companies emphasize growth, but too often this seems to be achieved by shuffling departments around and reorganizing in ways that seem to reduce to value of the service or products to the customers. There is only so far that such cuts and structural redesigns can go toward attaining growth of profits. Eventually gains made in such ways must run dry.Perhaps the deep problem is the decline of the work ethic and true commercial spirit of our nation. All nations rise and fall in time, and perhaps we have passed our zenith. As I said at the start, I certainly hope I am wrong, and that our economy and spirit will bloom once again.