(1/3) “Man fears time…”

 

I have wondered if Imhotep had some hidden meaning in the pyramid. Little is recorded about him, but he lived during the Old Kingdom of Egypt under Djoser. He seems to have been born a commoner, and become renown as a great architect, sage, and perhaps the first physician in the world. His monument to King Djoser, the Step Pyramid, is the archetype for all pyramids that followed and the oldest stone structure in the world.

Pyramids are uniquely stable structures. They have survived many thousands of years and all the storms and earthquakes that time could bring. The mass at the peak of the pyramid we may say is in a high energy state. It is supported by progressively larger masses that reside at lower points of the gravitational potential. This is the thermodynamic analogy I mean to draw, and I speculate:

That Imhotep, born a commoner and working at a time when there may have still been living memory of an Egypt much less advanced, and therefore much less hierarchical. He may have understood on some deep level the changes in social structure that were necessary to make the pyramid possible. Because pyramids are built by slaves, and laborers, and craftsmen of many kinds. Hunters and gatherers cannot build them, and pastoral nomads can’t either. Only a culture with advanced agriculture and the division of labor agriculture makes possible can build structures like this.

The great works of the ancient world were not possible without slavery, and systems of exploitation and power rise to reflect the skyward structures themselves. Then, at the earliest years of that civilization, Imhotep may have understood in some way that Egypt had passed into a new thermodynamic mode of existence. A mode in which energy is drawn up through the roots of plants, and into the people who plant and harvest them and other resources, to flow up and be concentrated into progressively more privileged classes, to terminate finally in the vested power, privilege, and abundance of the King.


There is a clear connection here to the flows of energy in ecosystems. Apex predators eat and scavenge whatever they can. A lion will steal a kill from a hyena. The grazing animals are fed ultimately by the sun. People deny this similarity because they don’t want to know they are eating each other.

In a way, modern civilization seems to be an extension of an ecological structure that humans used to be embedded in, or maybe civilization has superseded that ecology completely. We were prey once. Then we became apex predators. We have advanced our civilization by replacing most of the world’s fauna with our own biomass in both livestock and human chattel. And the more developed a society tries to become, the more material must be put underneath in the base. Egypt and other ancient civilizations could only advance so far, but the modern western imperium extends across the entire globe, purchasing its privileges with sweatshops and child miners.

There are observations to make and questions to ask. I won’t have  a proper response to all of these. Among the most important:

  • The poor don’t need the wealthy, but the wealthy do need the poor. The world is right-side up, not upside down as Ayn Rand would have it.
  • Scientific discoveries are typically made by the upper classes.  They benefit everyone, but not uniformly. Most of the benefit reaches the upper classes first, or exclusively.
  • People are interdependent, and though it’s not clear that the quality of life in post-agricultural civilization is better in absolute terms, most people today would not be alive without modern technology. Is it forbidden by the laws of physics to have this modernity without its gross inequality?
  • Are there scaling principles at work such that the thermodynamics of current societies could be used to predict an upper limit to any society’s development, assuming the total flux of energy on the surface of the Earth bounds its base?
  • There are limits on an empire’s geographic span which seem to determine how wide the base can become, and these limits are primarily technological, viz. communications technology may have played a dominant role in determining the size of social structures in each era of history. What effects are due to new technologies, not just in the size, but in the topology of society?
  • If preagricultural societies exist in a “first” thermodynamic mode, and post-agricultural societies are in a second mode, does a third mode exist?  If I have anything worthwhile on this question it will wait until part 3 of these posts.

It has always bothered me that Americans never seem to understand their relationship to the rest of the world. It is the nature of privilege never to recognize itself, but it is absurd to see them so oblivious to how they in fact depend on the poverty in the greater part of the developing world and the working class in their own country.

I can’t go to the grocery store without being reminded of this. My hands aren’t the first to touch the onion and the tomatoes in the produce section. You see, it is apparently very hard to build a machine that can cut the stem of an onion and leave the bulb intact. It’s necessary to have people, sometimes children, do this by hand. They crawl through the field on their hands and knees under the summer sun and cut the stems with a knife. In the western United States of course, these people are mostly immigrants from Central and South America and their children.

The pyramid of Djoser is a reification of the Egyptian social structure in power and exploitation that was necessary to construct it. And like the pyramid, it may be that social structure is just as long lived, and reflects some underlying thermodynamic stability. There is an irony then in the old Arab Proverb,

Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.

Do we really know how to build pyramids, or was that knowledge buried with Imhotep and hidden with his tomb? Have we learned the secrets hidden in our own societies? Do we know what is necessary for a long-lived, sustainable, self-sufficient society?

Does it bear repeating that the Step Pyramid is a tomb? And how long will it last, compared to the sand dunes that flow across the eons of the desert?

Some of these things I have understood, if dimly, since I was a 12 year old crawling through an onion field with a rusty knife in my hand. I don’t know if I’ve made much progress in my understanding. I was actually working on a post about Elon Musk’s Mars Colony, when I realized I hadn’t written this yet.

(2/3) The eugenics of a Mars Colony.

(3/3) In Extremis. (soon)

Living in Avalon

…If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality….given that we’re on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality and those games could be played on a set up box or a pc or whatever, and there would probably billions of such computers or set top boxes…it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions…tell me what’s wrong with that argument.

When I saw him answer the simulation question, I was immediately reminded of  the 2001 film, Avalon.

The simulation question has been talked about extensively in the last month or so, but I still haven’t seen any physicists chime in and it seems an argument from this perspective would be most appropriate for Musk (1). There was a response from a cognitive scientist and a philosopher here, but they seem to have missed the mark a bit, and they don’t seem to have understood what Musk may have meant by indistinguishable. I’m going to focus on this word, because it makes specific demands on the physics of the possible technologies involved.

Questions:

  1. Is it possible to build a simulation “indistinguishable from reality?” Indistinguishable is critical here.
  2. I expect the trajectory Musk describes will change. Where is the asymptote? I will have no chance of answering this one.
  3. If it is possible to build such a simulation, does it matter?

Re: Question 1: Is it possible to build a simulation “indistinguishable from reality?”

[All Equivalent] I am going to assume, as Musk seems to, that by “reality” he means a world that operates with the same rules as ours appears to; that it has the same laws of physics. The distinction he is making is between “base” reality and simulated reality. They both behave exactly the same but one is an original. His argument seems to require all of the simulated realities operate under the same rules, so that our experiences here can carry implications about what’s possible in realities that simulate other realities.

[Computable] I think I have to assume further, also like Musk, that “reality” is computable. That all of the rules can be reduced to logically rigorous statements, also that there is nothing that doesn’t follow the rules, and therefore classical or quantum computations are sufficient to simulate reality (2).

It happens that our experiences here operate under quantum mechanical principles at the most fundamental level. We live in a universe that obeys Heisenberg Uncertainty, and there is a fundamental scale set by a constant of nature:

\Delta x \Delta p\ge \dfrac{\hbar} {2}

Any object we observe has a momentum ‘p‘ we associate with what Newton called a “quantity of motion”, and a position ‘x‘. This inequality is an assertion about the distributions of position and momentum. Roughly speaking, the uncertainty principle sets an absolute, fundamental limit on how well it is possible to know x and p. This limit comes from the quantity h – it is Planck’s constant. It is an incredibly small number measured in units of space and time we’re familiar with, but it is not zero, meaning it is impossible to know both the position and momentum of an object perfectly.

The less obvious consequence for our purpose: the uncertainty principle represents the limits in nature’s own detail. Once you know as much as uncertainty principle permits, there really is nothing else to know: nature itself carries no more information (3).

It shouldn’t seem plausible that a full fidelity (“indistinguishable”) simulation of a physical space could be housed in any volume less than or equal to that space, but I don’t know how to prove this. My intuition says the most parsimonious way to simulate a  physical space is to have that volume time evolve on its own. As Einstein put it, “God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically.” There shouldn’t be any shortcuts, I think.

Some work on the limits of computation using uncertainty principle, general relativity  (GR) (and/or?)  the second law of thermodynamics has been done, producing theoretical limits regarding computation. This work is bit out of my depth but it seems GR is required for its limits on energy density (4). Anyway, these details should not interfere with reaching this implication: Because there are fundamental limits on computational power, and by [All Equivalent] these limits apply to a simulating reality, it is not possible to embed, as a subsystem, an indistinguishable simulation of a region within that region. There can’t physically be any substitute for proper reality.

Now, what about the plug-in Matrix kind, aka the dream or the video game? Maybe it is only necessary to fully simulate observed, or observable regions of space and time? And even then only to the limits of observational powers of the individual. I have been assuming that our “reality” fully obeys all the known laws of physics, even when we don’t directly test or observe them. I should just be able to say this kind can be rejected because it is solipsism – we are trying to use physics here and this would take all the bets off. But I think I can do better, especially since it was this kind Musk directly proposed, though I will have to offer inductive arguments.

  1. This world is too shitty for too many people. Unless Musk somehow thinks this reality is his very own oyster and none of the rest of us are real, what reason would we have to simulate a reality like this with so much suffering?
  2. All software has bugs. “Indistinguishable” is too strong a demand for any software to meet with, no matter how advanced its developer. Honestly I think bug-free software cannot exist. There would be dejavu’s and glitches.
  3. This reality is definitely not a video game in its lack of lucidity. Why don’t we know it’s a simulation?
  4. If we had this kind of computational power, we could do a lot better for a video game than this. It would literally make gods out of everyone. Just ask: are you living in the world you wish existed?

If an indistinguishable reality were possible, it would not be desirable. The truth is too hard. If people had unlimited power to create their own realities they would hide from base “reality” in ways that are more robust and complete than religion and technology  allow them currently.

I have one remaining physical argument. We know that some physical systems are described by models whose equations lead to algorithms that are “hard” in this sense: That the computation time needed to predict observables scales so greatly that the computer would effectively require the lifetime of a universe in base reality to integrate, violating our [computable] assumption (5). This argument is not without a certain subtle problem.

Re: Question 2: I expect the trajectory Musk describes will change. Where is the asymptote?

I should just give up on this one for now…I suspect the bound found by Seth Lloyd is too generous but I don’t know how to improve it:

\text{Max Operations Per Second} \sim  \dfrac{mc^2}{h}

The numerator is the most recognized formula in physics: the rest energy of Lloyd’s “ultimate laptop” from relativity. Planck’s constant has appeared again because this is a quantum computer, and the computation speed is limited by how quickly one state can “rotate” into another state that is sufficiently …distinguishable, again determined by Heisenberg uncertainty(6).

Re: Question 3: If it is possible to build such a simulation, does it matter?

When we ask for indistinguishability we are asking, by definition, for a reality that will never fail to satisfy any demand we might make of it. It is impossible to devise an experiment that would reveal that it is a simulation. I don’t know why Musk is unsatisfied with this (7). Again by definition, these doubts would persist for anyone living in base “reality.”

I think a minimal plea for sanity requires us to take our reality as it presents itself. Further, that we take it as simply as it presents itself, and imagine no hidden variables, mechanisms, Wizards of Oz, Dungeon Masters, Cartesian Demons, or code beyond nature’s capacity for information, i.e. its ability to distinguish.

It is a hardcore, base reality that what can’t be observed really isn’t there. A simulated reality and a base reality if indistinguishable must be one and the same. Nature itself can brook no hypotheses about the unobservable. We cannot allow ourselves superstition, or even agnosticism if we are going to move past barriers of imagination. We’ll have to be atheist. Nature is just too creative and extends too far beyond our ken to allow us any less.

Finally in Musk’s discussion there was this…

Maybe we should be hopeful that we are living in a simulation…either we develop simulations that are indistinguishable from reality or civilization ceases to exist.

Avalon, the legendary land
The isle of apple-trees and mist
Avalon is the land of elves
Where the hero comes today

Avalon, the legendary land
The hero set out there

Avalon is the land of elves
Avalon is the heavenly isle of shadows
Enchanted isle
The ship set out to an unknown voyage
Avalon…


  1. There are reasons for a good physicist (not me) to stay out of this discussion. The primary one I’m thinking of being that this notion is, at least at face, untestable. Please take all of the physics presented here with a grain of salt.
  2. One thing I’m definitely not sure of: would this reality simulation require a theory of everything, so that all of the physical laws would have to be known?
  3. It might be argued that nature does know more, but simply behaves in a way that prevents us from knowing or observing any more. I think all hypotheses of this kind can be equated to a “hidden variables” description of quantum mechanics, and I believe all such theories have been excluded by Bell’s Theorem and its experimental verification(here, and here).
  4. There’s a whole literature on this that I won’t be able to go into. I neglect distinctions  made between limits on memory capacity, the longevity of a record, and what research in this area may imply about time itself, and any relationships between gravity and thermodynamics. In due time, I think the research on quantum computing will reveal much more about these questions.
  5. Most of the research in this area is for Classical computation – where the states of computer are strictly binary, 1 or 0. The situation for quantum complexity is less clear, as this field is still fairly new and many quantum algorithms are still being developed.
  6. There is an energy and time relation analogous to the one for momentum and position, though its interpretation is a bit more subtle.
  7. Really I think he didn’t mean the full quantum mechanical notion of indistinguishable, but I needed an excuse to write this post.

You are a sociopath.

Why is war the kind of event that can put two brothers on opposite sides of a conflict?

 

 

It did seem ironic to me that President Obama would decry the attitude that Americans have adopted toward events like this. Just two days after the Umpqua Community College shooting, a US Airforce C-130 gunship attacked a Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan run by Doctors without Borders, killing 22 (1). Obama in this case had little to offer but a weak apology and no public comment. It seems the killing of foreigners is routine, and Americans’ response to the killing of foreigners is routine.

Why do foreign lives matter so little to Americans? Americans are not special of course, people of every country value the lives of their own over others. Why do black lives matter so little to most whites in the United States, and violence on the part of the police against black youth so readily justified or excused in the minds of the majority?

We like to flatter ourselves with the notion that we are very social and empathetic creatures, but there are important caveats(2). Quite simply, empathizing with others requires us to know them. We know our family members best, our friends and coworkers second.

Imagine that everyone resides in a social network, with ties that extend like concentric circles out to neighbors or friends, then out to friends of friends, etc. until the world population is reached (3). People close-in are typically in the “in-group,” and benefit the most from our prosocial tendencies.

What is the problem with this? It is very subtle and I’m not sure there is a solution. The increasing globalization of the world seems to have made this effect worse:

The consequences of your actions can reach many more people than your empathy can. For the vast majority of the people in the world in whose lives you have some influence, you are a sociopath.

We work in concert to create the systems that individuals live in. Our actions are individual, but the system is collective. Above I think I have only put into personal terms what people usually call institutional or systemic effects. What most of you don’t seem to understand is that you are a part of a system. It is not something you can externalize; it’s easy to say something is the fault of governments, leaders, or corporations, but that lets us cop out of our personal integration with these constructions and our role in legitimating the actions of leaders.

But how much responsibility can we each hold for this? I’ve written here before about the subtle ways individual behavior is integrated, and emerges into macroscopic behavior that is not predictable from, and is even sometimes directly opposed to individual intention (4). There is something incredibly important in what we don’t understand about how a corporation is capable of mass depraved indifference murder(5), and how citizens’ taxes can pay for drone strikes. And there is something we are not understanding about how wars occur.

Most people are not murderers. Most people don’t want to start wars, but often believe when the fighting starts that it must occur. Even most soldiers do not want to kill anyone. But the social system’s behavior feeds back down to the personal scale, putting human beings onto battlefields, and into conflicts they have no inherent desire for. At least, not until they form a connection to their fellow soldiers.

Yet the world has entered new regime of interconnection. The capacity of people to move about the globe, and to interact across arbitrary distances has implications for the consequences of an individual’s actions (6). There is a kind of “nonlocality” in our actions that was not possible before. It allows us to have a more direct impact on the lives of people far away geographically, but also perhaps to empathize where we could not previously. I’m not sure we can know where this will lead.

——————————————–

    1. Kunduz articles at the Guardian , New York Times.
    2. A prior post on Race and Human Groups.
    3. Social networks have a well documented small-world property. It’s never more than 6 degrees to Kevin Bacon. For a”social distance” metric defined in this way it seems the capacity for empathy drops as quickly as the number of people reached expands.
    4. Prior posts: The moral implications of nonlinearity and emergence., The multiplicity of agency.
    5. The 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka is just the one example that came immediately to mind: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22476774. You may be reminded of the 2003 doc The Corporation.

There is an aspect of this I will try to post about later: there are segments of the population that are not well integrated in this globalized social network. They are disproportionately older and are being left behind in a way.

There isn’t anything down there, you know.

In mathematics, you don’t get anything without making an assumption. Math doesn’t tell you what’s “true,” it only tells you what follows from the assumptions. It’s derivations are only as believable as the axioms that form the base of the structure.

The same is true about the whole of epistemology. In an earlier post I discussed the fractal that describes a person’s knowledge, and neglected any mention of its root. Well,

At root is pure assumption.

As Richard Feynman said once, “you have to allow something to be true.”(1) These things go down to the bone marrow of our worldview. I sometimes think that very often political discussions fail completely to sway anyone, like religious discussions, because we are never really getting to the root assumptions that people are basing their positions on.

I have invoked the “materialistic principle” here a number of times. Alternatively, one might assume object permanence(2), or the similar notion of conservation laws. Religious folks will take their texts, contradiction be damned.

But there is no safe ground. There is absolutely nothing that can be beyond doubt. There isn’t anything down there. William James(3):

Most of you are devoted for good or ill to the reflective life. Many of you are students of philosophy, and have already felt in your own persons the skepticism and unreality that too much grubbing in the abstract roots of things will breed….Too much questioning and too little active responsibility lead, almost as often as too much sensualism does, to the edge of the slope, at the bottom of which lie pessimism and the nightmare or suicidal view of life.

I don’t agree with James about the end result of this rooting around; he can only speak for himself. Sarte found existentialism down there, and in a way my own view is similar to his, though I am motivated by a desire to understand nature, and am not interested in hypotheses that separate human beings as agents that supersede nature’s principles or pretend them to be anything other than a consequence of same.

A choice must be made of where to “hook in” on the side of this epistemological mountain, and the choice must necessarily be arbitrary. I’m not sure anything can even be articulated without this. This entire post presupposes that the mind can examine itself in a rigorous way, and I’ve preloaded it with a lifetime of inferences.

A good part of my teenage years were spent rooting around and ruminating on largely useless questions like this, searching around in religious texts and philosophy for some sound basis (4). If you have not yet done this for yourself, I encourage you to take a few years off, with “too little active responsibility,” and engaging in “too much questioning.” It will be very enriching if you are the kind of person who survives staring into the abyss.


  1. He was talking about magnets in that context. We don’t get to know why opposite charges attract and like charges repel…we must assume it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MO0r930Sn_8
  2. Try playing peekaboo with Ted Cruz. Enjoy this.
  3. I am of course not a diest, but strongly urge anyone who hasn’t to read “Is life worth living?” William James is one of my favorites. https://archive.org/stream/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft#page/16/mode/2up
  4. No, not even for morality will you find a sound basis. Common atheist claims of a rational basis for this ring false to me. For no good reason really, I just reject solipsism: I observe that there are what appear to be other people and creatures with thoughts, feelings and experiences of their own. I suffer and experience happiness and I therefore assume by their appearance that they too exist and so does their suffering. It satisfies me to alleviate even some small part of this suffering. Let this motivate my action.

On Growth and Knowledge

Everybody has their favorite model of knowledge.This is mine:

The things we understand about the world are like the leaves on a tree. Every time we learn something, we have an opportunity to ask a question that goes deeper and further, bifurcating and allowing for new leaves.

Our knowledge expands like a fractal. There’s no limit to what can be learned because there is no limit to what can be asked. The direction that our curiosity tends to lead us creates our expertise, and where there is no curiosity there can be no growth.

I spent a long time wondering what it is that enables religiosity to persist, even among very well educated people. It is facile to suggest that religious people are simply stupid. It seems to me that it is better explained by the way people respond, not to what they know, but to the boundary between what they know and what they don’t: the outer edges of this tree, and the space of their ignorance beyond it.

How comfortable do we feel with what we don’t know? There’s no bound on the scope of possible knowledge – the more you know the more aware of your ignorance you become, because there should always be an exponentially increasing number of questions, assuming one has enough curiosity.

There is some basic, emotional response to this boundless expansion. Some people just need to feel like there is something or someone in control of that space, and that somehow they have access to that control through religious practices. There is a discomfort in that great, outer fog that apparently most of us would prefer to retreat from.

Notice another implication as well for the progress of science. The method of science can always get us the right answers, but we are the ones determining its direction. By their assumptions and their questions, scientists themselves can limit its range. There is no expectation that science can progress without a bias in its direction. This bias is best counteracted by diversity.

It is said that to be truly wise is to know that you know nothing. Hitchens once put it like this:

…the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, what is true, could always go on.

Why is that important? Why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die I don’t know but I do know it’s the conversation I want to have while I’m still alive.

Which means that to me the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having.

I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet, that I haven’t understood enough, that I can’t know enough, that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And I’d urge you to look at those who tell you at your age that you’re dead till you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling to children. And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift, think  of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside however tempting it is, take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.

——————

The span of life.

A few years ago, I wrote here about the second law of thermodynamics and the lifespan of things. I still can’t muster a rigorous argument for what I’ve said below. I’m not sure I want to.

Everything that lives must eventually die. Entropy must increase. Equivalently, energy must flow from points of higher temperature to points of lower temperature. In the course of these flows of energy, dissipative structures may appear, drawing off these flows as an engine does the explosion of gasoline.

The Sun is dying for us: for the sake of the second law, it surrenders its radiation to the cold of the cosmos. It is this energy we draw upon to sustain ourselves. How long might we live?

A sand castle is easily destroyed by the motion of one hand. The resulting pile is more robust. There are so many more ways for the sand to just be a pile; that state is more permanent.

A fly lives for only a few weeks. One of our species might live for a hundred years.Living things, drawing on the flows of energy, are driven far from the state of the equilibrium of their parts.

So it is that the growth of entropy creates both order and disorder, it giveth and it taketh, each to a proper time and space, and according to a probability. The states far flung in the distribution, the rare and the low in entropy, are ever so briefly lived. They return to the dust and the ash of stars.

Some tribes in the Amazon rain forest have lived sustainably for thousands of years, while the cities of Mesopotamia rose and fell, and while the empires of Medieval Europe crumbled and were replaced. How long might we live?

Sometimes I think we ought not take our problems into the solar system. The problems of poverty and war, the problems that have followed our civilizations since the beginning, are they really an inescapable consequence of these same non-equilibrium thermodynamics? Yet they cannot remain with us if we want to survive and we’re left to hope they are not inevitable.

The signs from changing climate and the exhaustion of the planet suggest we are approaching a terminus. What will come after I don’t know, but the challenges that are coming will be the most difficult any human generation has ever faced. If we want to see what lies on the other side, we must try to find a way to live.

This is a terrible burden to be placed on the young. They are to suffer the cost of every shortsighted decision made by generations previous, and to somehow find a better way.

If these children can survive what’s coming, they will be marked forever as the greatest of all generations. We have little hope other than they might be more clever, more wise, more kind and generous than any that came before and muster the strength to live through.

Cogito, Ergo…

From Part IV of Descartes’ Meditations(1):

…as I then desired to give my attention solely to the search after truth, I thought that a procedure exactly the opposite was called for, and that I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that was wholly indubitable. Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us; and because some men err in reasoning, and fall into paralogisms, even on the simplest matters of geometry, I, convinced that I was as open to error as any other, rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for demonstrations; and finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.

In the next place, I attentively examined what I was and as I observed that I could suppose that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place in which I might be; but that I could not therefore suppose that I was not; and that, on the contrary, from the very circumstance that I thought to doubt of the truth of other things, it most clearly and certainly followed that I was; while, on the other hand, if I had only ceased to think, although all the other objects which I had ever imagined had been in reality existent, I would have had no reason to believe that I existed; I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that “I,” that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is.

 

There is an error here (2). What is the “I”? What restrictions does the existence of thoughts and consciousness alone put on the forms it may take? Could the thinking thing really be independent of “any material thing”?

Let there be thinking thing, then. A mind. It perceives by some instruments, which correlate with the opening and closing of the eyes, the stopping of the ears. It exists with some temporal sense, such that it recollects “past” events, and anticipates “future” events. It sleeps, it dreams at different times, all correlated with changes in experience.

Clearly the mind doesn’t see without eyes. It doesn’t hear without ears. When the brain takes a whack, its function doesn’t continue independently and unaffected. There is clear physicality to experience, and there are a number of reasons to suspect the brain and the body are the substrates of the mind.

Let us assume, as I have done here before (the “Materialistic Principle”) that that which is not observable does not exist. It follows that the mind can only arise from what is physically observable about the brain (3, 4). I take it that the mind is not “hidden” somewhere inside the brain, then it follows that the mind is not an integral whole; it is an emergent property or process of the electrical signals that pass in and among the parts of the brain.

ASIDE:

Creatures are not made by design. They are evolved, but that process gives a striking appearance of design. It obvious that nature is capable of acting as if it was* a creative entity. Maybe not with foresight and planning, yet somehow with an apparent agency.

END ASIDE.

*It seems to me that we don’t grant nature the capacity to “truly” act creatively for this reason: We see too clearly the detailed mechanisms by which it achieves that appearance. There exists no integral whole for the mind as we trivially observed above; the creativity the mind possesses must also arise through a confluence of components, just as in the case of natural selection.

Clearly there is no god (5), and it would appear that nowhere(!) in the world is there a thinking, creating thing that does not arise from a confluence of more basic constituents in a distributed system. This system’s processes may be distributed more widely in time, as in the case of natural selection, or more tightly distributed in time but highly complex in space as in the case of the brain, but this consequence is unavoidable: selection is not “like” a creative entity, it is one in any sense we are willing to impart to ourselves.

You have heard of a “god of the gaps,” but there is a similar kind of error in reasoning when it is assumed – and it is assumed very commonly – that people posses free will. It is a kind of deification of the self; an intercession of a vague divinity, which, while totally normal and probably embedded as part of the adaptive process in humans(6), in this current discussion I posit that all agency is only apparent agency. Or equivalently, that that which is indistinguishable from agency is agency itself (7).

The development process in technology is so organic, especially for things in which researchers are taking advantage of the principles of evolution and adaptation. It seems strange to me that we should be so cavalier about allowing neural networks to train and evolve. These processes are so poorly understood (8), we risk putting ourselves in a situation where we will have created strong AI on accident before doing it on purpose, and not even knowing how we did it. As I have explicitly stated, the evolutionary process “has a mind of its own.” This cavalier attitude seems to stem in part from the basic assumption that we are so special, that we must be the only thinking things in the universe.

We are not so special, except maybe in terms of how rare a thing we might be, and maybe the processes that made us form an NP Hard problem, which therefore can’t be shortcutted, so that this planet really did necessarily invest a lot of time and sacrifice in creating our species.

But even if we are the rarer structure, we exist not so apart and different from the other structures of the universe. The differences of kind are not differences of kind solely, but come from differences of a quantity of pieces and a subtlety of their organization.

I recall the arguments of Lucretius and wonder why it should take so long for us to see that the types of arguments about objects and matter being made of atoms carry similar implications for our minds and the simplicity that underlies apparent complexity of all forms.

 

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  1. From the translation at Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/59/59-h/59-h.htm
  2. And I’m sure, somewhere in the reasoning I put forth to correct it, heheh.
  3. Is the brain even separable from the body? Can I assume its function doesn’t distribute into processes occurring throughout the nervous system? I remember reading research articles about people’s emotional states being altered with the amputation of limbs, or after having artificial hearts implanted. If the brain relies so heavily on cues from the nervous system, it may not actually be able to access some states or engage in some processes without contingent parts. Or put it like this: Can a congenitally blind person imagine the experience of sight? Do you know what its like to be a bat? Can you even know what its like to reside in the body of another person? Even your identical twin?
  4. Is the brain a quantum computer? What are the limits for what is physically measurable? I recall reading an argument in Schlausshauer that suggested it probably was not a quantum computer – or at least from what was known about neuron activity it couldn’t involve quantum mechanics. I’m just assuming that some microscale structure and electrical signals are as deep as you need to get for a brain.
  5. This is a kind of implicit axiom on this blog, as a part of what I’ve been trying to do here is talk about things purely from a post-theistic worldview, i.e., what are the things we would think about if we were not chained to naive assumptions about the answers to basic questions and having to argue constantly with deists? I’ve thought maybe I should post more about the justification for atheism, but there doesn’t seem to be much point – I don’t dwell on it too much anymore, and it’s beat to death in the popular sphere.
  6. Some lies it might be beneficial to believe, as I have mentioned on this blog before. I think this might be one of them. Apparently Isaac Singer said this: “We must believe in free will — we have no choice.
  7. Notice the use of MP. There’s some real irony here. Some of these things I don’t think most people will realize until AFTER strong AI has been brought into the world and made them incredibly clear to everyone. If it satisfies the turing test, you have no choice: It thinks just as much and probably not too different from how you do.
  8. I am suddenly reminded of the beautifully creative play of AlphaGo recently.

The moral implications of nonlinearity and emergence.

There are a few concepts I think it would help to take care of: The first is in the companion post here.

The other is described below; it just happens Dr. Neil Tyson tweeted about this yesterday:

It has often been repeated, and my experience bears this out, that the real trouble doesn’t come from what we know we don’t understand, but from what we think we understand but really don’t(3). If we had the right questions, the answers would soon follow.

There are so many people who study the subjects of human behavior: psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, etc. How many of them would pretend to understand something of quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics is just linear algebra, some complex variables, and the very general physical concepts of uncertainty and wave interference that require those mathematics. But waves interfere linearly: that is, they just stack. And the operators that appear in the equations of (non relativistic) quantum mechanics are just stand-ins for acts of measurement or transformation on the information of the state, and as required by the Schrödinger equation(4) act linearly.

But the behavior of the vast majority of the systems of the world, which do not submit to the simplifications and contrivances of a well designed physics experiment, is not linear. In living systems, the interactions between, and really it seems the integration of components result in a nonlinear relationship between small scale and large scale behavior.

The consequences of that nonlinearity are profound and confounding. Pen and paper analysis becomes useless for many questions, when no equation can be written down. The growth of systems implies its regime – the very rules it obeys – can change radically as its configuration traverses a complex and unknown topology, making computations and simulations necessary, though not sufficient to understand. These systems are very hard, yet the people who study these fields today do pretend to understand!

And now we must be honest: we, as humans, do not understand ourselves. The softer sciences have made progress, but it has been slow and groping, stymied by their being bound to the use of inferior, insufficiently rigorous tools. What knowledge they have gained is washed out by an ocean of biases, assumptions, and plain ignorance in the greater public, as a drive toward self-serving beliefs come into play particularly in human affairs.


 

And now to the proper subject of this post, and the reason I tagged it “Black History Month.” (I’d hoped to make more general comments, but this post is already too long and a specific example serves as well.) A few days ago this article appeared on the Atlantic from Dr. Adia Wingfield(1)(emphasis mine):

Progress has undoubtedly been made since the days of explicit segregation, and most white people no longer openly advocate for segregation in neighborhoods, schools, and offices. When speaking to researchers, many even argue that integration is important and necessary. … Despite laws prohibiting segregation…it persists on several fronts today.

Some of the most striking studies done on present-day segregation have to do with how it’s connected to the ways families share money and other resources among themselves. The sociologist Thomas Shapiro, for instance, argues that the greater wealth that white parents are likely to have allows them to help out their children with down payments, college tuition, and other significant expenses that would otherwise create debt. As a result, white families often use these “transformative assets” to purchase homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, based on the belief that sending their children to mostly white schools in these areas will offer them a competitive advantage. (These schools are usually evaluated in racial and economic terms, not by class size, teacher quality, or other measures shown to have an impact on student success.) Shapiro’s research shows that while whites no longer explicitly say that they will not live around blacks, existing wealth disparities enable them to make well-meaning decisions that, unfortunately, still serve to reproduce racial segregation in residential and educational settings.

Local decisions and actions have global consequences, not always the linear sum of the local, or even foreseeable from the local. This is the deeply nonintuitive part, the part people will fail to understand because it violates some vague assumption I might call ‘linearity of intent’, and because they really can’t anticipate that something bad could come from most people meaning well:

It is not actually necessary for people to be racist to reproduce a systemically racist society. (5)

This carries more general implications about the morality of actions, carried out locally, which have global consequences not directly foreseeable, but I will stick to this example specifically. There is a kind of transmutation that occurs through the nonlinear aggregation of people’s behavior, so that decisions which appear acceptable at the one scale grow to have dire consequences in the larger.

In this case it means that people doing their best by their children, by the fact of acting in a world in which whites enjoy disproportionate privilege, perpetuate segregation and the systemic oppression follows (6, 7). Hiring managers, acting without any racial intent of their own, reinforce the topology of social networks by selecting from a pool of applicants which comes to them with such bias already built-in (8).

It follows that we can’t assume our actions will not remain unaltered by their integration with the actions of others, and that the globally/systemically reproduced intent of the macroscopic system will be the same as the majority’s. Even worse: there are cases where emergence creates a system that behaves in ways that are directly opposed to the intent of individuals.

Without a better understanding of nonlinearity and emergence – and with a rigor that deprives us of safety in our preconceptions – I don’t imagine a solution to these problems can be found.

 

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  1. Two Atlantic articles about segregation and poverty. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/is-ending-segregation-the-key-to-ending-poverty/385002/?utm_source=SFFB, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/02/segregation-tomorrow/459942/
  2. WaPo article about whether more intelligent people are less racist. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/27/are-smarter-people-actually-less-racist/?tid=sm_fb
  3. I can’t find a proper attribution. It wasn’t Twain.
  4. And some basic “common sense” type assumptions…when all possible events are accounted for, their total probability is 1.0. That the position from which distances are measured should imply nothing about the prediction, and such.
  5. In 2014, I realized to my surprise how much sociologists had been able to learn; that this was not a foreign or outlandish concept to them, but some had already made this observation, ex.: Bonilla-Silva.
  6. Another very related example comes immediately to mind: it is not necessary that most police in a black community be malicious to do harm. It is only necessary that they be afraid, indifferent, ignorant, or any mix thereof.
  7. If many of our problems really do take on this form, can they even have a solution? I have heard that busing in an earlier era was actually closing the black/white achievement gap and undoing the evil of segregation before American’s more inveterate nature reasserted itself during the 1980’s. This American Life, 562.
  8. This was also discussed in the Wingfield article.

Ta-Nehisi Quotes

And who can be mad in America? Racism is just the wind, here. Racism is but the rain.

Between the World and Me, p.92

“But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing–that a four-year-old child should be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed.”

ibid, p. 97

“And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory, but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.”

p.99

“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practice of jabbing out one’s eyes, and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/410815/in-conversation-with-ta-nehisi-coates/

I had a story due for an editor…and I kept asking for extensions. And he said to me the last time I asked him, he said ‘no.’ He said if you don’t turn this in tomorrow, I will go to  [editor in chief] and tell him that I have no confidence in your ability to deliver this piece. And I said ‘Oh my God, that cannot happen. That can never be said about me.’ And I churned it out in a day, and the piece ran in the magazine like four months later. And what I got was that I was afraid. That in fact what I was doing – that I did not need more time, that I did not need to think things over, that I had not figured it out, that I was just afraid. That I was literally afraid that it was going to be terrible, that I couldn’t do it. That actually was a big growth piece for me, because then I could see the whole process. So I do get afraid now, but I recognize it as part of the process, and I just write right through it. It’s actually one of the things I try to impart to students when I’m teaching. That it’s natural to sit there and be afraid but you gotta  do it in spite of it.

Malcolm was basically Jesus in my house.

 

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/bill-cosby-and-his-enablers/422448/

“It could be me” is a fine starting place for confronting the evils of the world, but a really poor conclusion. If no broader theory of sympathy and humanism emerges beyond one’s mean particularism, then all we really are left with are tribalism and power.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/bernie-sanders-reparations/424602/

Sometimes the moral course lies within the politically possible, and sometimes the moral course lies outside of the politically possible. One of the great functions of radical candidates is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.

 

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/the-radical-practicality-of-reparations/372114/

The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.

http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/02/against-endorsements/462261/

I don’t so much hope that any reader “agrees” with me, as I hope to haunt them, to trouble their sense of how things actually are.

 

 

Entropy, etc.

I don’t have anything useful to post here. I’ve alluded to these issues before but have nothing to add.

I have this strange feeling that the problems of the interpretation of quantum mechanics, dark energy, the big bang, and quantum gravity will all necessarily be solved simultaneously, all involving the same concepts.

What I know about the history of advancements in theoretical physics suggests our problem is very rarely a lack of mathematical tools, or an understanding of the present state of physical concepts. Mathematicians have been out ahead for about 100 years now, developing mathematics that have no apparent use in physics. The tools almost certainly exist already for tomorrow’s theories. The problem has to do with the concepts themselves and our imagination; as Haldane put it, “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

It seems we need experimental evidence not just to suggest absurd things, as with Lorentz (4), but unambiguously require them for theory to remain consistent before we can accept them. In this way our “common sense” is very often an obstacle.

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  1. Someone better trained than I am described a problem I actually think has something to do with why “you can’t have nothing isn’t.” http://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/65177/is-the-preferred-basis-problem-solved
  2. Improbability drive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjbtZ4NgtdA
  3. Zurek: http://www.nature.com/nphys/journal/v5/n3/full/nphys1202.html, http://journals.aps.org/rmp/abstract/10.1103/RevModPhys.75.715
  4. A Mechanical Universe Episode, includes the history of Special Relativity. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2z75hb