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.

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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 math is real.

All details of the analysis have a physical meaning and should be interpretable for the physicist.

If there was some detail in a mathematical expression – any factor, any exponentiation, addition or whatever, that detail has a specific physical meaning. If it didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be any reason for it to be there, and you are using an analysis with superfluous detail. If it has to be there to get the answer that matches experiment, then it has meaning…

Sometimes I will hear that one thing or another is “just a mathematical thing”, but that is clearly not so. I think sometimes we give up on doing physics and just start doing math, but if we really are physicists we can’t give up on understanding our equations. Shankar has already said very similar things.

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.

The multiplicity of agency.

The multiplicity, Ω, is the number of ways a system might be configured given some observable macroscopic state (macrostate). If I flip a coin and catch it in my hand, and I do not look at it, its multiplicity is two(1). A body with no extension (a particle with no length, width, or depth can’t twist, bend, rotate, etc.), contained in some box can occupy some position in that box and have some velocity, and only these two variables contribute to its multiplicity.

If I take a large handful of coins, and toss them up in the air, there is an expectation that “about” half of them will come up heads, correct? What may be less apparent, but can still be intuited, is this: As the number of coins being tossed increases, the percent by which they deviate from a 50/50 split will decrease. This is sometimes called the Weak Law of large numbers, and it is the simplest kind of emergence I can think of; it is a macroscopic, qualitative property that arises from increasing a quantity in the system. It is a statistical impossibility that a large number of fair coin tosses will not reveal the underlying probability of a single toss.

Viewed another way: there exists a set of all possible outcomes for every coin flip. Because they are all equally probable, and there are so many more outcomes with the coins split about 50/50, those outcomes are much more likely. The states that split the coins evenly have a much greater multiplicity.

There are many different kinds of statistical convergence, and I suspect they can all be associated with a type of emergent observable property. If the multiplicity as it appears in formal statistical mechanics, is sufficiently explained, I may give the multiplicity of agency. 

 

Let there exist some macroscopic behavior of a community. This behavior is associated with an effective, or apparent agency which emerges from aggregation of individuals, or the local behavior of components. The multiplicity of this agency is the number of local behaviors which all contribute to reproducing the same macroscopic behavior.

 

  •  People shopping for clothes will operate under a number of motivations, and may weigh a number of different things when making purchasing decisions. Different people also go with very different fashion choices, or will prefer certain stores, etc. To the extent that all of these variations in local behavior typically contain a common thread of preferring lower priced goods, the market will generate a downward pressure on costs of production which is robust to all of this variation. This pressure has contributed to the creation of sweatshops. Because people make decisions at a local level and act at that scale, the apparent macroscopic agency, or systemic behavior is indifferent to this.

What I am trying to get at is a way of understanding systemic societal problems in rigorous terms that show the qualitative differences between global scale and local scale behavior.

  • This seems closely associated with problems of nonlinearity, and a violation of the basic assumptions people habitually make(2) when trying to understand these systems. It’s just not enough that ‘most people’ would not want some particular system behavior.
  • How do wars occur, anyway? It would be too simplistic to attribute this completely to leaders. It would be safe to say that most people do not wish for these events, but we seem to habitually behave in ways that contribute to tensions and conflict; that the greater multiplicity belongs to the emergent agency which creates and maintains hostile divisions between people.

Maybe as a species we are just feckless? After all of our advances in technology and science, why do we still not understand ourselves well enough to solve fundamental problems like poverty and violence? I would hope we are not still holding on to the notion that our individual free will has relevance and power to affect our behavior as a society(3), as the recurrence of civil wars, the tendency of markets to produce dangerous bubbles, and many other phenomena demonstrate that the aggregation of behavior can create systems acting in direct opposition to local intentions.

The companion post is here.

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  1. There is some subtle interpretational issues here with what probability means, but I will gloss over these because they are largely philosophical, and to the extent they relate to underlying issues in classical and quantum probability, etc. I think I can get away with ignoring them for the purposes of this post.
  2. The prior post about linearity.
  3. Econophysics, for example, can get pretty far, and reproduce some surprising results assuming individuals’ behavior is entirely random. It hardly seems to matter that people operate under coherent local rules at all, at least for certain properties.

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

The American Violence.

Here is the Wikipedia article on Mass Hysteria.

Legislation alone to fix the problem of gun violence in the United States will not suffice. We really have entered into a cultural regime in which these events are normalized. Going on a mass killing spree with an assault rifle is just one of those things you do, as an American. In most countries the act could scarcely enter into a person’s imagination, but Americans have an obsession bordering on lust for guns. An obsession which is by turns fearful and infatuated.

It seems somehow the culture a person has developed in puts a loose set of bounds on the types of pathologies they are capable of, as well the range of identities they are capable of assuming for themselves. The imagination can only stretch so far.

There are some older trans-people who have reported that they did not know they were trans until they heard it described and given a name. In the 1800’s, a time in American history when homosexual acts were near unutterable, would it have been possible for someone to identify themselves as ‘gay’? Certainly the identity would not have meant then what it does now. I mean not just that gays lived in a society that pathologized and demonized them, but also that a consequence of that oppression was a complete lack of cultural development in which an identity could be formed. The cultural context of our lives sets the scope for our possible selves…

Our ability to understand ourselves and create identities depends in some way on the molds we have available. People modify and combine archetypes to suit themselves in a sort of adaptive process. They don’t start from scratch and the possibilities, at least starting from within one’s own context and using one’s own life are not limitless. This brings me back to gun violence.

There is an identity of “lone gunman”, or “crazy active shooter” that exists now, like a meme that has bred into the American conciousness, and that gun control laws alone will not deal with. This is the particular American pathology, the American mass hysteria. There are loner kids, in high schools and middle schools in this country now who, absent this societal disease, would never have imagined for themselves such an act and would not have had the identity available. But now it is within the realm of possibility, because it is well within the realm of their imagination, as it pervades American fears.

We can hope that the NRA’s influence is undercut, and some legislation is passed. And maybe some of prayers people have been offering up will get Wayne LaPierre struck down by lightning. But even after this, it may take a generation for the country to recover from its diseased thinking (2).

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  1. A Frontline episode about the NRA well worth watching.
  2. This occurred to me only after I finished this post: There are more severe pathologies taking hold of many middle eastern countries. There is an entire generation growing up in warzones, some in which children have only soldiers and terrorists in sight for rolemodels. Children who cannot imagine peace because they have never seen it. The world will pay a price for this.