Monthly Archives: March 2012

On infinite causal chains

I wrote a One Minute Case Against the Cosmological Argument in 2007, but looking back, I would put it simply as:

Infinities do not actually exist. Each specific set of entities is discrete. But the causal chain itself is not an existent. It is the set of all entities that have ever existed. That is a theoretical construct (like infinity or a singularity in mathematics) rather than a discrete set of entities that we can point to. If I walk from one side of the room to the other, my body exists in an infinite number of locations along that path during the time it takes me to do so. But it only exists in one location at any specific time.

 

 

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March 31, 2012 · 11:49 pm

On stardust & entropy

Stellar nucleosynthesis is entropic because the proton-proton reaction radiates 0.7% of the original mass as 26.73 MeV energy. Additional reactions produce heavier elements until finally supernova nucleosynthesis produces everything up to uranium in the last few seconds of a star’s life.

We can calculate the entropy cost of the elements to create planets and life forms. Many stars had to die to create enough elements for life. Did life therefore evolve as soon as enough heavy elements were created to sustain sufficient organic chemistry for life? Or maybe life evolved earlier on other planets, but could not reach our level because the element mix lacks sufficient “entropic debt.”  Will a more metal-rich universe be suitable for even more complex life, or is there a plateau of the right element mix to construct life?

It’s interesting to think about a brief “habitable era” when there is enough entropy for life, but not so much that there are no more main sequence stars to power life or perhaps other conditions (excess heavy metals, novas, or dwarfs) that inhibit life.

The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

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We are informational beings in the eternal now

What are we? What sets us apart from the universe?

We believe that we exist in limited time and space. We believe that we are defined by hereditary and environmental influences, leaving room for only a nebulous core of individuality. There is some truth in this perspective. But there is more.

What is time? The present is the sum of everything that is past, and the future evolves from the present. We only see the past as fixed and future as malleable because our minds process information in one direction. But every existent can only act in accordance with its nature and causality. The future is as firmly defined as the past. Every grain of existence implies by its identity the sum of all it has been and everything it will ever be. Time is not a dimension that we move through. Time is the iteration of the possible states of the configuration space of the Universe. It is a single system slowly revolving through all the configurations both possible and necessary to it. All that exists is the eternal present. Time is one’s perspective of the Long Now.

What makes us – us? We are machines, built out of matter and energy, but more importantly, we are information processing structures, the total of which defines our unique configuration.  The molecules and cells composing our bodies are regularly replaced by our growth and repair mechanisms.  Only the information patterns encoded in genes and consciousness persists.  Many mistakenly place emphasis on either the genes or environment as determining structures. But there is no fundamental difference. Genes are triggered, expressed, or suppressed in response to environmental stimuli. Whether we are healthy or sickly because of good genes or good diet makes no difference to the end result. What matters is not our genotype, but our total phenotype — the sum of genetic and environmental influences. The particular combination is only important to biologists.

As human beings, we contain two complex information-processing systems: the genetic and the mental. Of the two, our mental structure is the far more important. We are each unique configurations of information-processing systems that spend our lives gathering up memes and observations and spitting out conclusions and actions. Our mental structures work in method much like our genetic systems, absorbing, modifying and sharing memetic structures through Darwinian processes. On a rare occasion, we cut, paste, and synthesize ideas to form a new unique yet stable and contagious meme-structure and add it to the shared pool of ideas, sending ripples through our shared meme-space and the physical environment through which we enact our ideas.

Mentally and physiologically, we are unique to a very basic level — it is just as unlikely for two people to have identical chromosomes as to have an identical understanding of an idea. Yet on both the fine details and the broad pattern of large structures, we share almost all of our mental and genetic identity with our species and genetically, with all life. There is no need to seek our identity in a mystical hidden soul. We are the unique yet utterly common sum of everything we inherit from the Universe. Our bodies are made from atoms created in the heart of dying stars and designed by a three billion year old genetic inheritance — each a unique information-processing system.

As individual biological systems, our slice of the Long Now is small. But as information systems, we inherit all that is and contribute to all that will be. As the latest expression of the evolving complexity-generating process of nature, we are seeds of the growing intelligence of the universe.

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Bob the Intelligent Designer creates the Universe

People who claim that the earth is younger than it is (4.54 ± 0.05 billion years) tend to do so for two reasons: either because they claim the evidence points to it or because it was created recently but made to look as it were old. Considering that all the evidence shows the universe to be 13.75 (± 0.11) billion years, a claim that it is literally millions of times younger requires massive ignorance of obvious observations – such as starlight or canyons cut into bedrock. But let’s consider the other common argument – that the universe was only made to appear young. Perhaps the stars were put in place with the light beams already in progress. That is an interesting philosophical question. What are the implications of an Intelligently Designed universe?

To avoid taking sectarian sides, let’s call our creator Bob the Universe Builder. How would Bob’s universe-creating activity change the way we look at the world? Let’s consider a few scenarios:

Some people believe that Bob “got things started” via the Big Bang or some other mysterious event, and then let things run on their own, much as they would in a purely naturalistic universe. In that case, cosmology would certainly be different, but biology could generally be left alone. This view was plausible until recently, when physicists and cosmologists began thinking about and finding answers for how the Big Bang got started and why the laws of nature are what they are. Suddenly the starting point is not so mysterious as to need a supernatural explanation. What is the creation theorist to do – retreat once again to the next frontier of scientific discovery? Perhaps we can make a more general argument.

Whether the universe was created 13 billion or 6 thousand years or yesterday, we can generalize the creationist argument and make some conclusions about it. Suppose we grant that the universe looks as if it evolved purely by natural laws, but in fact some intelligent agent created it more recently. What would that imply?

Let’s first consider the universe going forward. If the universe is naturalistic from the present onwards (gravity causes rocks to fall, horses don’t become unicorns, etc.), then we can assume that it will remain so in the future. So as far as our understanding of new phenomena around us, the existence of a non-interventionist creator makes no difference. But what about the past? If we assume that all the evidence points to a natural universe (for example the stars look billions of years old, even if they were only put up there yesterday), then it makes no difference whether the universe only looks natural or it really is natural.

Before he could create the universe, Bob would have to calculate the precise makeup of the universe on his computer (which could be his “brain” – the details are irrelevant) to determine the initial state of his Creation. For example, if he creates the universe after the Triassic period, he will have to figure out where to place all the dinosaur fossils. If he wanted to maintain the pretense of age, he could not place them just anywhere. He would have to carefully arrange sedimentary layers to simulate geological processes.

The only way to do this consistently would be to simulate the entire history of the observable universe on his computer. There is no way to shortcut the process. So, for example, if a dinosaur fossil is 200 million years old, Bob must calculate its gravitational effect on every atom and subatomic particle in a light cone expanding to 200 million light years over 200 million years. Alternatively, consider the implication for evolution: even if did not happen in “real” reality, to create a plausible explanation for the variety of life on earth and their fossil predecessors, Bob would have to calculate the form of every ancestor by playing out the life of every plant, animal and bacteria in his “virtual” earth to derive their fossils and their present form. Because the present state of any object in the universe is the total of all the interactions of that object with all the other objects in its sphere of influence, and there is no way to know the sum of all these states without calculating all of them sequentially.

To avoid glaring inconsistencies from being discovered by scientists, Bob would have to calculate the interaction of every entity in the universe with every other entity in its causal sphere to the minutest level of detail. And given the sub-atomic perspective granted by modern science, that detail must be very fine indeed. This would mean that there couldn’t be any observable difference between a simulation of the universe and the real thing. Whether the universe was ever a simulation in someone’s “imagination” or is simulation today makes no observable difference and this has no relevance to our understanding of reality.

My conclusion from this chain of thought is this: There is no essential difference between “Young Earth” Creationism and the more “respectable” theory of Big Bang Creationism. Neither is there any point speculating about a perfectly simulated universe (aka various theories that the universe exists “in the mind of God”.) The only logical conclusion is to regard the universe as always having been purely naturalistic.

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Warning: relying on magic and anecdotes is bad for your health

In my post on evidence-based medicine, I said that “when valid scientific principles are not followed, no valid conclusion can be reached.”

Why not? Why don’t anecdotal claims (such as personal experience) count as evidence? Here is an example of what I mean:

A young woman who was a Christian Scientist told me that various relatives of hers have been healed by prayer. For example, her sister was revived from death by the prayer of her family. I have two comments about her story:

  • The observations that she told me about (that her sister was physiological dead, that her family prayed for her, and that she was revived) are probably true.
  • There was no dishonesty on her part: she sincerely believed her story

Despite accepting her observation, I disagreed with her conclusion about the causal relationship between prayer and health. How could I know that interpretation is wrong? For one, I was not there. Furthermore, after I expressed skepticism at this story, the young woman gave me many more examples, all from her direct personal experience of various friends and family being healed by prayer. On what basis could I reject them all without any personal experience on my own?

This was the essence of my reply:

I cannot object to the events you observed, as I was not there. But this does not mean that I must accept your causal explanation for those events. I have three reasons for this:

  • I have a certain understanding about the nature of the universe and of the means by which things happen. We call this cause and effect. In my experience, cause and effect happens according to certain rules, which we formally call the “laws of nature.” If someone presents an explanation that is inconsistent with my basic understanding of the laws of nature, they should have overwhelming evidence. Otherwise, I must conclude that their understanding of causality is wrong, even if their observations are true. This is especially true in observations regarding human health.
  • There are good reasons for scientists to reject personal experience and informal observations as sufficient basis for conclusions. There are many forms of cognitive bias can we can honestly make unless we follow strict rules to eliminate errors. In many fields (such as fixing a car) trial and error is good enough. There are no lives depending on a car working perfectly. In others, such as human physiology anecdotal evidence cannot lead to correct conclusions no matter how honest or smart you are. The forms of error take many forms: availability bias, post hoc ergo propter hoc, hasty generalization, placebo effects, selection bias, regression to the mean, bias by prior beliefs, social influence, etc. Even if you are aware of the biases, you cannot fully escape their effects; only try to structure your research to minimize them. In other words, when trial and error is not good enough, there is no substitute for proper science.
  • I categorize causal explanations into three kinds: true, false, and arbitrary. True explanations correspond with what I know. False explanations contradict what I know, but with further evidence may be proven true. Arbitrary explanations are neither true nor false because they do not refer to anything. They are “magical theories” because there is nothing that we can point to as the causal mechanism. How does prayer work? It just does – no mechanism is possible because it by definition exists outside of causality. Because arbitrary claims they cannot be proven or disproved, once identified as such, we can only dismiss them from consideration. We should be extremely skeptical of anyone who makes causal claims based on arbitrary/magical explanations. In the rare cause they point out a true causal connection, it is only by accident, and has no value to anyone as we have no more basis to believe that idea than any of their other claims.

If personal anecdotes are not acceptable as evidence, what is? A good theory:

  • is supported by many different kinds of observations
  • is consistent with existing knowledge
  • is possible to confirm by repeating the observations
  • has high predictive value: it should predict what will happen as well as what will not happen

“A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that has only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.” (Stephen Hawking)

Further reading:

 

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On modesty

The popular notion that sexual acts should be performed in the dark and under the sheets is derived from the Judeo-Christian dogma that human beings and thus human sexuality are fundamentally corrupt, shameful, and evil. Because this dogma is still widespread throughout secularized Western societies and in secularized equivalents of original sin, it is now infecting and corrupting non-Western societies along with the positive elements on Western civilization.

It’s unfortunate that this is not widely recognized in those societies, but it’s no coincidence – the intellectuals and politicians of those states have found Western notions about the base nature of human beings very useful for furthering certain social/political goals. Much more deserves to be written about this…

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March 6, 2012 · 12:18 am

Parasitism and intentionality: lessons from the cuckoo

Many species of the cuckoo and cowbird reproduce exclusively by sneaking their eggs into other birds nests, where their chicks kill or starve their nest-mates and so steal resources from the host mother, who often has to raise chicks bigger than her. So why doesn’t the host kick out the foreign eggs?

In many cases, the parasitic eggs evolve to match those of the victim species. Yet in other species, the intruder egg is clearly different yet is left alone. Why? It has been experimentally observed that the mother cuckoo regularly monitors the nests she invades and completely destroys them if she sees that her egg was rejected. According to the “Mafia hypothesis”, it is cheaper for the host birds to allow their nests to be parasitized than to have them destroyed in response to rejecting the egg.

Here is what I find interesting: neither the cuckoo nor the host bird have any notion of how to run a protection racket or make complex statistical calculations about whether it is worth rejecting the invader egg. Their minds are far too primitive for that. The host keeps the foreign egg because the gene for not rejecting the egg is reinforced by the higher survival probability of her chicks. And the cowbird destroys nests with rejected eggs because her gene for “revenge” behavior is reinforced by the higher reproductive success in the nests of victims who accept their fate. The two species interact by threats and bluffs through gene expression, without any real communication going on. The mechanism is imperfect – sometimes the parasite bird destroys innocent nests and sometimes the victim kicks the invader out and pays the price. Parasite and victim continually test each other to maximize their reproductive success.

Does this behavioral pattern have any analog in human society? Of course humans don’t need to wait for the slow pace of genes to engage in Mafia-like behavior. But whether the threats are communicated consciously or not, the behavior itself is reinforced for the same reason: because it works. In human society, money, not reproductive success is the reward mechanism which rewards and punishes certain behavior. Money is not a guarantee of reproductive success, nor can be it be exchanged for just any values. But it is the best and most universally convertible proxy for value that we have.

As with animals, activities which generate money are reinforced. And just as with animals, that reinforcement happens whether or not the participants are consciously aware of it. Socially, the majority of people disapprove of protection rackets. We teach our children to act morally and we spend resources to stop crime. Yet parasitism happens anyway, in many forms, in every society, and often without any conscious intent. It is a successful evolutionary tactic.

Is all this to suggest that humans are powerless against parasitism? Certainly not. We are only powerless to stop parasitic relationships as long as we don’t recognize them for what they are. Once they are exposed, we can do what no other animal can: replace a short-run reinforcing behavior (grab the loot and run) with a long-run rewarding behavior (we’ll all have more loot if we don’t steal from each other).

The point is this:

There are two forms of parasitism: explicit and implicit. In explicit parasitism, both parties are aware of the parasitic behavior. So it is with crooks and invading armies. They know they are criminals, but they don’t care because one of them has superior firepower. Explicit parasitism can certainly be very destructive and expensive to stop, but it is unsustainable, as human beings get better at diplomacy and policing.

But in implicit parasitism, one of the parties is not aware that they are the victim or aggressor. When our taxes pay for things such as farm aid or money to foreign countries or people on public aid or “social security”, or make-work schemes neither the parasite not the victim may be aware of the nature of their relationship. Or they may be aware, but believe that the parasitism is beneficial or morally justifiable. As we get better and better at stopping explicit parasitism, our peaceful and wealthy society becomes more and more ripe for implicit parasitism. That is the danger. But there is an upside: once implicit parasitism is recognized, it is much easier to stop than explicit parasitism, since the parasite is usually not able or willing to use superior force to continue the parasitism.

As we become more educated and form large-scale social-economic-political units, we learn to recognize and stop petty parasitism and form social taboos and laws against it. We imagine that we twitter away less funds on miracle cures, mass delusions, and Ponzi schemes. But by eliminating “simple” parasitism, we “reward” large-scale, hidden, and entrenched parasitism. The remaining parasitic relationships are able to deter their own exposition by using survival “tactics” such as very large scales (the lower the cost to individual victims, the lower the benefit to organizing against them), the spread of ethical principles defending the parasitism, and by embedding deeply in the social fabric.  Successful parasitic relationships in human society thus have two aspects: the physical act of redistributing values and the intellectual memes justifying that activity.

As with evolutionary patterns, there is no need for there to be any direct causal connection between, the act of parasitism and the formation of social structures, memes and taboos that defend it. For example, wealthy people can support the redistribution of wealth to the poor even though it does not benefit them materially. It may in fact lead to more poverty, the discovery of which feeds altruistic memes and thus encourages more wealth distribution. (This is just a hypothetical example – the cause & effect and the spread of ideas can have much more complicated relationships.)

Entrenchment in social-intellectual structures is key to parasitic relationships which display high evolutionary fitness. It’s hard for the victim of outright robbery and fraud to justify as morally proper or necessary. Parasitism engrained in basic social functions such as schools and roads is much harder to end. It may not be necessary for government schools to be run by parasitic (in the sense of demanding above-market-rate resources) teacher’s unions, but it is much harder to reorganize educational institutions than to stop gambling or seeking fortune tellers.

I have here tried to use relevant but non-emotionally or politically laden examples, but it is impossible to speak of this topic without engaging the defensive mental mechanisms of my audience, as aspects of the parasitism tied to ethical memes and group identity politics trip mental circuit breaks as part of their defensive mechanism. As with the birds, without any grand conspiracy, malice or even conscious awareness, all of civilization organizes in a way that opposes both the anti-parasistical behavior and the very recognition that the relationships are parasitical. Even by writing these thoughts, I am acting against the parasitic memes and so both opposing my own social-educational worldview and alienating myself from the mainstream intellectual dialogue that enables the parasitic behavior.  The evolved behavior+meme entities have done their job well: the chance that I or anyone will affect the mainstream is extremely slim.

I hope the above does not sound too pessimistic. After all, as a global civilization, humanity is doing pretty well.  Parasitism is bad in the sense that it a wasteful allocation of resources, but there are many other forms of inefficiency. If you want a simple takeaway, it is that destructive relationships can develop without any malicious intent, and that by examining all our relationships, including the “voluntary” ones and those that we see as “essential,” we might discover that many of the premises we held for granted are false.

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