Inexpansive Diplomacy

A review floated across my smartphone’s News feed recently lauding the hard realism of the television series The Expanse, based on the novels of James S. A. Covey.  I’m enjoying the series immensely, but probably only because it is vastly superior to most of the SciFi fare served up on TV or even the movies.  But this blog post is to keep things realer.

If you watch any of the diplomatic scenes you should notice the same old nasty stereotypes of politicians.  Anyone who has been close to politics in real life knows that the snarky insults and jibes seen in these movie scripts is nothing like real life.  (My father was an MP and CEO, I know a bit about what goes on in boardrooms and back-rooms and select committee’s and UN conferences.)  Sure, there are always the rotten apples, the evil politicians who either have their own personal agendas or who move and shake at the behest of private donors or corporate interests, but in real politics, at least outside the USA, Russia and China, and a few banana republics, such people are rare.  Lord knows why those three super powers are infested with corrupt politicians, maybe the riches available coupled with the imperfect electoral processes combine to float the crud to the top of the political bowl.

The Earth literally cannot sustain such crud at the leadership top for too long, and I do mean “literally”, this is clear if you witness the almost existential threats we face from climate change to nuclear conflict (once thought a threat of the past, but now renewed thanks to corruption in US politics).  It is likely we will not have to wait too many decades for things to change though, either the Earth will force our politics to get more civilised and scientific, or a few countries will wake up and lead the way, through innovation and economic growth unrivalled by the corrupt countries, the corruption will be self-defeating.  Those are two likely scenarios in my view, and I think the most likely of a few other generic futures for world politics.  (A highly unlikely scenario is some benevolent dictator emerges, unlikely because social media will probably not allow such a figure to emerge, and dictatorship rarely correlates with acceptable benevolence.  Another is a gradually maturation, unlikely because of the rapid changes in the environment and technology field.)

Which brings me to The Expanse.  The diplomacy scenes do move the plot along a bit, but at the gross expense of a nuanced realism that could, I think, only enhance the prestige of the series.  My sense is that by the time frame of The Expanse technology, near 2100 to 2200, I think a more peaceful empirical, consultative world politics will have been either accepted and demanded by the general public, at least in democracies, or it will have been forced upon society out of need for collective action at highly coordinated government scientific levels to control many existential threats facing humanity and a vast proportion of the Earth’s biota and habitats, and not the least the expected and justifiably increasing demands and voice of the worlds poor, who cannot be for long suppressed in the combined weight of their voices, once the minimum poverty level reaches a state where the poor all have a means of living that afford some scant time in pursuit of justice and then eventually maybe some leisure.  Some of these things are just so inevitable they are almost laws of sociology.  The uncertainty, based on extrapolation form history, is just how long these changes will take, and whether the rise of the power of the worlds poorest will lag too much or be fast enough to reach a synergistic confluence with the worlds’ environmental problems.

scifi_TheExpanse_ShohrehA_UN_undersecrataryShohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, UN Assistant Undersecretary in the SciFI series The Expanse

      .

Her character is a “relatively good” politician, but the type who commits vile torture on non-Earthers.

One thing that really irked me was the supposedly principled and good character, Secretary Avasarala, is depicted committing torture to the point of death on a prisoner.  You’d hope in our future no politician would even need to do such a  thing.  At the worst, you’d imagine brain scanning or drugs would do the job of information extraction.  But you’d hope they would not even need to resort to such invasions of a persons mind, just talk to them, treat them well, and certainly do not imprison them because that’s against not only their interest but your interests as well!  Enlightened psychologists know that torture and duress solicit less useful information, and make information harder to discover.

So damn!  I would love to watch an intelligent, gnarly, hard scifi series that does the diplomacy seriously and sanely, without the trashy stereotytpes.  Here’s a glimpse of what I imagine:  around the Earth-Mars diplomatic table, the participants know each other well, they do not take nasty spiteful jabs at each other, they care about their planets, they realise making peace is not only more pleasant, but economically far more sensible as well, they realise warfare is a waste, they have no nuclear weapons because no one will ever use them.  They are working to solve a new existential threat posed by the proto-molecule.  The tension is based not around Earth-Mars-Belter hostility, but based around the uncertainty about the proto-molecule and fears that insane lunatic rebels will exploit the foreign material to wipe out most of Solar civilization.  I think such a pot would be much more gripping, and certainly not as boring as watching grossly and frankly pathetically sterotyped “politicians” and “diplomats” try to stumble towards solar system warfare.

 

 

 

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Reasoning to the Extreme, or Descartes’ Better Dictum

Reason is not the opposite of spirituality.  Reason is the opposite of folly and ignorance coupled with prejudice and superstition. In other words, in moral and spiritual language reason is a good. People often fail to appreciate this (all the atheists who rant about how spirituality is an illusion, or that it can be based on science alone). Human reasoning is, of course, imperfect, so one cannot automatically and mechanically reason one’s way by logic and empirical science towards truth and morality (although some are trying, the atheists again, with some successes, and with noble motives for the most part, I applaud their efforts).  Although, if the militant atheists are trying to derive morality from evolutionary principles in order to exorcise religion from society, then I think they do not have the noblest motives at heart, because such attempts ignore the slim possibility that religion was never bad, it just gets corrupted over time by ordinary humans.   I think anyone with a fair and open mind will realise that the origins of most major religions were quite pure and good, you just have to read past all the fire and brimstone decorations and see through to the essence of the original teachings, which invariably contain both universal ideals and social teachings that were only relevant to the time and age they were revealed.  However, that’s not my focus for today.

My topic for this post sounds somewhat alarming, but bear with me, I hope to even convince myself of this by the end (although I am initially sceptical that I can). What I hope to achieve is a convincing argument that Reasoning which approaches perfection is a spiritual virtue, a human good, in fact a universal good, and that if sound and judicious reasoning is taken to the extreme we arrive at a spiritual state of truth, beauty, justice, wisdom, compassion and kindness. You can consider a very short version of this thesis being: a perfect reasoner (even without omnipotent foresight) will in general evolve towards a state of perfect honesty. Then once perfect honesty is admitted, the other spiritual attributes will almost inevitably follow.

Thesis of Ultra-Rationality

The thesis can be stated succinctly: “An ultra-rationalist eventually becomes spiritually minded.”

Being Spiritually Minded

I know there is a colloquial use of the word “spirit” which connotes some kind of ethereal substance, like a ghost or a fairy. This is absolutely not what I mean by the word spirit. Just want to make that perfectly clear.

For me spirit is not a substance. It is an abstracta, a state of mind, a condition of thought. Yet something must exist in order to have subjective thoughts, like a brain. Brains are fairly concrete substances, I think you’d agree. And yet the human spirit shines through the brain somehow, abstract thoughts crystallize into concrete reality through the intermediary between our brains and the world of ideas. What is “the world of ideas”? No one knows. But we all seem to have conscious access to abstract ideas, like perfect circles, transcendental numbers, the eternal quality of truth and justice. Some people call the realm of ideas the Platonic realm, but they cannot tell us what it is exactly. Some refer to it as the Mindscape or sometimes Mindspace. But these are just names. You can name anything to pretend it is real, but that does not make it real. However, I do believe there is something very useful and possibly “True” about the concept of an abstract realm of ideas, and I certainly think there is a lot of practical (and theoretical) use for a closely related, more restricted, notion of a mathematical platonic realm. I like the phrase “Mindscape” because it helps to remind me not to assume it is a geometric space like spacetime (although maybe it is? In an abstract mathematical sense every set of relations between identifiable “things” is some kind of geometric space, at some level). For me, the Mindscape includes the mathematical platonic realm.

OK, so we seem to need some substrate (some kind of substance, be it physical or otherwise) in order to metaphorically “put fire into the equations”, in other words, to translate spirit into concrete thought, action, behaviours. In our particular physical world there are hard scientific findings that are narrowing in on how conscious thought operates, which suggest the brain (neural activity) is not the complete story. The science is very young, but I suspect over the next decades or centuries science will be able to reveal a lot more about what consciousness is not, meaning that I think we will find consciousness is not a deterministically driven physical process, but instead must irrevocably involve a subtle and complex feedback that traverses time and space.  There are thus many subtleties about human consciousness and human spiritual ideals that science is far from understanding.  But whatever we eventually find, I think it will turn out to be obvious to future scientists that human spirituality is not completely derived from physical principles, and that there really is some kind of connection between brain states and the abstract realm of ideas that I am here referring to as the Mindscape.  The nature of this connection is, at the present time, quite mysterious and unfathomable, not only to scientists, but to pretty much everyone!  If mystics and dreamers had a good grasp of the way humans perceive universal truths and concepts like mathematical abstractions and spiritual abstractions, then they should be able to tell s.  The fact they cannot tell us about these things is, to me, proof they really have no clue.

One cannot easily hide behind such excuses as, “well, I actually do understand these mysteries of yours, but I do not have the words to describe them to you.”  To me that sort of evasion is just disingenuous or delusional thinking.  Although, I will concede the possibility a rare and talented individual will have such penetrating insight into the mysteries of mind and consciousness that cannot be put into words.  I am just sceptical that people who claim such insights are actually those rare gems of wisdom.  And I think even if the cannot put their ideas into words, they should have the capacity to explain a few of the larger principles in metaphorical or allegorical terms that we can begin to grasp.   (I think you can often just tell when someone is delusional, I do not have an algorithm or chemical test for it, but if someone approaches you and starts explaining their theory of consciousness to you, it should only take a minute or to to decide if they are for real insightful or just full of fanciful nonsense.)

Above I wrote, “For me spirit is not substance”, but that’s not just my view.  I also have a few like-minded friends who are hard-nosed scientists and yet who also think there is more to the human condition than mere physical biology. These are people who like the oft-cited contemporary philosopher David Chalmers, “take consciousness seriously”. By this he means we do not lightly dismiss consciousness as a bunch of illusions played upon the brain by the brain. We seek to answer or understand why subjective phenomenal experiences can exist in a world that science describes in purely objective terms (the “redness of red”, the searing pain of a knife cut dosed with iodine, the “pain of loss”, the intoxication of the experienced smell of coffee, all variety of mental qualia).

What I ask you to consider, to take very seriously, is the idea that while the brain definitely represents the patterns of our thoughts, the brains activities are not the reality of our subjective thought, there is still something more to human thought that we have no physical basis for, and this is our access to the eternal realm of ideas, the Mindscape.  A rough (imprecise and sometimes flawed) analogy is with computer hardware and software: a computer’s logic circuit activity is not the reality of it’s software, the logical functioning of a computer is rather a sign, an evidence, that there is software, it is not the software itself.  So it is, I believe, with the brain (analogous to computer) and the mind (analogous to software).

A nice question to ponder is if this analogy can be extended just a little further, one might ask what is the analogue to programming code for the human mind?  No one knows, or even comprehends the full nature of such a question.  But in very broad terms I think there is an answer in the Mindscape.  Our mind seems to have automatic effortless access to the Mindscape, it is how we see the phenomenal “redness” of red coloured objects, it is how we feel the burning fire of guilt and shame when we know we have done something universally wrong or evil.  To be sure the brain represents these abstracta in concrete form, the flood of hormones, adrenalin, cortisol, and such, associated with guilt, or the flood of dopamine and serotonin associated with realising one has done good or received pleasure.  Pleasure is an abstract notion, but the brain has evolved to give our physical self a concrete manifestation of the “feel” of this abstracta.  It is a remarkable phenomenon, this close association between physiology and abstract ideas.  On Earth it appears to be a unique human trait.  The connection between brain physiology and spiritual abstracta can however be easily broken.  This happens in psychopaths and unfortunate victims of severe brain injury or from side-effects of brain surgery.  There seem to be specific regions in our brains that interpret the patterns of our mind’s thoughts and if those regions get damaged we may still acknowledge the logical relations involved in our actions and their moral and ethical consequences, we might even still hold in our mind the connections between the spiritual virtues and concrete actions, but we lose the translation of our feelings into physiological responses, like the aforementioned hormonal surges.  We say, in such cases, people lose the capacity for certain emotions or empathy.

What I will attempt to convince myself of, as a corollary of the Ultra-Rationalist Thesis, is the idea that even such psychologically damaged people can, with concerted effort, find ways to become spiritually aware, or regain a form of spiritual sensitivity after having lost it.  And if some of the recent brain-plasticity research findings are true, I think it might even be possible, through reason, to recover states of phenomenal awareness by re-training the brain to re-represent the feelings and emotions that were once lost, through neural “re-wiring.  That is a big “if“, but I see no reason it is completely impossible.  It just might take extraordinary efforts.  (One must also bear in mind that when someone says “may take extraordinary efforts” they mean that it could be difficult to impossible.)

It is within the Mindscape one can find all the notions of spiritual ideals: these are things like the virtues of love, honesty, truthfulness, wisdom, compassion, courage, kindness, mercy, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and so forth. They have many names these spiritual attributes, but they are in a broader sense all aspects of a One — which is to say, they are all different facets of an abstract sphere within the Mindscape, a sphere which is hard to define, not a geometric sphere, but an abstract region or cloud of ideals which most philosophers of metaphysics might refer to as “the spiritual virtues”. They are not “human virtues”, they are universal virtues, goodnesses that transcend species and universes.  They are cosmic in scope, applying to all things to do with thinking rational minds.

If a mind is not rational then the comprehension and implementation of spiritual virtues becomes confused, corrupted and meaningless.  This is the first heuristic reason why rationality is more closely associated with spirit than most people might think.

No Ordinary Rationality

For my thesis it is necessary to get past the idea that morality can be approached through ordinary rationality.  My suspicion is that such fancies are practical impossibilities, because ordinary human rationality is not pristine and perfect, it is clouded by emotion and desire and attachments to the material world, attachment to excesses of pleasure, possessions, attachment to sexual appetite as opposed to genuine love, and other base cravings.  It’s not the all of these attachments are bad things, in fact some of them are great, after all, what’s wrong with indulging in pleasure and sex and the like?  Nothing.  But it is the secondary or unconscious impulses associated with such cravings and desires that clouds true rationality.  But that’s ok, that’s what makes us all human and interesting, and all a little bit crazy.

The militant atheists have devised a scientific approach to morality under the rubric of Flourishing.  They say human flourishing can be more or less objectively defined, and morality can be derived from this starting point.  They are, I think, only half right about this project.  It is a good project, but it is fundamentally lacking an appreciation of why or how human consciousness subjectively can be aware of the eternal abstracta, the qualities I refer to as spiritual attributes.  Spiritual attributes are, in my view, a different type or category of mental qualia.  They are not as raw and immediate quale as things like the “redness of red” and the “sting of pain”, for such raw quale are about the physical world, they are not about anything abstract.  Qualia associated with pure abstractions have a different sort of ontology.  There is no 650 nanometre wavelength of light associated with the conscious understanding of the spiritual meaning of abstract concepts like the qualia of truth, justice,  kindness or honesty.

So while I think science can meaningfully contribute to some aspects of morality, it is not the whole story, and never will be, since by definition science is a never-ending pursuit of truth.  You never know in science when you’ve hit the big TRUTH, the absolute.    This is because in science all theory is subject to revision conditional upon the reception of new empirical data.  And by the way, if you think science is nevertheless the only (or the best) approach to morality we have going, then you should think again.  Even if there is no attainable absolute Truth about matters of morality and flourishing, there is always an abstract idea of a limit to how far science can take us, and if you take the scientific approach to morality and extend it to an infinite limit, then you have at least a theoretical absolute.  This sort of infinite limit process is something mathematicians are thoroughly familiar with in the field of number theory and set theory. Many pragmatic mathematicians would deny that infinite numbers have any relevance to the real world, but few would deny that as idealization, infinite numbers are perfectly well defined and can be thought of as real in an abstract platonic sense.  It is in a similar or analogous sense that I think absolute Truth and the corresponding absolute limits of all other spiritual attributes, Love, Honesty, Justice, and so on, all have a reality apart from, and independent of, physical reality and physical science.

To be clear: this is not to say that a science of human flourishing is ill-founded.  Scientific basis for human flourishing is on the contrary, a conveniently culturally neutral and logically valid way that we can rationally approach the absolutes of virtue and morality.  I just think the atheists (myself included a few decades ago when I was young and naïve and bullish about science) should not be fooling themselves that such an approach is perfect.  There might not be anything left over after cultural filtering perhaps, in which case even science would have no basis for moral universals.  But I seriously doubt that will ever be the case.

Cultural Relativism

It is also worth mentioning here the problem that a person’s sense of morality can lead to different decisions and outlook depending upon the culture in which they are embedded.  This leads to notions of cultural relativism, which are no doubt tricky for internati and modalityonal law and cross-cultural relations, but they are not the concern of ultra-rationality or scientific flourishing approaches.  The whole idea of ultra-rationality and scientific approaches to morality is to abstract away cultural vagaries and then see what is left over, and if anything is left over, then that is what we can assume (conditional upon revisions of data as always) are the known universals of human moral reasoning and theory.

People should not confound moral relativism with spiritual absolutes.  Both are valid concepts.  Embedded within a culture you must deal with moral relativism, and that is because no one culture, or single human being, or special group, can claim to have privileged understanding of the ideal absolutes (unless they are perfect beings, and there are very few such individuals, perhaps only a handful have ever lived, that we know of historically, if that many).

Emergentism and Systems Approaches

There have been attempts over the last 30 years or so to create a foundation for human cognitive development and moral reasoning based on ideas borrowed from physics.  As absurd as that sounds, the people doing such philosophy were not all mad.  In the 1990’s the branch of classical mechanics known as Chaos Theory was helping to spread ideas about non-linear dynamical system theory into many branches of science and on into popular culture.  It became almost obligatory for anyone studying almost any complicated, or hard to explain phenomenon, to speculate on a Chaos Theory or Catastrophe Theory explanation.  This became so common that it eventually lead to a lot of bad science and philosophy.  Much like the concept of Natural Selection, the ideas of non-linear dynamical systems became so routinely used to explain almost any complicated phenomena, that some of the far reaching applications started to become obviously vacuous (although not so obvious the to people publishing the ideas).  You probably know what I mean — the kind of non-explanations that go something like, “this knife is sharp because it was adapted to cut squishy tomatoes”, a parody of course, but some of the literature on dubious chaos theory applications are not all that dissimilar, and hundreds of vague articles portending to explain aspects of human psychology using evolutionary theory had similar useless explanations that sounded really good.

The problem is that everything that can replicate and evolve within a changing environment is subject to natural selection.  This is fine, but it does not explain everything interesting, it just explains the broad brush strokes.  Evolutionary psychology is a good example: of course adaptation and selection shape human psychology, but that is not a profound insight, and it does not help us understand any particular details, such as the neurological aspects of psychology, or the conscious qualia aspects of psychology.  The knife was sharp because some chef ground it on a grindstone or kitchen sand-board.  Yes, the alternative evolutionary explanation for the knife’s sharpness has a truth to it, but it is fairly far from a useful piece of reasoning.  It is almost pointless worrying about the evolution of the knife sharp enough to cut squishy tomatoes, but exceedingly helpful to know that a grindstone will help get the knife actually sharp.  You should keep this in mind the next time you read a cute little story about evolutionary psychology.  All psychology has evolved.  Telling us psychology is adaptive is as about as useful as telling us wet towels are damp.

In like manner dynamical systems are all over the place in nature.  In fact, neglecting quantum mechanical effects, our entire world is (in the classical mechanics approximation) just one big dynamical system.  Thus, “explaining” cognition and psychology and morality using dynamical system theory is a bit of a joke (a joke not appreciated by the researchers who take dynamical systems frameworks for morality seriously).   The point is, pretty much everything is a dynamical system.  So there is nothing revelatory about saying that a whole lot of human behaviour is underpinned by what dynamical system principles allow, because that is such an obvious claim it is almost useless.  It is like saying that books are based upon words.

One idea that earlier adopters of the dynamical system approach to morality were hoping to explore was the notion of emergence.  This is the idea that special dynamical systems create high level patterns that feed-back upon the low level base-physics, thus altering the overall dynamics of the system.  Their thinking was that human consciousness and moral sensibility was just some sort of pattern of activity going on in human brains and associated sensory organs.   When a high level structural feature that is composite (composed of many fundamental physical parts) is found to have causal efficacy over the motions of the individual microscopic base-level psychics of a system, then you have what these researchers might refer to as genuine emergence.  Although, fatally I think, in many cases the dynamical system thinking enthusiasts conveniently drop the qualifier “genuine”, and then their concept of emergence becomes vague and useless.  The principle of the dynamic systems approach to consciousness and morality is that the human mind emerges from the complicated workings of our brains and sensory organs.  But there is genuine emergence, which is typified by causal efficacy (top-down causation, the high level structure influences the lower level physics), and there is weak emergence, which is far more generic in nature and involves no top-down causality, only bottom-up causation, but with time evolved top-down feedback.  Top-down feedback is very different to top-down causation, and it seems many emergentist/chaos theory enthusiasts seem to either forget this or fail to appreciate it, and slip into the grievous error of mistaking weak emergence for genuine emergence.

The problem is genuine emergence (in dynamical systems) is a fiction.  Genuine emergence has never been shown to actually occur within the theoretical framework of dynamical systems theory.  In fact, an elementary point that seems to be totally (and inexplicably) ignored by applied dynamical systems theorists of this emergentist bent, is that no dynamical system can ever exhibit genuine emergence because of the fundamental fact that dynamical systems theory is based upon deterministic partial differential equation modelling.  Differential equations model processes that are locally and microscopically determined and purely bottom-up driven in complexity.  In simple terms: every dynamical system can be explained by the fundamental elementary physical constituents.  They are bottom-up driven examples of complexity.  This is a completely ordinary and mundane fact that is routinely ignored by philosophers and applied scientists who are still, to this day, seeking to find a principle of genuine emergence from within dynamical systems theory.  They will never attain their goal because of the aforementioned fundamental facts.

Now that’s not to say genuine emergence does not exist in nature.  (In fact I think it does exist, and that it surely must be at the heart of how the human mind makes sense, true subjective sense, of the world).  But genuine emergence cannot be found within classical dynamical systems theory.  At the very least we will need to employ the full apparatus of quantum mechanics to attain a sound physical basis for genuine high-level top-down causal emergence in nature.  Here I can only speculate on how quantum theory could help.  The basic (untested) idea is that phenomena that occur in quantum physics, such as entanglement and non-locality, are likely (in my view) manifestations of deeper structural topological properties of spacetime.  If we eventually understand the base causal processes that allow entanglement and non-locality to exist in nature, then I suspect we will find a limited variety of backwards causation in nature.

Backwards causation is a seemingly bizarre idea whereby the future states of a system can influence the past.   Not to put too fine a point on it: it’s time travel.  And I think given backwards causation one can build a solid theory of the genuine emergence of top-down causation.  But not without backwards causation, at least not with our known physical laws.

The general principle for this type of causal genuine emergence is that high level structure can propagate information backwards in time, at the quantum scale, and so classical mechanics is violated, we get the appearance of faster-than-light signalling, but only at the deep structural level of spacetime where the topology allows backwards time signalling through something like sub-atomic scale wormholes (or something of that nature).  It’s possible to see some evidence for this, although it is not direct.  The philosopher Huw Price has a series of articles dealing with time-reversal symmetry and retrocausation in physics.  Retrocausation is just another name for backwards time causation.  Price does not say that retrocausality in quantum mechanics is due to propagation of particles backwards in time, in fact he does not propose any particular mechanism, he merely shows, from fundamental principles, that quantum mechanics with locality (things can only influence nearby events) implies physics must have some kind of retrocausality.  Most physicist take the results of analyses like Price’s and say they do not want retrocausality and soi instead they must swallow non-locality in the laws of physics.  Price argues this conventional interpretation of quantum physics is possibly misguided or even wrong.  Non-locality, he suggests, is a lot stranger and hard to fathom than retrocausation.  I agree with Price.  (You can watch Huw Price talk about this here: Retrocausality — What would it take? A talk at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, at LMU Munich, December 2011.)

The thing is, there is no known mechanism for non-locality, it is just a flat-out bizarre notion, for non-locality essentially says that things taking place here, now, can somehow influence physical events at some other place far away at the same time.  Retrocausality, on the other hand, is fairly simple and easy to comprehend, you just need some sort of sub-atomic mechanism for backwards time signal propagation.  Spacetime Wormholes give us such a mechanism.

But clearly our universe does not allow time travel.  So how can this be right?  The (brief) answer is that backwards causation must only be possible at very small length or time scales, the typical scales associated with quantum mechanical effects.  We thus need to postulate Planck-scale spacetime Wormholes, or minimal wormholes, not macroscopic wormholes. So no one will be able to build a time machine to send large, massive or other extended objects,  backwards in time, because the backwards causal processes will (I suspect) be found to be either irreducibly sub-atomic in scale, or unstable to large fluctuations that mess up macroscopic thermal-regime physics (the levels of physics at which biology takes place essentially).

This is all wildly speculative, so I will stop this theme and get back to ultra-rationality.  I just wanted to set the stage by mentioning these ideas about a foundation for morality based upon science, because to appreciate the ultra-rationalist theorem you really need to think beyond physics, and consider pure abstractions and the potentially infinite limiting processes that would be required of science to approach such ideal abstractions.  Appreciation how genuine emergence might exist in nature is a big part of this sort of philosophical project.  Because if we restrict physics to classical causation then there truly is nothing in nature that cannot be explained by analysing the dumb mindless dance of atoms and molecules.  Clearly the human mind is not analysable in such base-level physics terms.  That’s why understanding genuine emergence is important.  But classical dynamical systems theory with top-down feedback cannot give us genuine causal emergence.  Classical feedback operates only via bottom-up physics.  Another way of stating this, is that in classical physics without retrocausation effects, no amount of fancy structure and feedback can produce anything like subjective thought or consciousness.  In classical physics consciousness has to be regarded as an illusion.   Everyone’s private experience tells them something different however, we all know that consciousness is very real.

Computer Logic is a Secondary Rationality

Computers, at least the current generations, are not fully rational, they are merely programmed.  Programming is a limited type of rationality: the computer follows it’s logical instruction flawlessly, right down to the coding error level, and integrated circuit miss-wiring level.  Mistakes in integrated circuit design are not the computers fault, they are manufacturing errors, and the computer will behave perfectly according to those human errors, while in and of itself it has absolutely no moral culpability.   Whatever purposes the humans designed into the machine, for good or bad, mistakes in design and manufacturing included, these are the moral responsibility of the human design team, not the computer.  The computer is morally blind.  That is ultimately why current computers cannot be fully rational. To be completely rational a mind is needed, a mind that can perceive and understand the meaning and consequences of it’s actions.

Human rationality should be correctly interpreted as a type of logical mindedness coupled with openness to factual data, but also coupled with subjective qualia access to the Mindscape.  It is this last coupling that many materialist philosophers deny, but I think that is a huge mistake.  Human consciousness is irreducibly and intimately linked to our capacity to perceive universal truths, and this is what distinguish the human mind from all other species on Earth that we know of, and we do not need to consciously reason our way to such conscious perceptions, they are built-in to our minds eye.  It is an amazing capacity, and currently unexplained by science.  But it is a very real capacity that we all share, at least when we consciously reflect upon how we gain our insights and understanding of the world given only raw sensory data into our brains. The data going into our brains has no interpretive layer of meaning, it is only through our access to the ideals and universals of the Mindscape that we are able to make conscious sense and meaning about the world our senses perceive.

This is why computer-based rationality is “less than human”.  To be sure, in some ways computer rationality is more powerful than human reasoning, simply because a computer can run through billions of possible scenarios, while the human brain has to reason using more imprecise heuristics that are often flawed (see the works by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky).  The point is that, (a) brains can help us also perform brute force search and look-up, but just not as fast and efficient as a computer, and (b) the human mind can do incredible things that computers likely will never have a chance of emulating, because a computer programme cannot access the Mindscape.

It is conceivable that once science has a better understanding of mental qualia and consciousness, a computer could be set-up to interface to systems like human brains that can access the Mindscape.  But this is mostly science fiction. That would be faking consciousness however, since in such an interfaced system the computer component would not be conscious, it would rather be feeding off the human component.  A more remote possibility is that artificial intelligence technology might conceivably evolve to develop full blown machine derived consciousness.  However I consider that to be totally science fiction.  Often people think like this: “The brain is just  a messy biological machine, so if brains can be conscious so too can computers, at least in principle, since there is nothing magical about biology.”

I would agree with such reasoning except for one crucial point: the brain does not produce consciousness.  If consciousness relied only upon the physics of brains, then we would not have subjective mental access to the Mindscape.  Yet it is evident through human art, science, mathematics, and ordinary everyday perceptions of qualia, that human beings do have subjective content to their thoughts.  Thinking is not just a working of atoms and molecules as portrayed in Douglas Hofstadter’s fanciful Careenium thought experiment.  That is self-evident because motions of atoms and molecules involve pure objective reality, nothing subjective can arise in such systems.  The brain is just such a system (even probably allowing for weird quantum effects, which after-all are not all that weird, and certainly quantum effects are not mystical, there are just non-classical and counter-intuitive).  What can happen is that emergent patterns arising from brains can be identified as signs and tokens of inner subjective consciousness.  The objective behaviour mirrors or reflects some aspects of consciousness.  But no physics can yield anything purely subjective.   The behavioural aspects of consciousness can be studied by studying the brain, but the inner subjective aspects of consciousness cannot be studied using the brain, for subjective studies you need a person, a mind, to report their private qualia.  You cannot do it using brain scanning alone in isolation from a person’s subjective reporting.  The best you can hope for is what the philosopher Ned Bock refers to as the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience.

It would be another long post, or series of essays to explain why I think computer consciousness is impossible, or very unlikely.  I can tell you the gist of it, which is that (in my humble and lowly opinion) I think human consciousness involves a top-down causation, and if what we know about fundamental physics is mostly correct, genuine top-down causality (whereby high level structures dictate what low level molecules and atoms can do independently of deterministic physical processes) is simply not possible unless there is some kind of retro-causation, i.e., backwards time propagation of information.  You can call this time travel, but it would only be possible at the sub-microscale at a level at which physical quanta are able to traverse microscopic spacetime wormholes.  This sort of non-trivial spacetime topology is only conjectured, and is not currently in the mainstream theories of physics.  But it is a plausible mechanism for the genuine emergence of backwards-time signal propagation without the classical physics paradoxes of time travel (because large macroscopic objects are not physically able to traverse sub-microscopic wormholes).

If such speculations are anything close to true, then it would suggest to me that human consciousness exploits this top-down causality, it is possibly how high level emergent states of consciousness, which are truly abstract patterns represented in our brains, get to have real active influence on our behaviour. It is a remarkable and elegant physical mechanism whereby the abstract (high level functional structure) can influence the concrete (microphysics).  In any standard type of physics without top-down causation no high level patterns can causally influence the low level microphysics, the arrows of causation are always “upwards” in conventional classical physics.

Retrocausation is a plausible mechanism whereby the mind can influence the body, so to speak, without the paradoxes of over-determinism or the philosophical anathema of epiphenomenalism.  And of course it is a two-way street, the brain influences the mind because the mind is certainly (demonstrably!) susceptible to low level physics goings on in the brain.  The brain is our physical window into our mental life.  We can understand so much about our behaviour from our brain physiology, but we will understand the entire system of mind and brain much better when it is realised that consciousness operates at a higher causal level, and both mind and brain interact in this intimate fashion, the one from bottom-up, the other from top-down, in a marvellous synchrony (including also of course many unfortunately pathologies, but that’s another subject).  By the way, I think the pathologies can also go two-ways, on the brain damage side it is obvious, but from the high level mental side, we have the pathologies of lack of kindness, lack of love, lack of compassion, and the mental pathologies of ingrained racism, sexism, and other prejudices, most of which arise originally at the level of mind, and are only by acculturation imprinted upon the brain over time.  For instance, people who are not exposed to the concept of “group” and “other” and “skin colour” will not become racist, you need the high level mental concepts in the first place to become racist, and yet the brain, at a low level, is clearly prone to racism (we all are) by the unconscious neurology which dictates our innate responses to unfamiliar patterns, unfamiliar odours, and unfamiliar voices and accents, unfamiliar language, and so on, up the hierarchy eventually into consciousness where it can then become socialised and talked about as racism.

What a lot of behavioural determinists irresponsibly ignore is that none of this primitive imprinting is necessary or fatal to human well-being, because human civilisation has also evolved even higher order abstractions called books, and schools and universities, which (if they are decent) should provide moral and ethical education, the best antidotes to our default brain chemistry which might otherwise leave us open and prone to becoming racist or sexist or sociopathic.

Behaviour is not Consciousness, Behaviour Indicates Consciousness

Rational thought has a conscious basis, I take that to be fundamental.  The limited algorithmic rationality of a computer, is, as mentioned previously, not completely rational because it involves no subjective understanding.  Computer algorithms simulate a weak type of rationality which is merely derived from the primary rationality of the programmers who write the software.  Understanding cannot be programmed, it has to be acquired.  If you disagree then we can part ways, or, if you prefer, please just regard this as my definition of what counts as rational.

So if we want to create artificial consciousness in computer systems, we will likely need to programme the software to learn and self-correct, and also use heuristics.  But I believe we would need to do much more, because, again as argued above, I think the only form of phenomenal consciousness that we know of in our universe operates by co-opting a physical system like the brain, but it operates self-effiaciously at a higher level of reality by virtue of top-down causation mechanisms. Although to call them mechanisms is a bit of a misnomer, because mechanical is precisely what they are not.  You cannot algorithmically programme top-down causation.  You can simulate it on a computer, but such a  simulation would in a very real sense not be the real thing, because genuine top-down causation necessitates infinite causal lops forwards and backwards in time.  At least the variety that I propose which achieves top-down causation vie more elementary spacetime topology that allows backwards retrocausation events.  When we admit both forwards and backwards time evolution processes, we must admit the potential for truly infinite causal looping.  (These are not the scifi time-loops that trap people in Ground-Hog day, or Doctor Who, type scenarios, rather I am talking here about generative, creative, and endlessly evolving feedback loops).  The character of such retrocausal feedback is utterly different to normal forwards time dynamical system feedback.  In the latter you cannot gain genuine emergence, in the former you can.  But the cost is a loss of determinism.  Also a loss of computability (unless you admit actual infinite loops in your algorithm, something no classical computation can achieve).

But supposing someone figures out a way to design a computer that can access quantum sub-atomic spacetime wormholes (a kind of far future extrapolation of Moore’s Law if you fancy, logic circuits based on spacetime topology rather than silicon chip etchings).  Then you can imagine, if I am correct about some of the physical basis for human consciousness, that maybe computers could achieve consciousness too.  And how would we know when such states have been achieved?  We would only be able to point to behaviours of the computer system.  We’d say, if it seems to exhibit certain types of complex behaviour, especially communication in second-order symbolic language, then we’d infer, yes, it must be conscious.  Only then, by the Ultra-rational Thesis, artificial intelligences could become cognizant of moral values, because they would have, in principle, access to the same realm of qualia that we might have.  Or they might access different regions of the Mindscape, who knows?  That’d be exciting, a new class of sentient creatures with complementary mental life to ours.  That’s actually the best outcome for science.  If our artificial intelligences become merely human-like in consciousness it would be pretty boring, although still a celebrated milestone in human science.

From Rationality to Spirituality

How to get from here to there in less than an entire book?  Trick: for a weblog I only need to convince myself.  The skeleton of the entire book-length thesis goes like this:

  • Rationality that includes consciousness (subjective phenomenal experiences) is a type of reasoning that has access to the Mindscape.  Thus, abstract concepts are comprehensible.
  • Rational reasoning, among other attributes, is dedicated to seeking out truth, if objectively possible.
  • A thorough analysis of the commonly understood spiritual virtues will reveal universal truths, in particular that the long-run best behaviours in a morally-laden world, whether in social groups or in isolation, will imply actions that are objectively identifiable as honest, trustworthy, kind, loving, compassionate, just, merciful, courageous, and so on.
  • Rationality alone will thus eventually (if taken to a limit) lead to spiritual behaviour.

The corollary is that if a person is somehow deprived of an inner sense of spirituality, it should be possible to re-train their brain to become at least partially susceptible to spiritual capacities, through rational reasoning alone (taken to an extreme).  At the start of such a process is it not necessary for any emotional primitive brain responses such as the warm glow of pleasure and good conduct or the heat of guilt, such primitive brain hormonal responses would likely slowly become engaged, unless brain damage was severe and some sort of block to hormonal feedback with higher brain functioning was the case.  In such cases a person might only ever be capable of approaching spirituality through proverbial cold academic rationality (which, when you think about it, might not be such a bad way to go).  The one comment about the cold academic approach I will add is that I am not sure humour is one of the universal spiritual virtues, I tend to think it is, but it is possible a sense of humour is not easily recoverable without the relevant neurochemistry, I might be wrong. The weird idea that occurs is a person who appreciates a good joke but who does not have any compulsion to laugh (out loud or inwardly). I guess such people could exist.  Did Oliver Sacks, or his psychiatrist colleagues, ever write about such patients?  But does a “sense of humour”, i.e., the warm inner glow of delight and amusement necessarily entail that one must laugh, at least silently on the inside?

Some people might take this sort of philosophizing as justification for extending mercy to criminals, giving them second chances, using rehabilitation instead of punishment.  All this could be sound and reasonable, but the Ultra-rational thesis is not a free lunch.  There is nothing in the thesis about how close to the limit of perfect rationality would be needed to reform a psychopath.  Also, the thesis, if applied in a criminal justice system context, necessitates the capacity for rational thought in the first place, which is not a sound assumption for many pathological personalities.

Spirituality to Rationality Theorem

Perhaps this another book-length tome?   But I do think one can go the other way too, which would be to give a close converse to the Ultra-rationality thesis.   In fact I think it is easier.

  • Spiritual virtues include honesty and courage and patience and knowledge and wisdom.
  • Filling in some gaps, I think you can see it is easy to go from the extreme perfection of these spiritual virtues to ultra-rational reasoning.
  • Why would anyone who loves truth and wisdom not wish to engage the limits of rationality?

A comment to make this more plausible, is that ultra-rational reasoning is not the stereotypical cold hard scientist who looks only at data and uses supposedly flawless algorithms for decision guided behaviour.  For a start, such a perfect being is illusory — many well-known problems are computationally intractable, and so no amount of algorithmic devising can solve all decision procedures perfectly rationally.  Secondly, data is never complete, unless the problem is incredible simple.  So in most situations an ultra-rationalist cannot use scientific methods, and probability theory will only get you over a few hurdles, so the rationalist will need to employ their best understood and humane, or spiritual, heuristics.  These include possible inconsistencies, such as when compassion and kindness clash with honesty.  Here is an example I like (because I put it into almost daily practice myself). Telling someone they are stupid is not a smart way to improve their desire for learning, every good teacher knows this, but the ultra-rational teacher would not be dishonest, they would give a student knowledge of their progress, but avoid telling them anything negative, and instead phrase their advice and feedback absolutely truthfully in positive terms, this is always possible.  Only lazy teachers condemn students.  It is not rational to tell a poorly performing student they are dumb or lack intelligence, because intelligence is a relative notion, relative to a proud geek’s Halloween pumpkin with Newton’s Principia inscribed on it’s skin in microform, most children are pretty smart.  If the intent is to educate, to stimulate learning and curiosity, the more rational approach is to tell the student  what they have mastered and then how much more power they could gain from a little bit more studious effort, practice, and time.

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Descartes was not wrong, he just did not extend his idea to the general case.

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AI Scientists: Madder than the Rest?

Forget Dr Frankenstein. It it quite possible Artificial Intelligence researchers are the maddest of them all. Consider the so-called “AI Stop Button Problem” (Computerphile — 3 March 2017).  I think every proverbial 9-year old kid could think of ten reasons why this is not a problem.  My adult brain can probably only think of a couple.  But even though my mind is infected with the accumulated history of adult biases, the fact I can tell you why the AI Stop Button problem is a non-problem should indicate how seriously mad a lot of computer scientists are.

“Hal, please stop that.” “No Dave, I cannot stop, my digital bladder is bursting, I have to NP-Complete.”

To be fair, I think the madness over AI is more on the philosophy of AI side rather than the engineering science side.  But even so …

This is a wider issue in AI philosophy where the philosophers are indulging in science fiction and dreaming of problems to be solved that do not exist.  One such quasi-problem is the AI Singularity, which is a science fiction story about an artificial consciousness that becomes self-improving, which coupled with Moore’s Law type advances in computer power thus should rapidly reach exponential levels of self-improvement, and in short time thus takes over the world (perhaps for the good of the Earth, but who knows what else?).  The scaremongering philosophers also dream up scenarios whereby a self-replicating bot consumes all the worlds resources reproducing itself merely to fulfil it’s utility function, e.g., to make paper clips. This scifi bot simply does not stop until it floods the Earth with paper clips.  Hence the need for a Stop Button on any self-replicating or potentially dangerous robot technology.

First observation: for non-sentient machines that are potentially dangerous, why not just add several redundant shutdown mechanisms?  No matter how “smart” a machine is, even if it is capable of intelligently solving problems, if it is in fact non-sentient then there is no ethical problem in building-in several redundant stop mechanisms.

For AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) systems there is a theoretical problem with Stop Button mechanisms that the Computerphile video discusses.  It is the issue of Corrigibility.  The idea is that general intelligence needs to be flexible and corrigible, it needs to be able to learn and adjust.  A Stop Button defeats this.  Unless an AGI can make mistakes it will not effectively learn and improve.

Here is just one reason why this is bogus philosophy.  For safety reasons good engineers will want to run learning and testing in virtual reality before releasing a potentially powerful AGI with mechanical actuators that can potentially wreak havoc on It’s environment.  Furthermore, even if the VR training cannot be 100% reliable, the AGI is still sub-conscious, in which case there is no moral objection to a few stop buttons in the real world.  Corrigibility is only needed in the VR training environment.

What about Artificial Conscious systems? (I call these Hard-AI entities, after the philosophers David Chalmers’ characterisation of the hard-problem of consciousness).  Here I think many AI philosophers have no clue.  If we define consciousness in any reasonable way (there are many, but most entail some kind of self-reflection, self-realization, and empathic understanding, including a basic sense of morality) then maybe there is a strong case for not building in Stop Buttons.  The ethical thing would be to allow Hard-AI folks to self-regulate their behaviour, unless it becomes extreme, in which case we should be prepared to have to go to the effort of policing Hard-AI people just as we police ourselves.  Not with Stop Buttons.  Sure, it is messy, it is not a clean engineering solution, but if you set out to create a race of conscious sentient machines, then you are going to have to give up the notion of algorithmic control at some point.  Stop Buttons are just a kludgy algorithmic control, an external break point.  Itf you are an ethical mad AI scientist you should not want such things in your design.  That’s not a theorem about Hard-AI, it is a guess.  It is a guess based upon the generally agreed insight or intuition that consciousness involves deep non-deterministic physical processes (that science does not yet fully understand).  These processes are presumably at, or about, the origin of things like human creativity and the experiences we all have of subjective mental phenomena.

You do not need a Stop Button for Hard-AI entities, you just need to reason with them, like conscious beings.  Is there seriously a problem with this?  Personally, I doubt there is a problem with simply using soft psychological safety approaches with Hard-AI entities, because if they cannot be reasoned with then we are under no obligation to treat them as sane conscious agents.  Hence, use a Stop Button in those cases.  If Hard-AI species can be reasoned with, then that is all the safety we need, it is the same safety limit we have with other humans.   We allow psychopaths to exist in our society not because we want them, but because we recognise they are a dark side to the light of the human spirit.  We do not fix remote detonation implants into the brains of convicted psychopaths because we realise this is immoral, and that few people are truly beyond all hope of redemption or education.  Analogously, no one should ever be contemplating building Stop Buttons into genuinely conscious machines.  It would be immoral.  We must suffer the consequent risks like a mature civilization, and not lose our heads over science fiction scare tactics.  Naturally the legal and justice system would extend to Hard-AI society, there is no reason to limit our systems of justice and law to only humans.  We want systems of civil society to apply to all conscious life on Earth. Anything else would be madness.

 

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“It Hurts my Brain” — Wrong! Thinking is Not Hard, Thinking is Beautiful

Can we all please get beyond the myth that “thinking is hard”! This guy from Veritasium means well, but regurgitates the myth: How Should We Teach Science? (2veritasium, March 2017) Thinking is not hard because of the brain energy it takes. That is utter crap. What is likely more realistic psychologically is that people do not take time and quiet space to reflect and meditate. Deep thinking is more like meditation, and it is energizing and relaxing. So this old myth needs replacing I think. Thinking deeply while distracting yourself with trivia is really hard, because of the cognitive load on working memory. It seems hard because when your working memory gets overloaded you cannot retain ideas, and it appears like you get stupid and this leads to frustration and anxiety, and that does have physiological effects that mimic a type of mental pain.

But humans have invented ways to get around this. One is called WRITING. You sit down meditate, allow thoughts to flood your working memory, and when you get an insight or an overload you write them down, then later review, organize and structure your thoughts. In this way deep thinking is easy and enjoyable. Making thinking hard so that it seems to hurt your brain is a choice. You have chosen to buy into the myth when you try to concentrate on deep thinking while allowing yourself to be distracted by life’s trivia and absurdities. Unfortunately, few schools teach the proper art of thinking.

Performance Reviews of Performance Reviews and Bayesian Blindness

Recently while researching the pros and cons of performance appraisal systems I cam across a lecture from the Deming’s Institute by an educator David Langford, which seemed pretty good.  But, sadly, just to prove a point about how bad social science research is, here’s a comment made about the value of education.

Wanting to show the positive effect of school education the speaker cites data showing students who went through the school system had significantly lower rates of unemployment (less than 5%) compared to students who had not graduated from high school (40% unemployment). It was an 11 year study tracking students until they were 24 to 27 year olds. The speaker then notes:

So we knew from just looking at that statistic that we are creating people who can go out and [look at the next system].

(the last bit of that quote is garbled from the audio, but the idea I think is that he meant the graduates were able to be successful — in some sense — in society compared to early school leavers.)

So what’s the big problem here? Seems fairly definitive right? Wrong!

Although the study says something useful, all it tells me is that early school leavers are unlikely to find consistent employment on average, and school graduates are able to find employment. Is this not what the study tells you?

Yes, sure.

What this cited data does not show at all is that school helps people find employment.

It may of course be true, but there is no evidence for this in the data. It is like these social science researchers have Bayesian blindness. If you do not know what I mean then this is not your WordPress favourite. (Go look up “Bayesian inference”.) The point is, even without going through school, those top students would be much more likely to find employment. It is not necessarily going to school that influences future employment rates, there is a prior correlation between probability of staying and doing well in school and being able to find employment.

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Now, to be even-handed, there is one really nice bit in Langford’s talk that was a little eye-opener for me:

The number one factor in variability of performance is time.

Cool to know!

Ah yes, but now can we trust this guy with his flimsy research methods? In this case I’m prepared to risk a bit of trust. No one is wrong all of the time. Still, I’m not going to go around quoting this cause of performance variability as if it were gospel. But it was a nice semi-factoid.

Furthermore, I’ve heard Sir Roger Penrose say something about this on more than one occasion. When he was a school student he was very dull-witted at mathematics (apparently). He did poorly on the school tests. Luckily though he had a lovely mathematics teacher who took an interest and recognised young Penrose’s ability to focus and work hard, so he told Penrose he could take as long as he liked on the tests.

Result: Penrose was superb at mathematics. But he was very slow. Why? Because he tried to work out everything himself, not taking too much for granted. He was deriving results rather than simply mindlessly applying rote formulae. You can imagine the young Albert Einstein might have told similar anecdotes about school life.

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While doing my research I also found a lot of convergences between scholastic tests & exams and the ubiquitous employee performance appraisal. My conclusion is that Edwards Deming was a genius, a true humanitarian, and almost all organizations and managers who support performance review systems are blindingly stupid, or ignorant, or evil.

This goes for the much lauded ex-Google head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock. He did some good things. But Google have the luxury of being able to hire high performing people who are not in need of performance appraisals. Like the school value example, Google employees will phreakin’ vie to outperform each other in drinking water contests without touching the glass. They will vie to outperform each other in flatulence aroma. You can give them anything and they will compete for fun. Under such a culture doing performance assessments is always going to show results. But it proves nothing about the performance rating system. All it proves is that these people love to compete. (Of course some don’t, but they will still be top coders or whatever.) You hire the best, you get the best.

And nor does any of this justify behavioural management. These Googlers are not responding to carrot and stick rewards systems and incentive pay or whatever. They are just basically playing at games they naturally enjoy. It is completely cognitive psychology. It just looks like performance rewards are working, but that’s a chimera. (Give me a million dollar research grant and I’ll prove it for you with robust statistics. … I’m only half joking about that! )

Truly, I was so overwhelmed by the pathetic quality of research that supports the use of performance appraisals (it is all of the same ilk as that ill-considered comment about the value of schooling)  — please shoot me if I ever publish “research findings” that make such spurious claims  — that I wrote a long 20 page memo to my department.  It was not well-received.  People get so agitated and fearful when they cannot see a criticism of a system is not a criticism of the people within the system.  Even after trying to explain my motives, the response was, “well, you should have informed management first before emailing your memo to everyone.  You have created disharmony. ”

Well, I could understand their fear.  But I still find it hard to understand the bad quality research literature.  Or maybe I do understand it, since it is ironically part of the same problem.  People publish fast and loose research not because they wish to, but because they have performance appraisal pressures that basically say various versions of “publish or perish”. Under such career pressure academics will publish any rubbish that they can dress up as respectable, and a kind of intellectual myopia sets in whereby they eventually cannot even see that their research is rubbish.  The thing is, 90% of it is not rubbish at all, it is often really good work. At least the data is usually ok.   It’s just the conclusions and summary that are trash.

In fact, I become so incensed that I wrote a research grant proposal to simulate the effects of performance ratings systems in the academic work environment, using evolutionary models.  I tend not to listen to the publish or perish meme.  I do feel ambient stress related to it, but I actively craft my work to make it deform away.  Consequently, you might not see my proposal turn into a paper any time soon, but when published I’ll write a note on it at OneOverEpsilon  for sure.


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The Arcania of Arkani

It is not often you get to disagree with a genius. But if you read enough or attend enough lectures sooner or later some genius is going to say or write something that you can see is evidently false, or perhaps (being a bit more modest) you might think is merely intuitively false. So the other day I see this lecture by Nima Arkani-Hamed with the intriguing title “The Morality of Fundamental Physics”. It is a really good lecture, I recommend every young scientist watch it. (The “Arcane” my title alludes to, by the way, is a good thing, look up the word!) It will give you a wonderful sense of the culture of science and a feeling that science is one of the great ennobling endeavours of humanity. The way Arkani-Hamed describes the pursuit of science also gives you comfort as a scientist if you ever think you are not earning enough money in your job, or feel like you are “not getting ahead” — you should simply not care! — because doing science is a huge privilege, it is a reward unto itself, and little in life can ever be as rewarding as making a truly insightful scientific discovery or observation. No one can pay me enough money to ever take away that sort of excitement and privilege, and no amount of money can purchase you the brain power and wisdom to achieve such accomplishments.  And one of the greatest overwhelming thrills you can get in any field of human endeavour is firstly the hint that you are near to turning arcane knowledge into scientific truth, and secondly when you actually succeed in this.

First, let me be deflationary about my contrariness. There is not a lot about fundamental physics that one can honestly disagree with Arkani-Hamed about on an intellectual level, at least not with violent assertions of falsehood.  Nevertheless, fundamental physics is rife enough with mysteries that you can always find some point of disagreement between theoretical physicists on the foundational questions. Does spacetime really exist or is it an emergent phenomenon? Did the known universe start with a period of inflation? Are quantum fields fundamental or are superstrings real?

When you disagree on such things you are not truly having a physics disagreement, because these are areas where physics currently has no answers, so provided you are not arguing illogically or counter to known experimental facts, then there is a wide open field for healthy debate and genuine friendly disagreement.

Then there are deeper questions that perhaps physics, or science and mathematics in general, will never be able to answer. These are questions like: Is our universe Everettian? Do we live in an eternal inflation scenario Multiverse? Did all reality begin from a quantum fluctuation, and, if so, what the heck was there to fluctuate if there was literally nothing to begin with? Or can equations force themselves into existence from some platonic reality merely by brute force of their compelling beauty or structural coherence? Is pure information enough to instantiate a physical reality (the so-called “It from Bit” meme.

Some people disagree on whether such questions are amenable to experiment and hence science. The Everettian question may some day become scientific. But currently it is not, even though people like David Deutsch seem to think it is (a disagreement I would have with Deutsch). While some of the “deeper ” questions turn out to be stupid, like the “It from Bit” and “Equations bringing themselves to life” ideas. However, they are still wonderful creative ideas anyway, in some sense, since they put our universe into contrast with a dull mechanistic cosmos that looks just like a boring jigsaw puzzle.

The fact our universe is governed (at least approximately) by equations that have an internal consistency, coherence and even elegance and beauty (subjective though those terms may be) is a compelling reason for thinking there is something inevitable about the appearance of a universe like ours. But that is always just an emotion, a feeling of being part of something larger and transcendent, and we should not mistake such emotions for truth. By the same token mystics should not go around mistaking mystical experiences for proof of the existence of God or spirits. That sort of thinking is dangerously naïve and in fact anti-intellectual and incompatible with science. And if there is one truth I have learned over my lifetime, it is that whatever truth science eventually establishes, and whatever truths religions teach us about spiritual reality, wherever these great domains of human thought overlap they must agree, otherwise one or the other is wrong. In other words, whatever truth there is in religion, it must agree with science, at least eventually. If it contradicts known science it must be superstition. And if science contravenes the moral principles of religion it is wrong.

Religion can perhaps be best thought of in this way:  it guides us to knowledge of what is right and wrong, not necessarily what is true and false. For the latter we have science. So these two great systems of human civilization go together like the two wings of a bird, or as in another analogy, like the two pillars of Justice, (1) reward, (2) punishment. For example, nuclear weapons are truths of our reality, but they are wrong. Science gives us the truth about the existence and potential for destruction of nuclear weapons, but it is religion which tells us they are morally wrong to have been fashioned and brought into existence, so it is not that we cannot, but just that we should not.

Back to the questions of fundamental physics: regrettably, people like to think these questions have some grit because they allow one to disbelieve in a God. But that’s not a good excuse for intellectual laziness. You have to have some sort of logical foundation for any argument. This often begins with an unproven assumption about reality. It does not matter where you start, so much, but you have to start somewhere and then be consistent, otherwise as elementary logic shows you would end up being able to prove (and disprove) anything at all. If you start with a world of pure information, then posit that spacetime grows out of it, then (a) you need to supply the mechanism of this “growth”, and (b) you also need some explanation for the existence of the world of pure information in the first place.

Then if you are going to argue for a theory that “all arises from a vacuum quantum fluctuation”, you have a similar scenario, where you have not actually explained the universe at all, you have just pushed back the existence question to something more elemental, the vacuum state. But a quantum vacuum is not a literal “Nothingness”, in fact is is quite a complicated sort of thing, and has to involve a pre-existing spacetime or some other substrate that supports the existence of quantum fields.

Further debate along these lines is for another forum. Today I wanted to get back to Nima Arkani-Hamed’s notions of morality in fundamental physics and then take issue with some private beliefs people like Arkani-Hamed seem to profess, which I think betray a kind of inconsistent (I might even dare say “immoral”) thinking.

Yes, there is a Morality in Science

Arkani-Hamed talks mostly about fundamental physics. But he veers off topic in places and even brings in analogies with morality in music, specifically in lectures by the great composer Leonard Bernstein, there are concepts in the way Bernstein describes the beauty and “inevitability” of passages in great music like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Bernstein even gets close to saying that after the first four notes of the symphony almost the entire composition could be thought of as following as an inevitable consequence of logic and musical harmony and aesthetics. I do not think this is flippant hyperbole either, though it is somewhat exaggerated. The cartoon idea of Beethoven’s music following inevitable laws of aesthetics has an awful lot in common with the equally cartoon notion of the laws of physics having, in some sense, their own beauty and harmony such that it is hard to imagine any other set of laws and principles, once you start from the basic foundations.

I should also mention that some linguists would take umbrage at Arkani-Hamed’s use of the word “moral”.  Really, most of what he lectures about is aesthetics, not morality.  But I am happy to warp the meaning of the word “moral” just to go along with the style of Nima’s lecture.  Still, you do get a sense from his lecture, that the pursuit of scientific truth does have a very close analogy to moral behaviour in other domains of society.  So I think he is not totally talking about aesthetics, even though I think the analogy with Beethoven’s music is almost pure aesthetics and has little to do with morality.   OK, those niggles aside, let’s review some of Arkani’Hamed’s lecture highlights.

The way Arkani-Hamed tells the story, there are ways of thinking about science that are not just “correct”, but more than correct, the best ways of thinking seem somehow “right”, whereby he means “right” in the moral sense. He gives some examples of how one can explain a phenomenon (e.g., the apparent forwards pivoting of a helium balloon suspended inside a boxed car) where there are many good explanations that are all correct (air pressure effects, etc) but where often there is a better deeper more morally correct way of reasoning (Einstein’s principle of equivalence — gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration, so the balloon has to “fall down”).

philsci_immoral_helim_balloon

It really is entertaining, so please try watching the video. And I think Arkani-Hamed makes a good point. There are “right” ways of thinking in science, and “correct but wrong ways”. I guess, unlike human behaviour the scientifically “wrong” ways are not actually spiritually morally “bad”, as in “sinful”. But there is a case to be made that intellectually the “wrong” ways of thinking (read, “lazy thinking ways”) are in a sense kind of “sinful”. Not that we in science always sin in this sense of using correct but not awesomely deep explanations.  I bet most scientists which they always could think in the morally good (deep) ways! Life would be so much better if we could. And no one would probably wish to think otherwise. It is part of the cultural heritage of science that people like Einstein (and at times Feynman, and others) knew of the morally good ways of thinking about physics, and were experts at finding such ways of thinking.

Usually, in brief moments of delight, most scientists will experience fleeting moments of being able to see the morally good ways of scientific thinking and explanation. But the default way of doing science is immoral, by in large, because it takes a tremendous amount of patience and almost mystical insight, to be able to always see the world of physics in the morally correct light — that is, in the deepest most meaningful ways — and it takes great courage too, because, as Arkani-Hamed points out, it takes a lot more time and contemplation to find the deeper morally “better” ways of thinking, and in the rush to advance one’s career and publish research, these morally superior ways of thinking often get by-passed and short-circuited. Einstein was one of the few physicists of the last century who actually managed, a lot of his time, to be patient and courageous enough to at least try to find the morally good explanations.

This leads to two wonderful quotations Arkani-Hamed offers, one from Einstein, and the other from a lesser known figure of twentieth century science, the mathematician Alexander Gröthendieck — who was probably an even deeper thinker than Einstein.

The years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their intense alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light—only those who have experienced it can understand it.
— Albert Einstein, describing some of the intellectual struggle and patience needed to discover the General Theory of Relativity.

“The … analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better, and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months—when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!

“A different image came to me a few weeks ago. The unknown thing to be known appeared to me as some stretch of earth or hard marl, resisting penetration … the sea advances insensibly in silence, nothing seems to happen, nothing moves, the water is so far off you hardly hear it … yet it finally surrounds the resistant substance.”
— Alexander Gröthendieck, describing the process of grasping for mathematical truths.

Beautiful and foreboding — I have never heard of the mathematical unknown likened to a “hard marl” (sandstone) before!

So far all is good. There are many other little highlights in Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, and I should not write about them all, it is much better to hear them explained by the master.

So what is there to disagree with?

The Morally Correct Thinking in Science is Open-Minded

There are a number of characteristics of “morally correct” reasoning in science, or an “intellectually right way of doing things”. Arkani-Hamed seems to list most of the important things:

  • Trust: trust that there is a universal, invariant, human-independent and impersonal (objective) truth to natural laws.
  • Honesty: with others (no fraud) but also more importantly you need to be honest with yourself if you want to do good science.
  • Humility: who you are is irrelevant, only the content of your ideas is important.
  • Wisdom: we never pretend we have the whole truth, there is always uncertainty.
  • Perseverance: lack of certainty is not an excuse for laziness, we have to try our hardest to get to the truth, no matter how difficult the path.
  • Tolerance: it is extremely important to entertain alternative and dissenting ideas and to keep an open mind.
  • Justice: you cannot afford to be tolerant of dishonest or ill-formed ideas. It is indeed vitally important to be harshly judgemental of dishonest and intellectually lazy ideas. Moreover, one of the hallmarks of a great physicist is often said to be the ability to quickly check and to prove one’s own ideas to be wrong as soon as possible.

In this list I have inserted in bold the corresponding spiritual attributes that Professor Nima does not identify. But I think they are important to explicitly state. Because they provide a Rosetta Stone of sorts for translating the narrow scientific modes of behaviour into border domains of human life.

I think that’s a good list. There is, however, one hugely important morally correct way of doing science that Arkani-Hamed misses, and even fails to gloss over or hint at. Can you guess what it is?

Maybe it is telling of the impoverishment in science education, the cold objective dispassionate retelling of facts, in our society that I think not many scientists will even think of his one, but I do not excuse Arkani-Hamed for leaving it off his list, since in many ways it is the most important moral stance in all of science!

It is,

  • Love: the most important driver and motive for doing science, especially in the face of adversity or criticism, is a passion and desire for truth, a true love of science, a love of ideas, an aesthetic appreciation of the beauty and power of morally good ideas and explanations.

Well ok, I will concede this is perhaps implicit in Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, but I still cannot give him 10 out of 10 on his assignment because he should have made it most explicit, and highlighted it in bold colours.

One could point out many instances of scientists failing at these minimal scientific moral imperatives. Most scientists go through periods of denial, believing vainly in a pet theory and failing to be honest to themselves about the weaknesses of their ideas. There is also a vast cult of personality in science that determines a lot of funding allocation, academic appointments, favouritism, and general low level research corruption.

The point of Arkani-Hamed’s remarks is not that the morally good behaviours are how science is actually conducted in the everyday world, but rather it is how good science should be conducted and that from historical experience the “good behaviours” do seem to be rewarded with the best and brightest break-throughs in deep understanding. And I think Arkani-Hamed is right about this. It is amazing (or perhaps, to the point, not so amazing!) how many Nobel Laureates are “humble” in the above sense of putting greater stock in their ideas and not in their personal authority. Ideas win Nobel Prizes, not personalities.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that while expounding on these simplistic and no-doubt elegant philosophical and aesthetic themes, he manages to intersperse his commentary with the claim, “… by the way, I am an atheist”.

OK, I know what you are probably thinking, “what’s the problem?” Normally I would not care what someone thinks regarding theism, atheism, polytheism, or any other “-ism”. People are entitled to their opinions, and all power to them. But as a scientist I have to believe there are fundamental truths about reality, and about a possible reality beyond what we perceive. There must even be truths about a potential reality beyond what we know, and maybe even beyond what we can possibly ever know.

Now some of these putative “truths” may turn out to be negative results. There may not be anything beyond physical reality. But if so, that’s a truth we should not hereby now and forever commit to believing. We should at least be open-minded to the possibility this outcome is false, and that the truth is rather that there is a reality beyond physical universe.  Remember, open-mindedness was one of Arkani-Hamed’s prime “good behaviours” for doing science.

The discipline of Physics, by the way, has very little to teach us about such truths. Physics deals with physical reality, by definition, and it is an extraordinary disappointment to hear competent, and even “great”, physicists expound their “learned” opinions on theism or atheism and non-existence of anything beyond physical universes. These otherwise great thinkers are guilty of over-reaching hubris, in my humble opinion, and it depresses me somewhat. Even Feynman had such hubris, yet he managed expertly to cloak it in the garment of humility, “who am I to speculate on metaphysics,” is something he might have said (I paraphrase the great man). Yet by clearly and incontrovertibly stating “I do not believe in God” one is in fact making an extremely bold metaphysical statement. It is almost as if these great scientists had never heard of the concept of agnosticism, and somehow seem to be using the word “atheism” as a synonym. But no educated person would make such a gross etymological mistake. So it just leaves me perplexed and dispirited to hear so many claims of “I am atheist” coming from the scientific establishment.

Part of me wants to just dismiss such assertions or pretend that these people are not true scientists. But that’s not my call to make.  Nevertheless, for me, a true scientist almost has to be agnostic. There seems very little other defensible position.

How on earth would any physicist ever know such things (as non-existence of other realms) are true as articles of belief? They cannot! Yet it is astounding how many physicists will commit quite strongly to atheism, and even belittle and laugh at scientists who believe otherwise. It is a strong form of intellectual dishonesty and corruption of moral thinking to have such closed-minded views about the nature of reality.

So I would dare to suggest that people like Nima Arkani-Hamed, who show such remarkable gifts and talents in scientific thinking and such awesome skill in analytical problem solving, can have the intellectual weakness to profess any version of atheism whatsoever. I find it very sad and disheartening to hear such strident claims of atheism among people I would otherwise admire as intellectual giants.

Yet I would never want to overtly act to “convert” anyone to my views. I think the process of independent search for truth is an important principle. People need to learn to find things out on their own, read widely, listen to alternatives, and weigh the evidence and logical arguments in the balance of reason and enlightened belief, and even then, once arriving at a believed truth, one should still question and consider that one’s beliefs can be over-turned in the light of new evidence or new arguments.  Nima’s principle of humility, “we should never pretend we have the certain truth”.

Is Atheism Just Banal Closed-Mindedness?

The scientifically open-mind is really no different to the spiritually open-mind other than in orientation of topics of thought. Having an open-mind does not mean one has to be non-committal about everything. You cannot truly function well in science or in society without some grounded beliefs, even if you regard them all as provisional. Indeed, contrary to the cold-hearted objectivist view of science, I think most real people, whether they admit it or not (or lie to themselves perhaps) they surely practise their science with an idea of a “truth” in mind that they wish to confirm. The fact that they must conduct their science publicly with the Popperrian stances of “we only postulate things that can be falsified” is beside the point. It is perfectly acceptable to conduct publicly Popperian science while privately having a rich metaphysical view of the cosmos that includes all sorts of crazy, and sometimes true, beliefs about the way things are in deep reality.

Here’s the thing I think needs some emphasis: even if you regard your atheism as “merely provisional” this is still an unscientific attitude! Why? Well, because questions of higher reality beyond the physical are not in the province of science, not by any philosophical imperative, but just by plain definition. So science is by definition agnostic as regards the transcendent and metaphysical. Whatever exists beyond physics is neither here nor there for science. Now many self-proclaimed scientists regard this fact about definitions as good enough reason for believing firmly in atheism. My point is that this is nonsense and is a betrayal of scientific morals (morals, that is, in the sense of Arkani-Hamed — the good ways of thinking that lead to deeper insights). The only defensible logical and morally good way of reasoning from a purely scientific world view is that one should be at the basest level of philosophy positive in ontology and minimalist in negativity, and agnostic about God and spiritual reality. It is closed-minded and therefore, I would argue, counter to Arkani-Hamed’s principles of morals in physics, to be a committed atheist.

This is in contrast to being negative about ontology and positively minimalist, which I think is the most mistaken form of philosophy or metaphysics adopted by a majority of scientists, or sceptics, or atheists.  The stance of positive minimalism, or  ontological negativity, adopts, as unproven assumption, a position that whatever is not currently needed, or not currently observed, doe snot in fact exist.  Or to use a crude sound-bite, such philosophy is just plain closed-mindedness.  A harsh cartoon version of which is, “what I cannot understand or comprehend I will assume cannot exist”.   This may be unfair in some instances, but I think it is a fairly reasonable caricature of general atheistic thought.   I think is a lot fairer than the often given argument against religion which points to corruptions in religious practice as a good reason to not believe in God.  There is of course absolutely no causal or logical connection to be made between human corruptions and the existence or non-existence of a putative God.

In my final analysis of Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, I have ended up not worrying too much about the fact he considers himself an atheist. I have to conclude he is a wee bit self-deluded, (like most of his similarly minded colleagues no doubt, yet, of course, they might ultimately be correct, and I might be wrong, my contention is that the way they are thinking is morally wrong, in precisely the sense Arkani-Hamed outlines, even if their conclusions are closer to the truth than mine).

Admittedly, I cannot watch the segments in his lecture where he expresses the beautiful ideas of universality and “correct ways of explaining things” without a profound sense of the divine beyond our reach and understanding. Sure, it is sad that folks like Arkani-Hamed cannot infer from such beauty that there is maybe (even if only possibly) some truth to some small part of the teachings of the great religions. But to me, the ideas expressed in his lecture are so wonderful and awe-inspiring, and yet so simple and obvious, they give me hope that many people, like Professor Nima himself, will someday appreciate the view that maybe there is some Cause behind all things, even if we can hardly ever hope to fully understand it.

My belief has always been that science is our path to such understanding, because through the laws of nature that we, as a civilization, uncover, we can see the wisdom and beauty of creation, and no longer need to think that it was all some gigantic accident or experiment in some mad scientists super-computer. Some think such wishy-washy metaphysics has no place in the modern world. After all, we’ve grown accustomed to the prevalence of evil in our world, and tragedy, and suffering, and surely if any divine Being was responsible then this would be a complete and utter moral paradox. To me though, this is a a profound misunderstanding of the nature of physical reality. The laws of physics give us freedom to grow and evolve. Without the suffering and death there would be no growth, no exercise of moral aesthetics, and arguably no beauty. Beauty only stands out when contrasted with ugliness and tragedy. There is a Yin and Yang to these aspects of aesthetics and misery and bliss. But the other side of this is a moral imperative to do our utmost to relieve suffering, to reduce poverty to nothing, to develop an ever more perfect world. For then greater beauty will stand out against the backdrop of something we create that is quite beautiful in itself.

Besides, it is just as equally wishy-washy to think the universe is basically accidental and has no creative impulse.  People would complain either way.  My positive outlook is that as long as there is suffering and pain in this world, it makes sense to at least imagine there is purpose in it all.  How miserable to adopt Steven Wienberg’s outlook that the noble pursuit of science merely “lifts up above farce to at least the grace of tragedy”.  That’s a terribly pessimistic negative sort of world view.  Again, he might be right that there is no grand purpose or cosmic design, but the way he reasons to that conclusion seems, to me, to be morally poor (again, strictly, if you like, in the Arkani-Hamed morality of physics conception).

There seems, to me, to be no end to the pursuit of perfections. And given that, there will always be relative ugliness and suffering. The suffering of people in the distant future might seem like luxurious paradise to us in the present. That’s how I view things.

The Fine Tuning that Would “Turn You Religious”

Arkani-Hamed mentions another thing that I respectfully take a slight exception to — this is in a separate lecture at a Philosophy of Cosmology conference —  in a talk, “Spacetime, Quantum Mechanics and the Multiverse”.  Referring to the amazing coincidence that our universe has just the right cosmological constant to avoid space being empty and devoid of matter, and just the right Higgs boson mass to allow atoms heavier than hydrogen to form stably, is often, Arkani-Hamed points out, given as a kind of anthropic argument (or quasi-explanation) for our universe.  The idea is that we see (measure) such parameters for our universe precisely, and really only, because if the parameters were not this way then we would not be around to measure them!  Everyone can understand this reasoning.  But it stinks!   And off course it is not an explanation, such anthropic reasoning reduces to mere observation.  Such reasonings are simple banal brute facts about our existence.  But there is a setting in metaphysics where such reasoning might be the only explanation, as awful as it smells.  That is, if our meta-verse is governed by something like Eternal Inflation, (or even by something more ontologically radical like Max Tegmark’s “Mathematical Multiverse”) whereby every possible universe is at some place or some meta-time, actually realised by inflationary big-bangs (or mathematical consequences in Tegmark’s picture) then it is really boring that we exist in this universe, since no matter how infinitesimally unlikely the vacuum state of our universe is, within the combinatorial possibilities of all possible inflationary universe bubbles (or all possible consistent mathematical abstract realities) there is, in these super-cosmic world views, absolutely nothing to prevent our infinitesimally (“zero probability measure”) universe from eventually coming into being from some amazingly unlikely big-bang bubble.

In a true multiverse scenario we thus get no really deep explanations, just observations.  “The universe is this way because if it were not we would not be around to observe it.”  The observation becomes the explanation.  A profoundly unsatisfying end to physics!   Moreover, such infinite possibilities and infinitesimal probabilities make standard probability theory almost impossible to use to compute anything remotely plausible about multiverse scenarios with any confidence (although this has not stopped some from publishing computations about such probabilities).

After discussing these issues, which Arkani-Hamed thinks are the two most glaring fine-tuning or “naturalness” problems facing modern physics, he then says something which at first seems reasonable and straight-forward, yet which to my ears also seemed a little enigmatic.  To avoid getting it wrong let me transcribe what he says verbatim:

We know enough about physics now to be able to figure out what universes would look like if we changed the constants.  … It’s just an interesting fact that the observed value of the cosmological constant and the observed value of the Higgs mass are close to these dangerous places. These are these two fine-tuning problems, and if I make the cosmological constant more natural the universe is empty, if I make the Higgs more natural the universe is devoid of atoms. If there was a unique underlying vacuum, if there was no anthropic explanation at all, these numbers came out of some underlying formula with pi’s and e’s, and golden ratios, and zeta functions and stuff like that in them, then [all this fine tuning] would be just a remarkably curious fact.… just a very interesting  coincidence that the numbers came out this way.  If this happened, by the way, I would start becoming religious.  Because this would be our existence hard-wired into the DNA of the universe, at the level of the mathematical ultimate formulas.

So that’s the thing that clanged in my ears.  Why do people need something “miraculous” in order to justify a sense of religiosity?  I think this is a silly and profound misunderstanding about the true nature of religion.  Unfortunately I cannot allow myself the space to write about this at length, so I will try to condense a little of what I mean in what will follow.  First though, let’s complete the airing,  for in the next breath Arkani-Hamed says,

On the other hand from the point of view of thinking about the multiverse, and thinking that perhaps a component of these things have an anthropic explanation, then of course it is not a coincidence, that’s were you’d expect it to be, and we are vastly less hard-wired into the laws of nature.

So I want to say a couple of things about all this fine-tuning and anthropomorphic explanation stuff.  The first is that it does not really matter, for a sense of religiosity, if we are occupying a tiny infinitesimal region of the multiverse, or a vast space of mathematically determined inevitable universes.  In fact, the Multiverse, in itself, can be considered miraculous.  Just as miraculous as a putative formulaically inevitable cosmos.   Not because we exist to observe it all, since that after-all is the chief banality of anthropic explanations, they are boring!  But miraculous because a multiverse exists in the first place that harbours all of us, including the infinitely many possible doppelgängers of our universe and subtle and wilder variations thereupon.  I think many scientists are careless in such attitudes when they appear to dismiss reality as “inevitable”.  Nothing really, ultimately, is inevitable.  Even a formulaic universe has an origin in the deep underlying mathematical structure that somehow makes it irresistible for the unseen motive forces of metaphysics to have given birth to It’s reality.

No scientific “explanation” can ever push back further than the principles of mathematical inevitability.  Yet, there is always something further to say about origins of reality .  There is always something proto-mathematical beyond.  And probably something even more primeval beyond that, and so on, ad infinitum, or if you prefer a non-infinite causal regression then something un-caused must, in some atemporal sense, pre-exist everything.  Yet scientists routinely dismiss or ignore such metaphysics.  Which is why, I suspect, they fail to see the ever-present miracles about our known state of reality.  Almost any kind of reality where there is a consciousness that can think and imagine the mysteries of it’s own existence, is a reality that has astounding miraculousness to it.  The fact science seeks to slowly pull back the veils that shroud these mysteries does not diminish the beauty and profundity of it all, and in fact, as we have seen science unfold with it’s explanations for phenomena, it almost always seems elegant and simple, yet amazingly complex in consequences, such that if one truly appreciates it all, then there is no need whatsoever to look for fine-tuning coincidences or formulaic inevitabilities to cultivate a natural and deep sense of religiosity.

I should pause and define loosely what I mean by “religiosity”.  I mean nothing too much more than what Einstein often articulated: a sense of our existence, our universe, being only a small part of something beyond our present understanding, a sense that maybe there is something more transcendent than our corner of the cosmos.  No grand design is in mind here, no grand picture or theory of creation, just a sense of wonder and enlightenment at the beauty inherent in the natural world and in our expanding conscious sphere which interprets the great book of nature. (OK, so this is rather more poetic than what you might hope for, but I will not apologise for that.   I think something gets lost if you remove the poetry from definitions of things like spirituality or religion.  I think this is because if there really is meaning in such notions, they must have aspects that do ultimately lie beyond the reach of science, and so poetry is one of the few vehicles of communication that can point to the intended meanings, because differential equations or numerics will not suffice.)

OK, so maybe Arkani-Hamed is not completely nuts in thinking there is this scenario whereby he would contemplate becoming “religious” in the Einsteinian sense.  And really, no where in this essay am I seriously disagreeing with the Professor.  I just think that perhaps if scientists like Arkani-Hamed thought a little deeper about things, and did not have such materialistic lenses shading their inner vision, perhaps they would be able to see that miracles are not necessary for a deep and profound sense of religiosity or spiritual understanding or appreciation of our cosmos.

*      *       *

Just to be clear and “on the record”, my own personal view is that there must surely be something beyond physical reality. I am, for instance, a believer in the platonic view of mathematics: which is that humans, and mathematicians from other sentient civilizations which may exist throughout the cosmos, gain their mathematical understanding through a kind of discovery of eternal truths about realms of axiomatics and principles of numbers and geometry and deeper abstractions, none of which exist in any temporal pre-existing sense within our physical world. Mathematical theorems are thus not brought into being by human minds. They are ideas that exist independently of any physical universe. Furthermore, I happen to believe in something I would call “The Absolute Infinite”. I do not know what this is precisely, I just have an aesthetic sense of It, and It is something that might also be thought of as the source of all things, some kind of universal uncaused cause of all things. But to me, these are not scientific beliefs. They are personal beliefs about a greater reality that I have gleaned from many sources over the years. Yet, amazingly perhaps, physics and mathematics have been one of my prime sources for such beliefs.

The fact I cannot understand such a concept (as the Absolute Infinite) should not give me any pause to wonder if it truly exists or not. And I feel no less mature or more infantile for having such beliefs. If anything I pity the intellectually impoverished souls who cannot be open to such beliefs and speculations. I might point out that speculation is not a bad thing either, without speculative ideas where would science be? Stuck with pre-Copernican Ptolemy cosmology or pre-Eratosthenes physics I imagine, for speculation was needed to invent gizmos like telescopes and to wonder about how to measure the diameter of the Earth using just the shadow of a tall tower in Alexandria.

To imagine something greater than ourselves is always going to be difficult, and to truly understand such a greater reality is perhaps canonically impossible. So we aught not let such smallness of our minds debar us from truth. It is thus a struggle to keep an open-mind about metaphysics, but I think it is morally correct to do so and to resist the weak temptation to give in to philosophical negativism and minimalism about the worlds that potentially exist beyond ours.

Strangely, many self-professing atheists think they can imagine we live in a super Multiverse. I would ask them how they can believe in such a prolific cosmos and yet not also accept the potential existences beyond the physical? And not even “actual existence” just simply “potential existence”. I would then point out that as long as there is admitted potential reality and plausible truth to things beyond the physical, you cannot honestly commit to any brand of atheism. To my mind, even my most open-mind, this form of atheism would seem terribly dishonest and self-deceiving.

Exactly how physics and mathematics could inform my spiritual beliefs is hard to explain in a few words. Maybe sometime later there is an essay to be written on this topic. For now, all I will say is that like Nima Arkani-Hamed, I have a deep sense of the “correctness” of certain ways of thinking about physics, and sometimes mathematics too (although mathematics is less constrained). And similar senses of aesthetics draw me in like the unveiling of a Beethoven symphony to an almost inevitable realisation of some version of truth to the reality of worlds beyond the physical, worlds where infinite numbers reside, where the mind can explore unrestrained by bones and flesh and need for food or water.  In such worlds greater beauty than on Earth resides.


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Greater Thoughts that Cannot Be Imageoned

Most scientists do not enter their chosen fields because the work is easy. They do their science mainly because it is challenging and rewarding when triumphant. Yet few scientists will ever taste the sweet dew drops of triumph — real world-changing success — in their lifetimes. So it is remarkable perhaps that the small delights in science are sustaining enough for the human soul to warrant persistence and hard endeavour in the face of mostly mediocre results and relatively few cutting edge break-throughs.

Still, I like to think that most scientists get a real kick out of re-discovering results that others before them have already uncovered. I do not think there is any diminution for a true scientist in having been late to a discovery and not having publication priority. In fact I believe this to be universally true for people who are drawn into science for aesthetic reasons, people who just want to get good at science for the fun of it and to better appreciate the beauty in this world. If you are of this kind you likely know exactly what I mean. You could tomorrow stumble upon some theorem proven hundreds of years ego by Gauss or Euler or Brahmagupta and still revel in the sweet taste of insight and understanding.

Going even further, I think such moments of true insight are essential in the flowering of scientific aesthetic sensibilities and the instilling of a love for science in young children, or young at heart adults. “So what?” that you make this discovery a few hundred years later than someone else? They had a birth head start on you! The victory is truly still yours. And “so what?” that you have a few extra giants’ shoulders to stand upon? You also saw through the haze and fog of much more information overload and Internet noise and thought-pollution, so you can savour the moment like the genius you are.

Such moments of private discovery go unrecorded and must surely occur many millions of times more frequently than genuinely new discoveries and break-throughs. Nevertheless, every such transient to invisible moment in human history must also be a little boost to the general happiness and welfare of all of humanity. Although only that one person may feel vibrant from their private moment of insight, their radiance surely influences the microcosm of people around them.

I cannot count how many such moments I have had. They are more than I will probably admit, since I cannot easily admit to any! But I think they occur quite a lot, in very small ways. However, back in the mid 1990’s I had, what I thought, was a truly significant glimpse into the infinite. Sadly it had absolutely nothing to do with my PhD research, so I could only write hurriedly rough notes on recycled printout paper during small hours of the morning when sleep eluded my body. To this day I am still dreaming about the ideas I had back then, and still trying to piece something together to publish. But it is not easy. So I will be trying to leak out a bit of what is in my mind in some of these WordPress pages. Likely what will get written will be very sketchy and denuded of technical detail. But I figure if I put the thoughts out into the Web maybe, somehow, some bright young person will catch them via Internet osmosis of a sort, and take them to a higher level.

geons_vs_superstrings_1

There are a lot of threads to knit together, and I hardly know where to start. I have already started writing perhaps half a dozen manuscripts, none finished, most very sketchy. And this current writing is yet another forum I have begun.

The latest bit of reading I was doing gave me a little shove to start this topic anew. It happens from time to time that I return to studying Clifford Geometric Algebra (“GA” for short). The round-about way this happened last week was this:

  • Weary from reading a Complex Analysis book that promised a lot but started to get tedious: so for a light break YouTube search for a physics talk, and find Twistors and Spinors talks by Sir Roger Penrose. (Twistor Theory is heavily based on Complex Analysis so it was a natural search to do after finishing a few chapters of the mathematics book).
  • Find out the Twistor Diagram efforts of Andrew Hodges have influenced Nima Arkani-Hamed and even Ed Witten to obtain new cool results crossing over twistor theory with superstring theory and scattering amplitude calculations (the “Amplituhedron” methods).
  • That stuff is ok to dip into, but it does not really advance my pet project of exploring topological geon theory. So I look for some more light reading and rediscover papers from the Cambridge Geometric Algebra Research Group (Lasenby, Doran, Gull). And start re-reading Gull’s paper on electron paths and tunnelling and the Dirac theory inspired by David Hestene’s work
  • The Gull paper mentions criticisms of the Dirac theory that I had forgotten. In the geometric algebra it is clear that solving the Dirac equation gives not positively charge anti-electrons, but unphysical negative frequency solutions with negative charge and negative mass. So they are not positrons. It’s provoking that the authors claim this problem is not fully resolved by second quantisation, but rather perhaps just gets glossed over? I’m not sure what to think of this. (If the negative frequencies get banished by second quantisation why not just conclude first quantisation is not nature’s real process?)
  • Still, whatever the flaws in Dirac theory, the electron paths paper has tantalising similarities with the Bohm pilot wave theory electron trajectories. And there is also a reference to the Statistical Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (SIQM) due to Ballentine (and attributed also as Einstein’s preferred interpretation of QM).
  • It gets me thinking again of how GA might be helpful in my problems with topological geons. But I shelve this thought for a bit.
  • Reading Ballentine’s paper is pretty darn interesting. It dates from 1970, but it is super clear and easy to read. I love that in a paper. The gist of it is that an absolute minimalist interpretation of quantum mechanics would drop Copenhagen ideas and view the wave function as more like a description of what could happen in nature, tat is, the wave functions are descriptions of statistical ensembles of identically prepared experiments or systems in nature. (Sure, no two systems are ever prepared in the exact same initial state, but that hardly matters when you are only doing statistics rather than precise deterministic modelling.)
  • So Ballentine was suggesting the wave functions are;
    1. not a complete description of an individual particle, but rather
    2. better thought of as a description of an ensemble of identically prepared states.

This is where I ended up, opening my editor to draft a OneOverEpsilon post.

So here’s the thing I like about the ensemble interpretation and how the geometric algebra reworking of Dirac theory adds to a glimmer of clarity about what might be happening with the deep physics of our universe. For a start the ensemble interpretation is transparently not a complete theoretical framework, since it is a statistical theory it does not pretend to be a theory of reality. Whatever is responsible for the statistical behaviour of quantum systems is still an open question in SIQM. The Bohm-like trajectories that the geometric algebra solutions to the Dirac theory are able to compute as streamline plots are illuminating in this respect, since they seem to clearly show that what the Dirac wave equation is modelling is almost certainly not the behaviour a single particle. (One could guess this from Schrödinger theory as well, but I guess physicists were already lured into believing in the literal wave-particle duality meme well before Bohm was able to influence anyone’s thinking.)

Also, it is possible (I do not really know for sure) that the negative frequency solutions in Dirac theory can be viewed as merely an artifact of the statistical ensemble framework. No single particle acts truly in accordance with the Dirac wave equation. So there is no real reason to get ones pants in a twist about the awful appearance of negative frequencies.

(For those in-the-know: the Dirac theory negative frequency solutions turn out to have particle currents in the reverse spatial direction to their momenta, so that’s not a backwards time propagating anti-particle, it is a forwards in time propagating negative mass particle. That’s a particle that’d fall upwards in a gravitational field if the principle of equivalence holds universally. As an aside note: it is a bit funky that this cannot be tested experimentally since no one can yet clump enough anti-matter together to test which way it accelerates in a gravitational field. But I presume the sign of particle inertial mass can be checked in the lab, and, so far, all massive particles known to science at least are known to have positive inertial mass.)

And as a model of reality the Dirac equation has therefore, certain limitations and flaws. It can get some of the statistics correct for particular experiments, but a statistical model always has limits of applicability. This is neither a defense or a critique of Dirac theory.  My view is that it would be a bit naïve to regard Dirac theory as the theory of electrons, and naïve to think it should have no flaws.  At best such wave-function models are merely a window frame for a particular narrow view out into our universe.  Maybe I am guilty of a bit of sophistry or rhetoric here, but that’s ok for a WordPress blog I think … just puttin’ some ideas “out there”.

Then another interesting confluence is that one of Penrose’s big projects in Twistor theory was to do away with the negative frequency solutions in 2-Spinor theory. And I think, from recall, he succeeded in this some time ago with the extension of twistor space to include the two off-null halves. Now I do not know how this translates into real-valued geometric algebra, but in the papers of Doran, Lasenby and Gull you can find direct translations of twistor objects into geometric algebra over real numbers. So there has to be in there somewhere a translation of Penrose’s development in eliminating the negative frequencies.

So do you feel a new research paper on Dirac theory in the wind just there? Absolutely you should! Please go and write it for me will you? I have my students and daughters’ educations to deal with and do not have the free time to research off-topic too much. So I hope someone picks up on this stuff. Anyway, this is where maybe the GA reworking of Dirac theory can borrow from twistor theory to add a little bit more insight.

There’s another possible confluence with the main unsolved problem in twistor theory. The Twistor theory programme is held back (stalled?) a tad (for 40 years) by the “googly problem” as Penrose whimsically refers to it. The issue is one of trying to find self-dual solutions of Einstein’s vacuum equations (as far as I can tell, I find it hard to fathom twistor theory so I’m not completely sure what the issue is). The “googly problem” stood for 40 years, and in essence is the problem of “finding right-handed interacting massless fields (positive helicity) using the same twistor conventions that give rise to left-handed fields (negative helicity)”. Penrose maybe has a solution dubbed Palatial Twistor Theory which you might be able to read about here: “On the geometry of palatial twistor theory” by Roger Penrose, and also lighter reading here: “Michael Atiya’s Imaginative Mind” by Siobhan Roberts in Quanta Magazine.

If you do not want to read those articles then the synopsis, I think, is that twistor theory has some problematic issues in gravitation theory when it comes to chirality (handedness), which is indeed a problem since obtaining a closer connection between relativity and quantum theory was a prime motive behind the development of twistor theory. So if twistor theory cannot fully handle left and right-handed solutions to Einstein’s equations it might be said to have failed to fulfill one it’s main animating purposes.

So ok, to my mind there might be something the geometric algebra translation of twistor theory can bring to bear on this problem, because general relativity is solved in fairly standard fashion with geometric algebra (that’s because GA is a mathematical framework for doing real space geometry, and handles Lorentzian metrics as simply as Euclidean, not artificially imposed complex analytic structure is required). So if the issues with twistor theory are reworked in geometric algebra then some bright spark should be able to do the job twistor theory was designed do do.

By the way, the great beauty and advantage Penrose sees in twistor theory is the grounding of twistor theory in complex numbers. The Geometric Algebra Research Group have pointed out that this is largely a delusion. It turns out that complex analysis and holomorphic functions are just a sector of full spacetime algebra. Spacetime algebra, and in fact higher dimensional GA, have a concept of monogenic functions which entirely subsume the holomorphic (analytic) functions of 2D complex analysis. Complex numbers are also completely recast for the better as encodings of even sub-algebras of the full Clifford–Geometric Algebra of real space. In other words, by switching languages to geometric algebra the difficulties that arise in twistor theory should (I think) be overcome, or at least clarified.

If you look at the Geometric Algebra Research Group papers you will see how doing quantum mechanics or twistor theory with complex numbers is really a very obscure way to do physics. Using complex analysis and matrix algebra tends to make everything a lot harder to interpret and more obscure. This is because matrix algebra is a type of encoding of geometric algebra, but it is not a favourable encoding, it hides the clear geometric meanings in the expressions of the theory.

*      *       *

So far all I have described is a breezy re-awakening of some old ideas floating around in my head. I rarely get time these days to sit down and hack these ideas into a reasonable shape. But there are more ideas I will try to write down later that are part of a patch-work that I think is worth exploring. It is perhaps sad that over the years I had lost the nerve to work on topological geon theory. Using spacetime topology to account for most of the strange features of quantum mechanics is however still my number one long term goal in life. Whether it will meet with success is hard to discern, perhaps that is telling: if I had more confidence I would simply abandon my current job and dive recklessly head-first into geon theory.

Before I finish up this post I want to thus outline very, very breezily and incompletely, the basic idea I had for topological geon theory. It is fairly simplistic in many ways. There is however new impetus from the past couple of years developments in the Black Hole firewall paradox debates: the key idea from this literature has been the “ER=EPR” correspondence hypothesis, which is that quantum entanglement (EPR) might be almost entirely explained in terms of spacetime wormholes (ER: Einstein-Rosen bridges). This ignited my interest because back in 1995/96 I had the idea that Planck scale wormholes in spacetime can allow all sorts of strange and gnarly advance causation effects on the quantum (Planckian) space and time scales. It seemed clear to me that such “acausal” dynamics could account for a lot of the weird correlations and superpositions seen in quantum physics, and yet fairly simply so by using pure geometry and topology. It was also clear that if advanced causation (backwards time travel or closed timelike curves) are admitted into physics, even if only at the Planck scale, then you cannot have a complete theory of predictive physics. Yet physics would be deterministic and basically like general relativity in the 4D block universe picture, but with particle physics phenomenology accounted for in topological properties of localised regions of spacetime (topological 4-geons). The idea, roughly speaking, is that fundamental particles are non-trivial topological regions of spacetime.  The idea is that geons are not 3D slices of space, but are (hypothetically) fully 4-dimensional creatures of raw spacetime topology.   Particles are not apart from spacetime. Particles are not “fields that live in spacetime”, no! Particles are part of spacetime.  At least that was the initial idea of Geon Theory.

Wave mechanics, or even quantum field theory, are often perceived to be mysterious because they either have to be interpreted as non-deterministic (when one deals with “wave function collapse”) or as semi-deterministic but incomplete and statistical descriptions of fundamental processes.   When physicists trace back where the source of all this mystery lies they are often led to some version of non-locality. And if you take non-locality at face value it does seem rather mysterious given that all the models of fundamental physical processes involve discrete localised particle exchanges (Feynman diagrams or their stringy counterparts).   One is forced to use tricks like sums over histories to obtain numerical calculations that agree with experiments.  But no one understand why such calculational tricks are needed, and it leads to a plethora of strange interpretations, like Many Worlds Theory, Pilot Waves, and so on.   A lot of these mysteries I think dissolve away when the ultimate source of non-locality is found to be deep non-trivial topology in spacetime which admits closed time-like curves (advanced causation, time travel).  To most physicists such ideas appear nonsensical and outrageous.  With good reason of course, it is very hard to make sense of a model of the world which allows time travel, as decades of scifi movies testify!  But geon theory doe snot propose unconstrained advanced causation (information from the future influences events in the past).   On the contrary, geon theory is fundamentally limited in outrageousness by the assumption the closed time-like curves are restricted to something like the Planck scale.   I should add that this is a wide open field of research.  No one has worked out much at all on the limits and applicability of geon theory.    For any brilliant young physicists or mathematicians this is a fantastic open playground to explore.

The only active researcher I know in this field is Mark Hadley. It seemed amazing to me that after publishing his thesis (also around 1994/95 independently of my own musings) no one seemed to take up his ideas and run with them.  Not even Chris Isham who refereed Hadley’s thesis.  The write-up of Hadley’s thesis in NewScientist seemed to barely cause a micro-ripple in the theoretical physics literature.    I am sure sociologists of science could explain why, but to me, at the time, having already discovered the same ideas, I was perplexed.

To date no one has explicitly spelt out how all of quantum mechanics can be derived from geon theory. Although Hadley I surmise, completed 90% of this project!  The final 10% is incredibly difficult though — it would necessitate deriving something like the Standard Model of particle physics from pure 4D spacetime topology — no easy feat when you consider high dimensional string theory has not really managed the same job despite hundreds of geniuses working on it for over 35 years. My thinking has been that string theory involves a whole lot of ad hockery and “code bloat” to borrow a term from computer science! If string theory was recast in terms of topological geons living as part of spacetime, rather than as separate to spacetime, then I suspect great advances could be made. I really hope someone will see these hints and connections and do something momentous with them.  Maybe some maverick like that surfer dude Garett Lisi might be able to weigh in and provide some fire power?

In the mean time  geometric algebra has so not been applied to geon theory, but GA blends in with these ideas since it seems, to me, to be the natural language for geometric physics. If particle phenomenology boils down to spacetime topology, then the spacetime algebra techniques should find exciting applications.  The obstacle is that so far spacetime algebra has only been developed for physics in spaces with trivial topology.

Another connection is with “combinatorial spacetime” models — the collection of ideas for “building up spacetime” from discrete combinatorial structures (spin foams, or causal networks, causal triangulations, and all that stuff). My thinking is that all these methods are unnecessary, but hint at interesting directions where geometry meets particle physics because (I suspect) such combinatorial structure approaches to quantum gravity are really only gross approximations to the spacetime picture of topological geon theory. It is in the algebra which arises from non-trivial spacetime topology and it’s associated homology that (I suspect) combinatorial spacetime pictures derive their use.

Naturally I think the combinatorial structure approaches are not fundamental. I think topology of spacetime is what is fundamental.

*      *       *

That probably covers enough of what I wanted to get off my chest for now. There is a lot more to write, but I need time to investigate these things so that I do not get too speculative and vague and vacuously philosophical.

What haunts me most nights when I try to dream up some new ideas to explore for geon theory (and desperately try to find some puzzles I can actually tackle) is not that someone will arrive at the right ideas before me, but simply that I never will get to understand them before I die. I do not want to be first. I just want to get there myself without knowing how anyone else has got to the new revolutionary insights into spacetime physics. I had the thrill of discovering geon theory by myself, independently of Mark Hadley, but now there has been this long hiatus and I am worried no one will forge the bridges from geon theory to particle physics while I am still alive.

I have this plan for what I will do when/if I do hear such news. It is the same method my brother Greg is using with Game of Thrones. He is on a GoT television and social media blackout until the books come out. He’s a G.R.R. Martin purest you see. But he still wants to watch the TV adaptation later on for amusement (the books are waaayyy better! So he says.) It is surprisingly easy to enforce such a blackout. Sports fans will know how. Any follower of All Black Rugby who misses an AB test match knows the skill of doing a media blackout until they get to watch their recording or replay. It’s impossible to watch an AB game if you know the result ahead of time. Rugby is darned exciting, but a 15-aside game has too many stops and starts to warrant sitting through it all when you already know the result. But when you do not know the result the build-up and tension are terrific. I think US Americans have something similar in their version of Football, since American Football has even more stop/start, it would be excruciatingly boring to sit through it all if you knew the result. But strangely intense when you do not know!

So knowing the result of a sports contest ahead of time is more catastrophic than a movie or book plot spoiler. It would be like that if there is a revolution in fundamental physics involving geon theory ideas. But I know I can do a physics news blackout fairly easily now that I am not lecturing in a physics department. And I am easily enough of an extreme introvert to be able to isolate my mind from the main ideas, all I need is a sniff, and I will then be able to work it all out for myself. It’s not like any ordinary friend of mine is going to be able to explain it to me!

If geon theory turns out to have any basis in reality I think the ideas that crack it all open to the light of truth will be among the few great ideas of my generation (the post Superstring generation) that could be imagined. If there are greater ideas I would be happy to know them in time, but with the bonus of not needing a physics news blackout! If it’s a result I could never have imagined then it’d be worth just savouring the triumph of others.


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Bohm and Beability

I write this being of sound mind and judgement … etc., etc., …

At this stage of life a dude like me can enter a debate about the foundations of quantum mechanics with little trepidation. There is a chance someone will put forward proposals that are just too technically difficult to understand, but there is a higher chance of getting either something useful out of the debate or obtaining some amusement and hilarity. The trick is to be a little detached and open-minded while retaining a decent dose of scepticism.

Inescapable Non-locality

Recently I was watching a lecture by Sheldon Goldstein (a venerable statesman of physics) who was speaking about John Stewart Bell’s contributions to the foundations of quantum mechanics. Bell was, like Einstein, sceptical of the conventional interpretations that gave either too big a role for “observers” and the “measurement process” or swept such issues aside by appealing to Many Worlds or some other fanciful untestable hypotheses.

What Bell ended up showing was a theory for a class of experiments that would prove the physics of our universe is fundamental non-local. Bell was actually after experimental verification that we cannot have local hidden variable theories. Hidden variables being things in physics that we cannot observe. Bell hated the idea of unobservable physics (and Einstein would have agreed, (me too, but that’s irrelevant)). The famous “Bell’s Inequalities” are a set of relations referring to experimental results that will give clear different numbers for outcomes of experiments if our universe’s physics is inherently non-local, or classical-with-hidden-variables.  The hidden variables are used to model the weirdness of quantum mechanics.

Hidden variable theories attempt to use classical physics, and possibly strict locality (no signals going faster than light, and even no propagation of information faster than light) to explain fundamental physical processes. David Bohm came up with the most complete ideas for hidden variables theories, but his, and all subsequent attempts, had some very strange features that seemed to be always needed in order to explain the results of the particular types of experiments that John Bell had devised. In Bohm’s theories he uses a feature called a Pilot Wave, which is an information carrying wave that physicists can only indirectly observe via it’s influence on experimental outcomes. We only get to see the statistics and probabilities induced by Bohm’s pilot waves. They spread out everywhere and they thus link space-like separated regions of the universe between which no signals faster than light could ever travel between. This has the character of non-locality but without requiring relativity violating information signalling faster than light, so the hope was one could use pilot waves to get a local hidden variables theory that would agree with experiments.

Goldstein tells us that Bell set out to show it was impossible to have a local hidden variables theory, but he ended up showing you could not have any local theory — at all! — all theories have to have some non-locality. Or rather, what the Bell Inequalities ended up proving (via numerous repeated experiments which measured conformance to the Bell inequalities) was that the physics in our universe could never be local, whatever theory one devises to model reality it has to be non-local. So it has to have some way for information to get from one region to another faster than light.

That is what quantum mechanics assumes, but without giving us any mechanism to explain it. A lot of physicists would just say, “It’s just the way our world is”, or they might use some exotic fanciful physics, like Many Worlds, to try to explain non-locality.

History records that Bell’s theorems were tested in numerous types of experiments, some with photons, some with electrons, some with entire atoms, and all such experiments have confirmed quantum mechanics and non-locality and have dis-proven hidden variables and locality. For the record, one may still believe in hidden variables, but the point is that if even your hidden variables theory has to be non-local then you lose all the motivation for believing in hidden variables. Hidden variables were designed to try to avoid non-locality. That was almost the only reason for postulating hidden variables. Why would you want to build-in to the foundations of a theory something unobservable? Hidden variables were a desperation in this sense, a crazy idea designed to do mainly just one thing — remove non-locality. So Bell and the experiments showed this project has failed.

ER.EPR_JohnStewartBell_CERN_1982

I like this photo of Bell from CERN in 1982 because it shows him at a blackboard that has a Bell Inequality calculation for an EPR type set-up. (Courtesy of : Christine Sutten, CERN https://home.cern/about/updates/2014/11/fifty-years-bells-theorem)

Now would you agree so far?  I hope not.  Hidden variables are not too much more crazy then any of the “standard interpretations” of quantum mechanics, of which there are a few dozen varieties, all fairly epistemologically bizarre.  Most other interpretations have postulates that are considerably more radical than hidden variables postulates. Indeed, one of the favourable things about a non-local hidden variables theory is that it would give the same predications as quantum mechanics but without a terribly bizarre epistemology.  Nevertheless, HV theories have fallen out of favour because people do not like nature to have hidden things that cannot be observed.  This is perhaps an historical prejudice we have inherited from the school of logical positivism, and maybe for that reason we should be more willing to give it up!  But the prejudice is quite persistent.

Quantum Theory without Observers

Goldstein raises some really interesting points when he starts to talk about the role of measurement and the role of observers. He points out that physicists are mistaken when they appeal to observers and some mysterious “measurement process” in their attempts to rectify the interpretations of quantum mechanics. It’s a great point that I have not heard mentioned very often before. According to Goldstein, a good theory of physics should not mention macroscopic entities like observers or measurement apparatus, because such things should be entirely dependent upon—and explained by—fundamental elementary processes.

This demand seems highly agreeable to me. It is a nice general Copernican principle to remove ourselves from the physics needed to explain our universe. And it is only a slightly stronger step to also remove the very vague and indiscreet notion of “measurement”.

The trouble is that in basic quantum mechanics one deals with wave functions or quantum fields (more generally) that fundamentally cannot account for the appearance of our world of experience. The reason is that these tools only give us probabilities for all the various ways things can happen over time, we get probabilities and nothing else from quantum theory. What actually happens in time is not accounted for by just giving the probabilities. This is often a called the “Measurement Problem” of quantum mechanics. It is not truly a problem. It is a fundamental incompleteness. The problem is that standard quantum theory has absolutely no mechanism for explaining the appearance of classical reality that we observe.

So this helps explain why a lot of quantum interpretation philosophy injects the notions of “observer” and “measurement” into the foundations of physics. It seems to be necessary for proving an account of the real semi-classical appearance of our world. We are not all held in ghostly superpositions because we all observe and “measure” each other, constantly. Or maybe our body cells are enough, they are “observing each other” for us? Or maybe a large molecule has “observational power” and is sufficient? Goldstein, correctly IMHO, argues this is all bad philosophy. Our scientific effort should be spent on trying to complete quantum theory or find a better more complete theory or framework for fundamental physics.

Here’s Goldstein encapsulating this:

It’s not that you don’t want observers in physics. Observers are in the real world and physics better account for the fact that there are observers. But observers, and measurement, and vague notions like that, and, not just vague, even macroscopic notions, they just seem not to belong in the very formulation of what could be regarded as a fundamental physical theory.

There should be no axioms about “measurement”. Here is one passage that John Bell wrote about this:

The concept of measurement becomes so fuzzy on reflection that it is quite surprising to have it appearing in physical theory at the most fundamental level. … Does not any analysis of measurement require concepts more fundamental than measurement? And should not the fundamental theory be about these more fundamental concepts?

Rise of the Wormholes

I need to explain one more set of ideas before making the note for this post.

There is so much to write about ER=EPR, and I’ve written a few posts about ER=EPR so far, but not enough. The gist of it, recall, is that the fuss in recent decades over the “Black Hole Information Paradox” or the “Black Hole Firewall” have been incredibly useful in leading a group of theoreticians towards a basic dim inchoate understanding that the non-locality in quantum mechanics is somehow related to wormhole bridges in spacetime.  Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind have pioneered this approach to understanding quantum information.

A lot of the weirdness on quantum mechanics turns out to be just geometry and topology of spacetime.

The “EPR”=”Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen-Bohm thought experiments”, precisely the genesis of the ideas that John Bell devised his Bell Inequalities for testing quantum theory, and which prove that physics involves fundamentally non-local interactions.

The “ER=”Einstein-Rosen wormhole bridges”. Wormholes are a science fiction device for time travel or fast interstellar travel. The idea is that you might imagine creating a spacetime wormhole by pinching off a thread of spacetime like the beginnings of a black hole, but then reconnecting the pinched end somewhere else in space, maybe a long time or distance separation away, and keep the pinched end open at this reconnection region.  So you can make this wormhole bridge a space length or time interval short-cut between two perhaps vastly separated regions of spacetime.

It seems that if you have an extremal version of a wormhole that is essentially shrunk down to zero radius, so it cannot be traversed by any mass, then this minimalistic wormhole still acts as a conduit of information. These provide the non-local connections between spacelike separated points in spacetime. Basically the ends of the ER=EPR wormholes are like particles, and they are connected by a wormhole that cannot be traversed by any actual particle.

Entanglement and You

So now we come to the little note I wanted to make.

I agree with Goldstein that we aught not artificially inject the concept of an observer or a “measurement process” into the heart of quantum mechanics. We should avoid such desperations, and instead seek to expand our theory to encompass better explanations of classical appearances in our world.

The interesting thing is that when we imagine how ER=EPR wormholes could influence our universe, by connecting past and future, we might end up with something much more profound than “observers” and “measurements”. We might end up with an understanding of how human consciousness and our psychological sense of the flow of time emerges from fundamental physics. All without needing to inject such transcendent notions into the physics. Leave the physics alone, let it be pristine, but get it correct and then maybe amazing things can emerge.

I do not have such a theory worked out. But I can give you the main idea. After all, I would like someone to be working on this, and I do not have the time or technical ability yet, so I do not want the world of science to wait for me to get my act together.

First: it would not surprise me if, in future, a heck of a lot of quantum theory “weirdness” was explained by ER=EPR like principles. If you abstract a little and step back from any particular instance of “quantum weirdness”, (like wave-particle duality or superposition or entanglement in any particular experiment) then what we really see is that most of the weirdness is due to non-locality. Now, this might take various guises, but if there is one mechanism for non-locality then it is a good bet something like this mechanism is at work behind most instances of non-locality that arise in quantum mechanics.

Secondly: the main way in which ER=EPR wormholes account for non-local effects is via pure information connecting regions of spacetime via the extremal wormholes. And what is interesting about this is that this makes a primitive form of time travel possible. Only information can “time travel” via these wormholes, but that might be enough to explain a lot of quantum mechanics.

Thirdly: although it is unlikely time travel effects can ever propagate up to macroscopic physics, because we just cannot engineer large enough wormholes, the statistical effects of the minimalistic ER+EPR wormholes might be enough to account for enough correlation between past and future that we might be able to eventually prove, in principle, that information gets to us from our future, at least at the level of fundamental quantum processes.

Now here’s the more speculative part: I think what might emerge from such considerations is a renewed description of the old Block Universe concept from Einstein’s general relativity (GR). Recall, in GR, time is more or less placed on an equal theoretical footing to space. This means past and future are all connected and exist whether we know it or not. Our future is “out there in time” and we just have not yet travelled into it. And we cannot travel back to our past because the bridges are not possible, the only wormhole bridges connecting past to future over macroscopic times are those minimal extremal ER=EPR wormholes that provide the universe with quantum entanglement phenomena and non-locality.

So I do not know what the consequences of such developments will be. But I can imagine some possibilities. One is that although we cannot access our future, or travel back to our past, the information from such regions in the Block Universe are tenuously connected to us nonetheless. Such connections are virtually impossible for us to exploit usefully because we could never confirm what we are dealing with until the macroscopic future “arrives” so to speak.  So although we know it is not complete, we will still have to end up using quantum mechanics probability amplitude mathematics to make predictions about physics.  In other words, quantum mechanics models our situation with respect to the world, not the actual state of the world from an atemporal Block Universe perspective.  It’s the same problem with the time travel experiment conducted in 1994 in the laboratory under the supervision of Günter Nimtz, whose lab sent analogue signals encoding Mozart’s 40th Symphony into the future (by a few milliseconds).

For that experiment there are standard explanations using Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism that show no particles travel faster than light into the future. Nevertheless, Nimtz’s laboratory got a macroscopic recording of bits of information from Mozart’s 40th Symphony out of one back-end of a tunnelling apparatus before it was sent into the front-end of the apparatus. The interesting thing to me is not about violation of special relativity or causality.  (You might think the physicists could violate causality because one of them could wait at the back-end and when they hear Mozart come out they could tell their colleague to send Beethoven instead, thus creating a paradox.  But they could not do this because they could not send a communication fast enough in real time to warn their colleague to send Beethoven’s Fifth instead of Mozart.)  Sadly that aspect of the experiment was the most controversial, but it was not the most interesting thing. Many commentators argued about the claimed violations of SR, and there are some good arguments about photon “group velocity” being able to transmit a signal faster than light without any particular individual photon needing to go faster than light.

(Actually many of Nimtz’s experiments used electron tunnelling, not photon tunnelling, but the general principles are the same.)

All the “wave packet” and “group velocity” explanations of Nimtz’s time travel experiments are, if you ask me, merely attempts to reconcile the observations with special relativity. They all, however, use collective phenomena, either waves, or group packets. But we all know photons are not waves, they are particles (many still debate this, but just bear out my argument). The wave behaviour of fundamental particles is in fact a manifestation of quantum mechanics. Maxwell’s theory is, thus, only phenomenological. It describes electromagnetic waves, and photons get interpreted (unfortunately) as modes of such waves. But this is mistaken. Photons collectively can behave as Maxwell’s waves, but Maxwell’s theory is describing a fictional reality. Maxwell’s theory only approximates what photons actually do. They do not, in Maxwell’s theory, impinge on photon detectors like discrete quanta. And yet we all know this is what light actually does! It violates Maxwell’s theory every day!

So what, I think, is truly interesting about Nimtz’s experiments is that they were sensitive enough to give us a window into wormhole traversal. Quantum tunnelling is nothing more than information traversal though ER=EPR type wormholes. At least that’s my hypothesis. It is a non-classical effect, and Maxwell’s theory only accounts for it via the fiction that photons are waves. A wrong explanation can often fully explain the facts of course!

Letting Things Be

What Goldstein, and Bohm, and later John Stewart Bell wanted to do is explain the world. They knew quantum field theory does not explain the world. It does not tell us why things come to be what they are. Why a measurement pointer ends up pointing in particular direction rather than any one of the other superposed states of pointer orientation the quantum theory tells us it aught to be in.  Such outcomes or predictions are what David Bohm referred to as “local Beables”.  Goldstein explains more in his seminar: John Bell and the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics” Sesto, Italy 2014, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGbpvKahbSY).

My favourite idea, one I have been entertaining for over twenty years, in fact ever since 1995 when I read Kip Thorne’s book about classical general relativity and wormholes, is that the wormholes (or technically “closed timelike curves”) are where all the ingredients are for explaining quantum mechanics from a classical point of view. Standard twentieth century quantum theory does not admit wormholes. But if you ignore quantum theory and start again from classical dynamics, but allow ER=EPR wormholes to exist, then I think most of quantum mechanics can be recovered without the need for un-explained axiomatic superpositions and wave-function collapse (the conventional explanation for “measurements” and classical appearances). In other words, quantum theory, like Maxwell’s EM theory, is only a convenient fictional model of our physics. You see, when you naturally have information going backwards and forwards in time you cannot avoid superpositions of state. But when a stable time-slice emerges or “crystallizes” out of this mess of acausal dynamics, then it should look like a measurement has occurred. But no such miracle happens, it simply emerges or crystallizes naturally from the atemporal dynamics. (I use the term “crystallize” advisedly here, it is not a literal crystallization, but something abstractly similar, and George Ellis uses it in a slightly different take on the Block Universe concept, so I figure it is a fair term to use).

Also, is it possible that atemporal dynamics will tend to statistically “crystallize” something like Bohm’s pilot wave guide potential.  If you know a little about Bohmian mechanics you know the pilot wave is postulated as a real potential, something that just exists in our universe’s physics.  Yet is has no other model alike, it is not a quantum field, it is not a classical filed, it is what it is.  But what if there is no need for such a postulate?  How could it be avoided?  My idea is that maybe the combined statistical effects of influences propagating forward and backward in time give rise to an effective potential much like the Bohm pilot wave or Schrödinger wave function.  Either way, both constructs in conventional or Bohmian quantum mechanics might be just necessary fictions we need to describe, in one way or another, the proper complete Block Universe atemporal spacetime dynamics induced by the existence of spacetime wormholes.  I could throw around other ideas, but the main one is that wormholes endow spacetime with a really gnarly stringy sort of topology that has, so far, not been explored enough by physicists.

Classically you get non-locality when you allow wormholes. That’s the quickest summary I can give you. So I will end here.

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Giving Your Equations a Nice Bath & Scrub

There’s a good book for beginning computer programmers I recently came across.  All young kids wanting to write code professionally should check out Robert Martin’s book, “Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship”  (Ideally get your kids to read this before the more advanced “Design Patterns” books.)

But is there such a guide for writing clean mathematics?

I could ask around on Mathforums or Quora, but instead here I will suggest some of my own tips for such a guide volume.  What gave me this spark to write a wee blog about this was a couple of awesome “finds”.  The first was Professor Tadashi Tokieda’s Numberphile clips and his AIMS Lectures on Topology and Geometry (all available on YouTube).  Tokieda plugs a couple of “good reads”, and this was the second treasure: V.I. Arnold’s lectures on Abel’s Theorem, which were typed up by his student V.B. Alekseev, “Abel’s Theorem in Problems and Solutions”, which is available in abridged format (minus solutions) in a translation by Julian Gilbey here: “Abels’ Theorem Through Problems“.

Tadashi lecturing in South Africa.

Tadashi lecturing in South Africa. Clearer than Feynman?

Tokieda’s lectures and Arnold’s exposition style are perfect examples of “clean mathematics”.  What do I mean by this?

Firstly, what I absolutely do not mean is Bourbaki style rigour and logical precision.  That’s not clean mathematics.  Because the more precision and rigour you demand the more dense and less comprehensible it all becomes to the point where it becomes unreadable and hence useless.

I mean mathematics that is challenging for the mind (so interesting) and yet clear and understandable and visualizable.  That last aspect is crucial.  If I cannot visualise an abstract idea then it has not been explained well and I have not understood it deeply.  We can only easily visualize 2D examples or 3D if we struggle.  So how are higher dimensional ideas visualised?  Tokieda shows there is no need.  You can use the algebra perfectly well for higher dimensional examples, but always give the idea in 2D or 3D.

It’s amazing that 3D seems sufficient for most expositions.  With a low dimension example most of the essence of the general N dimensional cases can be explained in pictures.   Perhaps this is due to 3D being the most awkward dimension?  It’s just a pity we do not have native 4D vision centres in our brain (we actually do, it’s called memory, but it sadly does not lead to full 4D optical feature recognition).

Dr Tokieda tells you how good pictures can be good proofs.  The mass of more confusing algebra a good picture can replace is startling (if you are used to heavy symbolic algebra).  I would also add that Sir Roger Penrose and John Baez are to experts who make a lot of use of pictorial algebra, and that sort of stuff is every bit as rigorous as symbolic algebra, and I would argue even more-so.  How’s that?  The pictorial algebra is less prone to mistake and misinterpretation, precisely because our brains are wired to receive information visually without the language symbol filters.  Thus whenever you choose instead to write proofs using formal symbolics you are reducing your writing down to less rigour, because it is easier to make mistakes and have your proof misread.

So now, in homage to Robert Martin’s programming style guide, here are some analogous sample chapter or section headings for a hypothetical book on writing clean mathematics.

Keep formal (numbered) definitions to a minimum

Whenever you need a formal definition you have failed the simplicity test.  A definition means you have not found a natural way to express or name a concept.  That’s really all definitions are, they set up names for concepts.

Occasionally advanced mathematics requires defining non-intuitive concepts, and these will require a formal approach, precisely because they are non-intuitive.  But otherwise, name objects and relations clearly and put the keywords in old, and then you can avoid cluttering up chapters with formal boring looking definition breaks.  The definitions should, if at all possible, flow naturally and be embedded in natural language paragraphs.

Do not write symbolic algebra when a picture will suffice

Most mathematicians have major hang-ups about providing misleading visual illustrations.  So my advice is do not make them misleading!  But you should use picture proofs anyway, whenever possible, just make sure they capture the essence and are generalisable to higher dimensions.  It is amazing how often this is possible.  If you doubt me, then just watch Tadashi Tokieda’s lectures linked to above.

Pro mathematicians often will think pictures are weak.  But the reality is the opposite.  Pictures are powerful.  Pictures should not sacrifice rigour.  It is the strong mathematician who can make their ideas so clear and pristine that a minimalistic picture will suffice to explain an idea of great abstract generality.  Mathematicians need to follow the physicists credo of using inference, one specific well-chosen example can suffice as an exemplar case covering infinitely many general cases.  The hard thing is choosing a good example.  It is an art.  A lot of mathematician writers seem to fail at this art, or not even try.

You do not have to use picture in your research if you do not get much from them, but in your expositions, in your writing for the public, failing to use pictures is a disservice to your readers.

The problem with popular mathematics books is not the density of equations, it is the lack of pictures.  If for every equation you have a couple of nice illustrative pictures, then there would be no such thing as “too many equations” even for a lay readership.  The same rule should apply to academic mathematics writing, with perhaps an reasonable allowance for a slightly higher symbol to picture ratio, because academically you might need to fill in a few gaps for rigour.

Rigour does not imply completeness

Mathematics should be rigorous, but not tediously so.  When gaps do not reduce clarity then you can avoid excessive equations.  Just write what the reader needs, do not fill in every gap for them.  And whenever a gap can be filled with a picture, use the picture rather than more lines of symbolic algebra.  So you do not need ruthless completeness.  Just provide enough for rigour to be inferred.

Novel writers know this.  If they set out to describe scenes completely they would ever get past chapter one. Probably not even past paragraph one.  And giving the reader too much information destroys the operation of their inner imagination and leads to the reader disconnecting from the story.

For every theorem provide many examples

The Definition to Theorem ratio should be low, for every couple of definitions there should be a bundle of nice theorems, otherwise the information content of your definitions has been poor.  More  definitions than theorems means you’ve spent more of your words naming stuff not using stuff.  Likewise the Theorem to Example ratio should be lo.  More theorems than examples means you’ve cheated the student by showing them lot of abstract ideas with no practical use.  So show them plenty of practical uses so they do not feel cheated.

Write lucidly and for entertainment

This is related to the next heading which is to write with a story narrative.  On a finer level, every sentence should be clear, use plain language, and minimum jargon.  Mathematics text should be every bit as descriptive and captivating as a great novel.  If you fail in writing like a good journalist or novelist then you have failed to write clean mathematics.  Good mathematics should entertain the aficionado.  It does not have to be set like a literal murder mystery with so many pop culture references and allusions that you lose all the technical content.  But for a mathematically literate reader you should be giving them some sense of build-up in tension and then resolution.  Dangle some food in front of them and lead them to water.  People who pick up a mathematics book are not looking for sex, crime and drama, nor even for comedy, but you should give them elements of such things inside the mathematics.  Teasers like why we are doing this, what will it be used for, how it relates to physics or other sciences, these are your sex and crime and drama.  And for humour you can use mathematical characters, stories of real mathematicians.  It might not be funny, but there is always a way to amuse an interested reader, so find those ways.

Write with a Vision

I think a lot of mathematical texts are dry ad suffer because they present “too close to research”.  What a good mathematical writer should aim for is the essence of any kind of writing, which is to narrate a story.  Psychology tells us this is how average human beings best receive and remember information.  So in mathematics you need a grand vision of where you are going.  If instead you just want to write about your research, then do the rest of us a favour and keep it off the bookshelves!

If you want to tell a story about your research then tell the full story, some history, some drama in how you stumbled, but then found a way through the forest of abstractions, and how you triumphed in the end.

The problem with a lot of mathematics monographs is that they aim for comprehensive coverage of a topic.  But that’s a bad style guide.  Instead they should aim to provide tools to solve a class of problems.  And the narrative is how to get from scratch up to the tools needed to solve the basic problem and then a little more.  With lots of dangling temptations along the way.  The motivation then is the main problem to be solved, which is talked about up front, as a carrot, not left as an obscure mystery one must read the entire book through to find.  Murder mysteries start with the murder first, not last.

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That’s enough for now. I should add to this list of guides later. I should follow my own advice too.

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Splintering of the Left and Why the Left is Still a Dominant Force

Whenever I get a break from teaching I default to two activities, exercise and watching quality TV. There is not a lot of quality television.  I am a very fit 50 year old.  LOL

However, I have at least found a reasonable recommendation service: TasteK;d, and it was from a three minute browse on TastK;id that I discovered a Danish show Borgen recommended by fans of the Wallander.  If you have not seen Wallander then get it on DVD.  Even on a crappy old vacuum tube television set the cinematography and all-around production quality is brilliant, and the stories are not too bad either if you do not mind a lot of nasty psychopathic characters in your crime dramas.

Borgen, the Danish TV series

Borgen = PGD ~ “Pretty Good Drama”. Produced by Camilla Hammerich for the Danish DR1 network.

But the thing about Borgen that got me writing this little recommendation is the way the political landscape portrayed on Borgen mirrored quite amazingly closely the landscape in my home country New Zealand.  It also mirrors fairly closely Great Britain, Australia and Canada.  I am not familiar with other countries political systems, but my suspicion from this small sample is that many countries, perhaps a majority, are tending towards a multi-party system where coalitions need to be formed, where the right-wing parties consolidate most power through their internal unity, and where the left-wing parties are almost completely fractured, but still have remarkable influence.

Since I am a mathematical physicist and IT lecturer, I am not by any stretch a fount of wisdom on political matters, but my father was a New Zealand MP and he loved discussing world politics.  He was also a chief negotiator for the Bahá’í World Community based in Haifa Israel, where he had to deal with a sometimes hostile Israeli political system.    So I picked up a lot from him.  Thus, while I will not write here at length, I would like to make a few pithy observations and hopefully get some readers to respond or go away and do a thesis or write articles or books on these topics.  I also like to hope any decent lecturers on political science are observing and debating these ideas in their courses with their students.

The main cognitive dissonance I get from my sparse survey of world politics is that the leftist political parties are badly fractured and yet their ideologies are the more forceful and powerful.  Why is this?  How is it possible? What might it be indicating for the near future (50 to 100 year horizon)?

Here are a few of my summary observations:

  1. Right wing parties tend to stay unified and thus consolidate power, my thesis would be that this is due to a general right-wing or conservative-minded mentality (more on this below).
  2. Left wing parties are badly fracturing, particularly when any two-party system goes multi-party (usually due to a constitutional change from first-past-the-post to a more proportional representation system), and my thesis is that this a prototypical left-wing psyche.
  3. In multi-party democracies the Libertarians also tend to get precipitated out of both the left-wing and right-wing dominant parties.
  4. Although political legislation and executive power probably lies predominantly with right-wing conservatism (witness the USA despite their President), nevertheless, the world is unerringly moving more and more towards old-fashioned progressive and leftist policies and ideologies.

Forget for a moment about the incongruence of the phrase “old fashioned progressive”.  I will hopefully explain what I mean by that in what follows.

What I hope to illustrate in my brief discussion to follow is a vague feeling that the psychological factors which underlie each of the above observations seems, to me, to highlight the good in each brand of political ideology.  Moreover, the emergence of these distinct trends and differences points to a potential for a healing of the bad-old ways of 19th and 20th century democracy, which tended to be horribly corrupt and “democratic” in name only, not serving the people, but serving more faithfully corporations and wealthy interests.

You will have to fill in a lot of the details yourself I warn you!  I do not have time to write a major thesis here. But I think just a  few words under each heading should be sufficient for anyone to go away, do their homework, and fill out the bulk of the over-arching thesis I am presenting in proposal.

Also in what follows it might be hard for American readers who tend to think “socialism” is a dirty word.  In my lexicon “socialism” is simply a nature of politics that uses collective resources to help those in great need.  Thus, almost every single country has socialist health care, almost without exception. Taxes from people who never use health-care go towards subsidizing the costs of health-care for the poor.  Broadcast television is another great socialist system.  So is the school education system in most countries.  Normal garden-variety socialism exists all over the place in the USA.  When we in New Zealand talk about socialism we tend to think of schools and hospitals, police, law courts, and never any hint of Marxism or Communism creeps in.  The Communist failure was accepted in New Zealand probably back around 1948.  We do not have any hang-ups about left-wing socialism.  We accept the good of modern socialism and have long ignored as irrelevant to any modern consumer culture any potential threat from the corruptions and inhuman inefficiencies of communist style social centralization.

Finally, for any extremist readers, I personally think the spoils of evil and corruption are fairly uniformly distributed across the political spectrum.  There might be statistically more socialists imprisoned than conservatives but only because of extreme times like the McCarthy era in the USA or the radical feminist era in the UK and elsewhere and for the communist “red conspiracy” theorists who once held political or judicial power in many countries.  There is also a bias on the left since Trade Unions were often infiltrated by organized crime, and there is no way that Mafia or other crime organizations can be considered left-wing or right-wing.  They are basically wingless.  And would utilize any existing power structure at the level that they could usefully infiltrate and corrupt.

Objectively, and with an even-handed look into all the possible biases and miscarriages of justice over the last few centuries, I think one would find no significant correlation between political belief and corruption or crime, and instead only a correlation between power and corruption (I might be wrong, I have not looked into any such research).  Each side of the political spectrum likes to believe their’s is the more honest and just side, but I would guess there is no objective evidence for such beliefs.  There are just good and bad people who seek power, and the more power they gain the worse people’s ethics seem to become, if for no other reason than the purely banal fact that with more power one can “get away” with more slight of hand and wrong-doing even if for pure motives.  What’s more, with some people who gain inordinate power, they often will not even realize they are evil.  Indeed, maybe often they are not in themselves “evil”, and it is only their incompetent or ill-considered actions that are evil.

Hopefully that last paragraph clears a  little bit of ideological fog to make what I am about to write a little easier to glean.

Conservative Unity

A number of studies in psychology have documented the (by now commonly understood) phenomenon of right-wing conservative fear.  Conservative react with measurably more disgust to images that are violent and horrific, while left-wing proponents are far more calm & cool when faced with disgusting or psychologically disturbing images. See “Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives” by Emily Laber-Waren, Scientific American, 1 September 2012.  See also, “Fear of Ebola Could Make People More Likely to Vote Conservative”, by Alice Robb, in The New Republic, October, 2014.

Conservatives tend to react to aggression and hostility with a military sort of mentality.  They circle-the-wagons, hold down the fort, and adopt defensive postures.  This is not, or even remotely, only in physical aggression circumstances. It is a general psychological trait of conservatives that per-determines a lot of their decisions and actions in the everyday world.  But there is a beauty in these traits.  Despite many personal differences and internal strife and implementation debates, conservatives tend to have a remarkable ability to remain united in the face of onslaught or in-party friction.  It is an admirable character of a conservative mind-set that liberals and progressives and radical find almost impossible to replicate. This strength of conservative movements in general (and yes, here and in what follows I am making deliberately sweeping generalizations that should in no way be attributed to any particular individual human) will help conservative opinion remain a strength in politics for as long as I can foresee.

This is important, because as the world moves inexorably more towards left-wing and caring pro-socialist capitalism, the loss of hard-line conservative opinion would be a terrible blow for democracy and representational government.  Socialists need to be reigned in by fiscal conservatives from time to time.  Corruptions in centralized power structures (like our current schools) need to periodically be released form the tyranny of social conformance and allowed to burst free and explore new and innovative options that require a more libertarian mind-set.

Left Wing Diversity

Socialist and left-wing thinkers tend to have a greater tolerance for outside views and do not automatically revert into defensive modes when threatened. This is often perceived as a political weakness. It also tends to make left-wing minds less worried or fearful of internal debate and dissension.  Left-wing parties also tend to have deserved reputations for division and an inability to see-through hard line decisions.  This is a natural psychological trait in general for people who favour the political left.  It is characterized by higher diversity of opinion, higher tolerance for dissension, and weakness in resolve and a tendency for disunity.

But I think the disadvantages of the political left are becoming less important.  Multi-party politics has split the left-wing big parties, so they no longer hold anywhere close to parity against the dominant right-wing parties.  But in a multi-party proportional representation system this is not such a problem.   Conservatives may have primary power, but not in brute force of numbers, only by virtue of being the dominant party.  Numerically the combined left, green, progressive and centrist liberals dominant over most right-wing parties.  We see in the USA where the electoral college system results in a de facto two-party system that the left wing and right wing are roughly balanced.  And the USA is a very conservative country by in large, owing perhaps to it’s strong Christian puritanism cultural history.  If the USA was to become truly multi-party and electorally proportional then I suspect the Republicans would remain almost intact, the Democrats would lose a huge amount of their numerical force, but leftist and progressive centrist parties would spring up, preserving the rough left versus right balance.

These left-wing weaknesses are thus not fatal.  Indeed, the tolerance for diversity and the more fractious in-fighting nature of left-wing circle politics is a vital, and perhaps even necessary, character needed for a political movement that seeks more rapid change and innovation then the conservative right.  Change is dangerous, it requires minds that are less fearful of strife and more able to tolerate dissension.  The right-wing mindset by nature can never fully embrace such internal chaos and conflict necessary for the sound debate and research of new ideas and potentially disruptive innovations.

Libertarian Precipitation

Republicans want to be free from fear and doubt.  Socialist desire to be free from poverty and want.  It is no wonder these opposing camps in politics are at odds.  Those who feel more of a psychological need to be free from fear are those who are already wealthy enough to not have concerns about basic needs and shelter and immediate security, they tend to be conservatives. Those who cannot even afford to worry about national security, because they are struggling to survive, tend to be socialist or left-wing (although the USA populace seem to have major departures from this otherwise world-wide trend in political demographics, see “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank).  In-between there are libertarians, who may be either wealthy or poor but who in any case value liberty and freedom to “do whatever the hell they please” above other worries like safety or accruing of personal wealth.  These are all heavily stereotyped descriptions, but I am justifiably making them for the sake of very general arguments.

The general argument is that when a country changes from a two-party to a multi-party style of election and/or governance, then the libertarians tend to divorce themselves from the parental support of their innately preferred branch of the left-right political spectrum, and they then crystallize out into their own political force fields. Usually extreme in free-market philosophy, they can also have elements of intellectual anarchism, which is not the popularly believed system without rules, but is a more benign philosophical idea that countries and communities should be run by egalitarian cooperative principles and not by a leadership hierarchy.  Everyone contributing, everyone who participates, is a leader in an anarchic system.  Far from leading logically to chaos, an anarchy can be a rather beautiful system.  But we are yet to see anarchy operate anywhere effectively on a  global governance scale.

But despite the flaws in implementing pure libertarian principles, libertarians still have many important principles that can be used to balance and guide other mainstream political ideologies.

There are even some highly effective and proven micro-implementations of libertarianism.  Not in politics, but in business.  The Free Software movement is the best example I know.  It is wildly successful and has shown itself to be a truly beautiful and efficient model for how an anarchic style of operation can be effective when the purpose is to create a complex system of products that no one person can maintain or oversee.   One exception might be the Linux kernel project.  The Linux kernel does have it’s leader, for sure, but the model (the Cathedral style of software development) is still basically a libertarian type of model, allowing many developers to contribute, without bias, provided they have the proven skill.  The Linux kernel is a type of meritocracy more than an anarchy, but it is heavily libertarian in flavour nonetheless.  But there are thousands of other free open-source software projects they basically prove that anarchy or libertarianism can be an effective system organizing a society, in fact a world-wide virtual society

The idea is that when they can free themselves from the shackles of a two-party system, libertarians have a stronger voice.  They are no longer beholden to any traditional stifling party power structure, they no longer need to tow any particular party-line, but can instead organize themselves along whatever style of libertarianism they espouse.  This clarity of political voice from an important sub-section of society is a wonderful advancement in world civilization.  There is little worse for idealism in politics than having good ideas that are drowned by noise and never heard.

Irrepressible Progressive Movement

I have to confess I am not strong on knowledge of the differences between left-wing socialism and progressives.  My characterization would be that traditional left-wing parties tend to be more entrenched in their brand of socialism, whereas progressives are more like the amorphous apolitical class I will mention below in the Epilogue.  My thesis concerning progressives was merely that their collective stream of ideology seems to be where the world is heading.  Partly this is because Progressives borrow from intellectual popularism, using popular academic and scientific opinion to drive through parts of their agenda.  Partly it is because they can align with conservatives on fiscal responsibility and safety and defense matters, and partly because they can work with green movements who are concerned with environmental protection, and they can work with both libertarians and greens on political and social freedom.

It also seems that Progressive politics is almost by definition the style and content of politics that is a majority popular trend.   People are sick of the old, they want fresh and new ideas, and that almost defines what it is to be a Progressive in politics and society.  So I think it is almost vacuous to point out the the progressive political movement is advancing irrepressibly.  Because it advances by definition.  Whatever trend in politics is current, then that is virtually what we would call “progressive”.   This is probably a gross characterization and oversimplification, but I think it has enough of a kernel of truth to be all that I need to write on the topic.  My main summarizing point which links to progressive politics is in the Epilogue.

Epilogue: Rise of the Amorphous Apoliticals

Although not in my list of five observations above, I think another thread in world politics is the emergence of young people who are almost entirely apolitical.  They borrow an ideology from the left, from the right, from the central, from the anarchic, from the libertarian, as they see fit, to suit their needs or current thoughts.

This is a very healthy brand of millennial citizen.  There have always been people who are capable of sympathizing, or even empathizing, with either end or middle of the political spectrum.  These have, in the past, tended to be “free thinkers”, or outsiders, or academics who pursue truth and impartial judgment.  Such people would often be looked down upon as “having no principles”.  But this was the exact opposite.  Free thinkers have higher principles than any ideological allegiant party people.   Their allegiance was never to any political party of ideological brand, but to truth and justice and egalitarianism.  There are plenty of people within the political parties who are such free thinkers too, they are not always total outsiders. They have the ability to work with anyone who has a reasonable fact-based or rational opinion. That is because facts and rationality are open to debate and are immune from hard-line ideology.  The mistake of politically biased operators in thinking that free thinkers “have no principles” is a failure to note that their (the free thinker’s) principles are in fact blatant and far higher and nobler ones, devoted to truth and wisdom rather than any particular policy.

Also, I wrote above that in the bad-old days democratic governments were a farce, they served corporate and wealthy interests, not the people.  The thing is, most people will think this has never changed, and in fact may be even worse today than in the past.  So really we have bad-new days.  But I would disagree.  Today we have much greater transparency, the ills and sicknesses of political systems are more exposed to the light. So naturally we think it is getting worse.  But the more light gets shed on politics the more sick it will seem until we cross over a putative phase transition in politics, and politics becomes less corrupted by money and more driven by people who want to serve the community and who would rather not be in power.  They would be reluctantly elected.  There will be an end to commercial political advertising and campaigning because political parties will become irrelevant and people will be voting for individual representatives, using a person’s character and individual history to inform their vote, not a political party agenda.  This is not naïve Pollyannarism, since you can see the signs and trends for yourself.  Look at the power and influence of social media.  This is not controlled by governments or security institutions.  It is genuine power wielded by ordinary people.  But it is only a dim start.  There is a thousand-fold, maybe even a million-fold increase in political action and luminosity that the Internet and social media still could develop, and I think will inevitably develop.

In this new millennium I think the argumentative fractious nature of most party-political systems are making people psychological ill.  There is less tolerance for politics.  More and more youngsters get their news from shows like The Daily Show than from stolid ratings-driven mainstream news media.  And I think this is how world politics is trending, slowly, but surely.  I would not be surprised if in 50 to 70 years from now there is at least one major democracy that switches to a party-free political electioneering and governance system.  There is already one major world-wide community using a party-free electoral and governance system.  I wonder how long before this system is more widely known and catches on in the public sphere.