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.




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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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”).


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.

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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.


“Nothing to Hide” Arguments and Generalisations

A good friend of mine re-posted a link on Google+ the other day: I’ve Got Nothing to Hide” and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy, by Daniel J. Solove. It’s not a bad read, so go check it out.


A great cartoon of Aaron giving everyone access to JSTOR. Whoever drew this needs crediting, but I can only make out their last name “Pinn”. I grabbed this from Google image search. So thanks Mr or Ms Pinn.

So that this is not a large departure from my recent trend in blog topics, I wanted to share a few thoughts about similar “easy arguments” in quite different fields.

The “Nothing to Show” Argument Against Publishing

This is an argument I’ve used all my life to avoid publishing. I hate people criticising my work. So I normally tell supervisors or colleagues that I have nothing of interest to publish. This is an extraordinary self-destructive thing to do in academia, it basically kills one’s career. But there are a few reasons I do not worry.

Firstly, I truly do not like publishing for the sake of academic advancement. Secondly, I have a kind of inner repulsion against publishing anything I think is stupid or trivial or boring. Thirdly, I am quite lazy, and if I am going to fight to get something published it should be worth the fight, or should be such good quality work that it will not be difficult to publish somewhere. Fourth, I dislike being criticised so much I will sometimes avoid publishing just to avoid having to deal with reviewer critiques. That’s a pretty immature and childish sensitivity, and death for an academic career, but with a resigned sigh I have to admit that’s who I am, at least for now, a fairly childish immature old dude.

There might be a few other reasons. A fifth I can think of is that I wholeheartedly agree with Aaron Swartz’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which proclaims the credo of free and open access to publicly funded research for all peoples of all nations. That’s not a trivial manifesto. You could argue that the public of the USA funds research that should then be free and open, but only to the public of the USA, and likewise for other countries. But Swartz was saying that the tax payers of the respective countries have already paid for the research, the researcher’s have been fully compensated, and scientists do not get any royalties from journal articles anyway, and therefore their research results should be free for all people of all nations to use. Why this is important is the democratising of knowledge, and perhaps more importantly the unleashing of human potential and creativity. If someone in Nigeria is denied access to journals in the USA then that person is denied the chance to potentially use that research and contribute to the sum total of human knowledge. We should not restrict anyone such rights.

OK, that was a bit of a diversion. The point is, I would prefer to publish my work in open-access journals. I forget why that’s related to my lack of publishing … I did have some reason in mind before I went on that rant.

I’ve read a lot of total rubbish in journals, and I swear to never inflict such excrement on other people’s eyes. So anything I publish would be either forced by a supervisor, or will be something I honestly think is worth publishing, something that will help to advance science. It is not out of pure altruism that I hesitate to publish my work, although that is part of it. The impulse against publishing is closer to a sense of aesthetics. Not wanting to release anything in my own name that is un-artful. I’m not an artist, but I have been born or raised with an artistic temperament, much to my detriment I believe. Artless people have a way of getting on much better in life. But there it is, somewhere in my genes and in my nurturing.

So I should resolve to never use the “Nothing to Show” argument. I have to get my research out in the open, let it be criticised, maybe some good will come of it.

The “Nothing to Fear” Argument Against Doing Stupid Stuff

Luckily I am not prone to this argument. If you truly have nothing to fear, then by all means … but often this sort of argument means you personally do not mind suffering whatever it is that’s in store, and that use of the argument can be fatal. So if you ever hear you inner or outer voice proclaiming “I have nothing to fear …” then take a breath and pause, make sure there truly is nothing to fear (but then, why would you be saying this out loud?). There is not much more to write about it. But feel free to add comments.

The “Nothing to Lose” Argument in Favour of Being Bold

This is normally a very good argument and perhaps the best use of the “Nothing to …” genre. If you truly have nothing to lose then you are not confounding this with the “Nothing to Fear” stupidity. So what more needs to be said?


Wish I Was There

My amazing Bro’, Greg Zemke-Smith, just emailed me asking me when I’d be returning to New Zealand to be closer to my family.  I miss them so much it gets me down at least a few times every day, and especially at night when I’m trying to drift asleep.   I wrote back to him complaining that education (the field I work in) in New Zealand is in a worse mess than people care to admit.  So I would have a hard time going back home to work in schools.  University is the only place I can currently teach with sufficient freedom and autonomy and creativity.  On the surface New Zealand has a truly revolutionary secondary education system,  They have implemented many modernist ideas in pedagogy and assessment, but the combined system is deeply flawed because it still hangs on the much of the conservative education establishment norms.  And when a potential bright new spherical revolutionary system is put into an old-world establishment box, it just dies. It’s worse than the bad old system alone.

So my Bro’ then wrote back saying New Zealand’s NCEA system is at least better than the Cambridge exam system.  And I thought about this for a bit, since I was inclined to agree, but then wrote him the following email.

         *          *          *

Yeah, … maybe… maybe on a good day when the sky is clear and I’m tipsy on caffeine I’d agree NCEA appears to be better than IB or Cambridge.

I started writing you a short reply, but then got carried away!  hahahaha!
 Hexagonal close packing of students.

The trouble with NCEA is that it really only pretends to make learning more inclusive and student-centric, whereas in practice pretty much the same pedagogies get propagated as in the past, and students still only get taught what teachers think the students need to score well in exams.  I know some of the reformers have their hearts in the right place, but I think they are just a bit too dim to see the consequences of their policies.  It’s tragic really, NZ has such well-intentioned educators and policy-makers, and some brilliant teachers, but they lack the intellects or balls (perhaps) to really crack the insides of the edu system open and go supernova.  Just too many conservative plodders or nice people in heart without genius brains to be more super-visionary.

So while NCEA is still an exam-based assessment it will never be all that much better than IB or Cambridge or any other exam based standards education assessment system, even if the NCEA exam questions look cooler and more open-ended.   Exams aren’t the only evil but I think they are a huge part of the problem.  A predetermined set syllabus that is the same for every individual student is another evil, which tends to pair nicely with national set nation-wide exams. It’s crazy in our modern world to be treating all children or teenagers as more or less the same blank slate who all can do with the same syllabus and teaching regime.  We have the technology to easily totally individualize learning, all that is really required are teachers who can be comfortable answering any questions thrown at them and who are happy to sit back a  bit more an manage students in self-directed learning, rather than trying to bulk teach a whole class.

In fact, the more vague open-ended questions in NCEA are a disaster!  They defeat the purpose of exams which is really (should be) to assess quality of education.  If you want fair assessment then the exam questions need to be fairly boring, mild, even multiple-choice and not involve too much subjective answering.  The problem is teachers are too afraid to NOT teach-to-tests, so they drill students on how to answer exam questions, no matter what the type of questions.  And with the open-ended nature and complexity of NCEA style questions this is a nightmare for teachers.  And it is paradoxically killing creativity in our schools. If the questions were all mild and boring then teachers could ignore them and teach more creatively and tell students not to worry one jot about the exams.  Exams should really be a total minor after-thought, useful for teachers as data for helping inform, test, and improve teaching methods.

Actually, I’ve come to think testing and assessment are extremely important, but should still always be viewed as secondary to learning and secondary to encouraging positive affect in schools.  But it is the way testing is used which is vital.  I think some slight anarchy is needed, teachers should have autonomy to test their students in any way they please, but make the testing open to external scrutiny and NZQA business should be about assessing the assessments, not the students!  Tests then become ways of gathering data for assessing quality of teaching.  People, we, society, everyone, should then just simply TRUST that if the learning and teaching is good, and always iteratively evolving and improving, then students will naturally have experiences good or sufficient quality of education, so there is no need to assess students, not need to grade them.

Why do we still have grades?  The main reason I think (other than for political control of teachers) is to block and prevent some students from gaining entry into higher education.  This is evil to me.  ALL education should be freely accessible, and even maybe free cost at least up to some ways of paying for services and hence fees, but entry should not be restricted by grades, it should be restricted by self-selection of students with courses.  With Internet a lecturer can teach millions of students, there is a virtual classroom, so class sizes are irrelevant these days.

The first country to crack giving high quality peer-reviewed tested but without any student grading, and freely accessible education, will i think gain a huge economic advantage and will outshine other nations for years before the rest catch up.   Unfortunately this experiment might never happen since many top universities are giving away their course materials in OpenCourseWare.   It that ever leads to wide-spread self-education maybe our universities will gradually close down from lack of registered students!  (Probably not, but it’s at least conceivable that might happen, at least for OpenCourseWare that does not require a laboratory or other physical equipment, like engineering or medicine.  But in fact, remote equipment control over the internet is already happening, so even heavy physically resourced courses could eventually go fully online.)

But I think if I came back to NZ preaching all of this I’d never find a job, not even at Polytech.

But I think your Polytech idea is a good one for me.  I think I’d like that environment, if only there was an opening and a course I could teach.  Maybe I’ll design a course and pitch it to WelTec?  Something to put on my list of things to do in my research time.  Somehow though I think this project is more important than discovering the keys to quantum gravity.

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Justice and Mercy and Avoiding Assigning Blame

Why do people feel the need to assign blame for unfortunate events? Is the cause of a tragedy or crime always one singular person’s will? Is it more productive and ethical to forget about blame (entirely?) and concentrate on fairness and justice and protection?


There is a very thought provoking podcast on RadioLab (radiolab podcast 2013-09-12 .) The title of the episode is Blame. In one segment the story of a guy with severe epilepsy is told. This dude, Kevin, had such bad blackouts that he and his wife eventually had radical brain surgery, to literally cut away parts of his brain that were causing his fits. The procedure is interesting enough, so I will not bore you with the details, but just recommend you listen to the podcast.

The fascinating thing is the horrid case that he was arrested for by the FBI and spent some months in prison. He should have been locked away for life, but the court judge was lenient because part of his criminal defence was that he was unaware of his excesses due to his severe neurological condition. The physicians treating him, and consultant psychiatrists, gave expert testimony explaining that people with conditions like Kevin’s often have a form of schizophrenia, or multiple personality disorder (MPD), so a part of them can be committing terrible crimes while the saner “normal” character is unaware. (In fact his crimes were so shocking that I do not wish to write about them.)

This sort of MPD can even be bizarre enough that it occurs in distinct spheres of life. So while he was committing internet crimes at home, at work, when he had access to computers, there was no trace of his crimes. The prosecutor took exception to this and argued that Kevin must have been consciously aware of what he was doing, and not just acting via neurological impulses, precisely because if his behaviour was purely impulsive then he surely could not have been able to halt his criminal activity while at work. OK, so maybe he was too busy at work?

In any case, the judge did not allow his full defence. She claimed that while in his saner moods he could have taken steps to correct for his crimes. Which he did not.

Assigning Blame is Wrong, but Also Right

The moral or ethical dilemma here is that if we start using neurology to assigning blame to criminals, we can claim that they simply cannot help their behaviour. So their brain cells are guilty, but if they have any free will then perhaps they should not be treated so harshly. You can imagine a future where every single human behaviour is accounted for by deterministic brain processes and gees and upbringing. Leaving the “person” unblameworthy for their behaviour.

Which is ridiculous of course, since we have a justice system to hold people accountable for their actions.

But this raises the whole question of why we need a justice system. It is not truly for punishing wrong-doers, although some people may have conceived of the justice system in this way, and it may have even been an original motive. But surely we can agree now

Think about it! At least for me, personally, I do not really care if someone wants to shoot-up on drugs, but if they are going to harm someone else while doing it, or rob money to pay for their habit, then that does effect innocents. So such a person needs to be held accountable.

We have a good system for doing this. It is called The Law. Yeah, it coolly assigns blame and ostensibly punishes people where it finds blame. It is not perfect, but it is a good system, and it evolves and becomes better over time, it is not rigid and fixed, and it is probably the best system we can develop with current technology for assigning blame and punishing people. But this is a meta-cognitive view. It is not the only way we have to view The Law. Another way of viewing The Law, which does not change at all the way the law works, is to view it as a system for protecting people.

It is our choice how we choose to interpret the purpose of The Law. The Law itself is neutral to it’s purpose.

Where Neural-legals and Ethics Unite

This is the fascinating thing that the RadioLab folks do not quite get to, though they come close. The neurologist they interview is a keen intellect, and he gets close to resolving the issue. The thing is, we should not view the justice system as a way of assigning blame. Because the neurology argument will inevitably make this a joke. The “blame” is on a bunch of cells in the criminal’s brain. And you cannot incarcerate neural cells without incarcerating the whole person. But, the ethicists says this is precisely what we should do, but not for reasons of blame. It is for protection!

Justice, you see, is not law. A professor once pointed this out to me, Geoffrey Palmer, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand no less. He told me matter-of-factly that the law is not at all about justice. I remember feeling aggrieved at this, since I thought this is what ethical lawyers and judges were all about — making the world a more just and peaceful place.

But no. The Law is merely a system for agreeing upon rules for a society and enforcing them with as much consistently as practicable. Which is why clear and unambiguous legal drafting is much of an art, and also why deliberately making law ambiguous is also an art, because it endows the law with flexibility of interpretation, which is precisely what judges and jurists need to avoid getting caught by loopholes.

So we have a legal system on the one hand to enforce the laws agreed upon and constantly refined, debated on, and evolved by society. A society that does not debate and evolve it’s laws is morally decrepit if you ask me. This also allows escaping the problem of retroactive justice.

Retroactive Justice is Often Unnecessary

When an innocent person is convicted of a crime they did not commit, and future evidence reveals the truth, then vast reparations and apologies need to be made. But when someone who did commit a crime is later found to have a medical or psychological conditions which ostensibly “excuses them” of the crime, this is a different matter. And it gets us closer to the resolution between justice and behavioural neurology.

The justice system cannot apologise for incarcerating a dangerous person merely because their condition is biological, but was not perhaps known to be so — in the past when they were convicted. Whether you believe a person has a sentient soul and free-will is irrelevant. We should think of incarcerating people ONLY because we wish to make society safe for innocents. And in extreme cases perhaps also making the criminal safer for themselves, since a lot of criminal activity is purely self-harming. We wish, on the ethical side, to protect people form themselves as well as others. On the purely legals side, the written law is merely one way to do this within societal parameters.

The Law can be totally blind to mercy and compassion, while we who implement the law can be entirely merciful and compassionate. Which is precisely the resolution I think RadioLab struggled to find and yet could not quite articulate. It is not a horribly unethical thing to incarcerate a criminal because their epilepsy or schizophrenia or paranoia “made them” act in a way that their higher reasoning could not control. This poor person may have not ever been able to reason their own way morally out of committing the crime, but we can still forgive them on one level, and remove them from harm at another, compassionately.

And whether you believe the human drive and need to act compassionately and mercifully is also purely governed by our neurology or not, that fact is that we have higher conscious reasoning which allows us to get a “birds eye view” of this aspect of justice and the law. And this is spiritual and noble, no matter what it’s biological or spiritual origin in the human soul and mind.

Coldly implementing the law does not forbid us from being compassionate as individuals, nor merciful as a collective society.

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On a personal note, I think the judge who convicted Kevin was supremely wise. She saw him as a threat to himself and others, and she punished him for this potential. But she did so compassionately. In her verdict she explained her reasoning, both for being lenient in the length of sentence (because Kevin was clearly impaired by the medical procedure which was supposed to treat his epilepsy but which left him with this horrible MPD condition) and also she explained clearly why imprisoning him was not a vindictive decision, it was to show him that he did have means to preempt his criminal behaviour, but had chosen not to hold himself accountable in his sane moments.

And I believe she was wise in this decision. His punishment served him good purpose, which he admitted himself. And however cruel his fate may seem, (he was a victim too, a victim of epilepsy and an imperfect medical system) there is no way the judge could have assigned blame to the current medical system! It was only Kevin who could have stopped his crimes. And blame was not really the issue, as the RadioLab neurologist pointed out admirably. The issue was protection for the greater good.

The Compassion of Algorithmic Justice

At one point the RadioLab episode describes a method for predicting recidivism rates. It is a point-based system, and it has 70% predictive power, whereas human estimators (experts no less!) only achieve 50% predictive success.

The RadioLab correspondents have a bit of a strong debate about the merits of such systems for apportioning blame. They have the issue all wrong! The best predictive system is the best!

The ethical and moral concern is natural and understandable. People do not want decisions of mercy and justice to be left up to a computer algorithm. But this is entirely wrong-headed thinking!

Compassionate human beings are the ones devising and evolving the software! Human beings are the ones deciding when to use the software. It is not an abdication of moral responsibility to leave certain decisions in the hands of computer algorithms. Especially when those algorithms are known to be much more successful than human experts! In fact, it is ethically wrong to do otherwise!

Overly Romanticising Justice

When I finished the first draft of this post I paused to wonder if I had been fair. There s a danger when writing emotive opinion pieces to ignore so many factors. In my case I tend to filter out all the ugliness and focus in on what is beautiful. So I wanted to be fair, you know … JUST! So I thought I should carefully think about contrary arguments. What would they be?

Firstly, I do not think I am making a strong argument. I am merely saying that there is more than one way to interpret the purpose of The Law. But, OK, someone could say that the “for protection” interpretation is loopy, and we really should think of the Law properly as assigning blame and judging people for their wrong-doings.

Well, I do sympathise with this strong prosecutors type of stance. But there is a good reason why adversarial justice/law systems in the USA and UK have both prosecutors and defenders. They are two sides of a necessary search for truth. From the clash of the adversarial views one can hope for a sharp focus on pure evidence and all conceivable fair reasons and legal and ethical arguments. This s, after all, why the “insanity defence” has in recent years morphed a bit into a rising number of “biological determinist” defences. This is what Kevin’s defenders tried. They tried to argue that Kevin’s higher conscious, his putative free-will, was not in control during the moments of his criminal activity.

But I do not think the stance of the prosecutor nor the stance of the defender in court negate the validity of the view that ultimately The Law can always be seen as primarily serving the purpose of protection rather than punishment.

One reason for this perhaps “romantic view”, is that punishment alone serves little purpose. It usually, at least in the hands of normal people rather than psychopaths, serves the purpose of trying to discourage wrong actions, both from being repeated and from being done in the first place (punishment of the guilty as warning to others).

Justice is Beautiful

So the take-home message for this post is that the Law is only a means to an end, and we need to start thinking of the ends of the Law as protection for society, not as merely a method of punishment or assigning blame. And this resolves all the paradoxes which will otherwise crop up as neurology advances and informs us of why people may do certain strange this. And it it is this attitude we have towards the purpose of the Law which is where we find our higher sense of Justice. The Law can be ugly, but Justice is always beautiful.

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