Saturday, July 14, 2007

Birds, frogs, pasta, and the ultimate nature of reality

Things I'm reading instead of what I should be reading: Max Tegmark's new paper, The Mathematical Universe, which expands on his earlier work that I've mentioned before.
The External Reality Hypothesis: There exists an external physical realitycompletely independent of us humans.

The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis: Our external physical reality is an abstract mathematical structure.
This is one of those "so crazy it might be true" theories. And for me, it seems to talk about some of the more abstruse issues in theoretical physics from the math up, in a way that makes them almost comprehensible.
When considering such examples, we need to distinguish between two different ways of viewing the external physical reality: the outside view or bird perspective of a mathematician studying the mathematical structure and the inside view or frog perspective of an observer living in it.

...If history were a movie,the structure would therefore correspond not to a single frame of it but to the entire videotape. Consider the first example above, a world made up of classical point particles moving around in three-dimensional Euclidean space under the influence of Newtonian gravity. In the four-dimensional spacetime of the bird perspective, these particle trajectories resemble a tangle of spaghetti...To the frog, the world is described by Newton's laws of motion and gravitation. To the bird, it is described by the geometry of the pasta, obeying the mathematical relations corresponding to minimizing the Newtonian action.

[under Quantum Field Theory]...If the bird sees such deterministic frog branching, the frog perceives apparent randomness.
I like those bird and frog terms and will adopt them for my own scruffy thoughts on the nature of subjective and objective views of the universe (I may leave out the pasta though).

Science is the process whereby frogs laboriously attempt to take the perspective of birds.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

We are ruled by sociopaths

Turns out that 9/11 and the global war on terror is a good thing, because if we didn't have that we'd probably be starting up a war with China.

At the first meeting, one Republican woman on the commission said that the overwhelming threat was from China. Sooner or later the U.S. would end up in a military showdown with the Chinese Communists. There was no avoiding it, and we would only make ourselves weaker by waiting. No one else spoke up in support....

"Her name was Lynne Cheney," Hart said. "I am convinced that if it had not been for 9/11, we would be in a military showdown with China today." Not because of what China was doing, threatening, or intending, he made clear, but because of the assumptions the Administration brought with it when taking office. (My impression is that Chinese leaders know this too, which is why there are relatively few complaints from China about the Iraq war. They know that it got the U.S. off China's back!)

or to put it even more bluntly:
during the 1990s "There was actually a deliberate search for an enemy because they felt that the Republican Party didn't do as well" when foreign policy wasn't on the issue agenda.

Hearing stuff like this awakens the dormant anarchist in me. "Why should anyone be surprised at this?", he says. "Violence and conflict is what governments do, and if there's not enough violence and fear of violence to maintain their power, they'll do their best to manufacture some."

A government's ability to drum up violence is inversely proportional to the political intelligence of the populace. And Americans in particular are political idiots. We have the government we deserve.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Re my recent departure from Telic Thoughts; I somewhat regret it because there were occasional glimmers of a synthesis emerging from the flames. Stunney (my main interlocuter) viewed God as "transcendent reason". I thought this was an interesting if flawed idea, meaning that while transcendent reason might exist in some way (in the same way mathematical objects have a transcendent, Platonic existence), it didn't have any of the anthropomorphic attributes people hang off of God -- getting angry at people having unconventional sex lives, for instance. Nonetheless I was open to a sort of convergence argument.

Let's say there is a transcendent form of reason. Let's also say that blind, grunting, material evolution somehow drives matter to achieve an imperfect approximation of this perfect rationality. This "somehow" has the nature of a convergent solution, in that while there are is a huge infinity of possible forms, there are relatively few mathematically coherent forms. Seemingly random processes converge on these coherent forms, resulting in all the patterns, life, truth, and beauty we see in the universe.

We see convergence in attempts to generate new systems of mathematics (turns out you can't design a version of the integers with three different signs, and we presume that aliens will understand the Pythagorean theorem), and convergent evolution (eyes were independently "invented" many times). So, maybe evolution converges to rational minds, and maybe the endpoint of convergence has some theological qualities. Maybe.

I wish Telic Thoughts was a good place to explore this quarter-baked conception, but the discourse there inevitably devolves into flaming. I'll give Uncle Aleistair the last word on this:

"It must have a 'natural' cause."
"It must have a 'supernatural' cause."
Let these two asses be set to grind corn.
Frater Perdurabo, O.T.O., "Chinese Music," The Book of Lies

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence Day

I've just booted myself off the silly Telic Thoughts blog where I was having endless arguments with theists and other crackpots. The trigger that allowed me to break away from what was turning into an alarming addiction was that the list owners started deleting my messages in a thread where I had argued (mildly) for neural determinism over free will. "My neurons made me delete your posts", they childishly claimed. Ha-ha. A good excuse to bow out for me.

This is a standard stupid move in discussions of free will vs. determinism -- "if there's no free will, then your postings are meaningless and so are my actions". Yawn. Obviously, the interesting paradox is that we are apparently completely determined, yet we are capable of asserting meanings and have something that appears to be freedom and independence from the web of causality in which we are embedded.

So I don't believe solely in neural determinism, as does someone like Tom Clark whose version of naturalism attempts to collapse all causation to material causation. Everything we do might be caused by our neurons, but causal explanation is not the same thing as material explanation.

I've also been reading Judea Pearl's book on Causality, which contains some interesting thoughts on the nature of causality and causal explanations. According to Pearl, nobody has yet made a very good mathematics theory of causality, a concept which doesn't fit well into physics or statistics (Pearl claims he has one). I haven't worked through the formal theory, but the informal theory seems to be roughly: while the universe is a seamless web of causal connections, when we make a causal explanation we necessarily sever out a subsystem that we are explaining from its environment, and we create a model that allows us to explore the effects of hypothetical interventions to the system.

If you subscribe to pure materialism, the world is a huge web of interdependency. The problem is, you can't do anything with such a theory. For instance, a car is influenced by the road, the fuel you put in it, the chemical composition o fthe atmosphere, and the gravitational pull of Jupiter. If the car won't start, however, only some of these factors will be invoked as causal explanations. But, why? How do we know that the absense of fuel is likely to be a cause of failure to start, while the position of Jupiter is unlikely? (of course, not everyone agrees!) Because we have a model in our heads and can imagine what would happen if there was no fuel vs what would happen if Jupiter was in a different position.

Such causal models are much more useful than, say, a pure physics model which does not permit us to think about interventions.

Where is this nonsense going? Oh yeah, it's Independence Day! Where we celebrate our severing of certain causal connections between the American colonies and Mother England. A pure fiction of course, since physically Engliand was just as causally connected to North America as before. But a fiction with power, a fiction that could rearrange the causal models of the colonists and thus lead to actual changes in the physical causal connections.

Independence is one of those necessary fictions, like free will. And maybe God is too, although the verdict is still out on that one.