Friday, December 23, 2011

The Problem of Coexistence

Paracelsus supposedly said, "There are no poisons, only quantities". I would rather say that some things can only coexist to a given degree.

P.S. Watch out for umbrellas.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Should philosophers be more poetic?


The liberation theologian and poet Ernesto Cardenal writes poetry that explores the relationship between science and our spiritual world. For example, in his poetic opus Canticula Cosmico (Cosmic Canticles) he writes:
Y el gas se condensó más y más
cada vez con más y más masa
y la masa se hizo estrella y empezó a brillar.
Condensándose se hacían calientes y luminosas.
La gravitación producía energía térmica: luz y calor.
Como decir amor.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION (by Jonathan Cohen):

And the gas condensed more and more
gaining increasingly more mass
and mass became star and began to shine.
As they condensed they grew hot and bright.
Gravitation produced thermal energy: light and heat.
That is to say love.

Luz y calor, como decir amor. With a few simple words we are joined in communion before a combusting campfire. Or transported to an imagined afternoon nap under the radiating fusion of an early autumn sun. The observable, and empirically confirmable, is connected to our inner meaningful lifeworld.

Science exposes how amazing the Universe truly is. But the predominantly prosaic language used in a scientific context often fails to conjure the beautiful connectivity illustrated, time and again, by probative empirical means. Ernesto Cardenal remedies this short coming by exploring scientific inquiries through poetry. Though he does not substantiate his implications scientifically, he definitely participates in meaningful conjecture built atop scientific inquiry. In this sense, he is no different than a philosopher. He creates connections between that which at first glance seems distant and orthogonal. Cardenal is a theologian who uses language not just effectively, but evocatively as well.

Language is our fundamental toolset for illustrating what is not obvious prima facie, at the moment of sensual apprehension. It is a symbolic juxtaposition of experiences that have passed out of immediacy. It is apple juice, the liquid of a long gone fruit. Or amorous longing, the desire for an absent predicate of love. And beyond such neighborly concepts as fruit and juice, longing and loving, are juxtapositions that tie together what seems infinitely separate. In death is life. At the end is a beginning. We are all stardust.

Contrast Cardenal's theological poetry to Judith Butler's infamous and price winning philosophical prose:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Whereas Cardenal draws powerful analogies through simple but evocative subject-predicate relationships, Butler obscures her meaning in long dense run-on sentences. As we venture into Butler's world, we get further and further away from the familiar. Our lifeworld recedes in the distance until all we are left with are unfamiliar references, juxtaposed in yet meaningless contexts. Butler defends her prose by pointing out that everyday common-sence can place a veil over the truth. What seems like the case may not be so. And philosophy's job is, so to say, to explore the familiar in unfamiliar ways. And therefore calls for a new and unfamiliar language. We cannot break common fallacies except through uncommon means.

To some extent, Butler has a point. But that does not defend her initially incomprehensible prose. If anything is wrong with her prose, it is at the very least inefficient. Since it relies heavily on largely unexplained contextual reference (such as "Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects"), she requires the reader to be well versed in her own lifeworld. We must study Butler to understand Butler. This may seem to be the case with many of the great philosophers. Not so. Plato can be understood without extensive knowledge of his life or of Ancient Greece. Having a degree in the Antiquities and philosophy certainly helps. But it is by no means required. For example, Platos' work The Republic contains mostly passages along the following lines:
Now the first and greatest of necessities is food, which is the condition of life and existence.

Certainly.

The second is a dwelling, and the third clothing and the like.

True.

And now let us see how our city will be able to supply this great demand. We may suppose that one man is a husbandman, another a builder, some one else a weaver—shall we add to them a shoemaker, or perhaps some other purveyor to our bodily wants?

Quite right.

The barest notion of a State must include four or five men.

Clearly.

The intentionality of the words echo across two and a half millennia. I suspect that Butler's will fade into the fog of forgotten contexts. Unless, of course, she has discovered something that in time will seem as natural as it was once unfamiliar. Plato may be more comprehensible because his investigations have had roughly 150 generations to transition from the uncommon into one of the bedrocks of philosophy. As alien as quantum mechanics once seemed and as hard a time we may still have to access its world, new visualizations, and analogies like electron clouds, are slowly making its invisible realms part of our extended perceptions. Perhaps Judith Butler is so astute a genius that her contemporaries are bound to ridicule her novel insights. We chortle as she sheds the old and once obvious and battles her way through a dense unfamiliar jungle "toward the politically new". I doubt it. But nonetheless, since my crystal ball is as foggy as a polluted 19'th century London, my doubt is ultimately but conjecture.

One could say that the role of science, philosophy, and even theology is not to be evocatively beautiful, but brutally expository. And one might claim that poetry adds no value to the form of discourse these fields are engaged in. It is of little import to their actual relationship that amor and calor rhyme in Spanish. Their english counterparts, love and heat, do not rhyme. And yet it would seem strange to claim that their relationship is any different depending on the cultural context. The sun and fire making has been similarly important to Inuits and Bedouins through the ages. Anyone who has experienced a cold Saharan night will not be surprised.

Science favored language is in fact math, a concise and precise set of international formalities that minimize misunderstandings. ∏ does not mean 2.71828183 in Canada and 3.14159265 in Japan. But not all science can effectively be communicated using math. Though I'm not a biologist, I suspect that expressing the cell underwent meiosis would be quite cumbersome using vector fields! Math is in some sense poetic, but not in the phonetic sense. Since the relationship between the intended is irrelevant of the symbols and sounds used to express them, using these relationships may, unlike in tonally unpoetic mathematical languages, fool us to see connections where there are none. But Almost anything is fraught with dangers. Knowledge of logical fallacies can be used both to fool and as a powerful safeguard against bamboozlement.

Poetry is a powerful way of efficiently highlighting connections. Though the emphasize may be phonetically language dependent and divorced from the "actual" conceptual links, they condense the amount of information necessary to transfer understanding and make their impression far more powerful. Of course, if we loose knowledge of the articulated phonemes, all such advantage is lost. The efficiency is dependent on a high degree of cultural fluency. But imagine you were parsing the text of an ancient civilization. You slowly figured out the meaning of some words but knew only a fraction of the phonemes. However, it seemed evident to you that this is poetry that works not only on a conceptual but a tonal level. Would it not make it more likely that the texts meaning would suddenly leap on you like a saber toothed tiger?

Should philosophers be more poetic? Or would poetics be a distraction from the central mision of the philosophical endeavor?

Bust Open the Herring and Dance

It's been a long time... way too much through the mind lately. I'll return...but on a continuation of the somewhat extended and originally short intermezzo, the transformation is almost complete. 14 years and counting, North American. Now shed your skin European fogies! Follow Berlin's half plus century. Transition fully to an age beyond the antiquated words of a half decade plus dead Derrida...subsume yourself in chemistry and biology, text addendumed. Politically confused with utmost global clarity.

 Now move with your LCD Sound System.

 

 Bust open the sour herring. The knäckebröd is in the jar!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Exercise for Geek Freaks

Short intermezzo...

Tired of all those talking heads spewing nonsense on some "news" program as you exercise? Try this: Start off by silently walking at a brisk pace on your treadmill for 5 minutes or so to warm up. This is the centering phase. Shift to a running speed of about 8 km / hour. The speed needs to be exact but will depend on the length of your stride. I'm roughly 1.81 meters tall and the given speed is geared at someone of my height and stride. Adjust accordingly! Then, turn on the following video:




Play in a loop for about 30-40 minutes. Work up a good sweat. Burn some calories! Get some muscles going! Yeah, baby! And when you're just about too exhausted to keep going, let's go totally transcendental. Switch down to a brisk walking speed of about 6.4 km. Again, the exact speed will depend on your stride. Then start the following video in a 15-20 minutes loop:



Be one with the zone. Transcend, my friend! And take that conjecture of  talking heads with a grain of salt. Especially when you get those endorphins going and your mind opens up to inspiration. And get those muscles going geek freak!

Keep to your adjusted speeds. If you need more performance, adjust the inclination of your treadmill. I currently do the above exercise at a 2-4 % incline. 

PS. May Benoît Mandelbroth's legacy inspire us all in strange and unexpected ways!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Insightful or Rational? Meandering Reflections...



Circular reasoning upsets our sensibilities and infinite regress troubles us. I'm no exception. But on reflection it does strike me as odd that we are willing to postulate infinite space in all its varieties, closed or open, and yet regard their logical equivalents as fallacies. Certainly saying, "Children should not be tortured because it makes them suffer" is to some satisfactory. But to others, the intellectually curious, it begs the question "And?"

"Is torture not by definition the infliction of suffering? So, what you are saying is, in effect, that we should not torture because it is torture? And why did you specifically mention children? Does this imply we can can cause suffering to teenagers and adults but not the innocent?".

Intellectuals are like children. Almost anything you say to them begs a question. But forbid we get caught in a loop! It unnerves us. And having learned the magic of derivatives, we expect something as concrete and as solid as a number if we split the world into ever smaller parts. Concrete?? A number? What are those abstract ideas called ZERO, ONE and TWO anyway?? What does concrete really mean?

James P. Houston of Scotland, a.k.a. Curious, proposed on Talking Philosophy that perhaps morality requires no justification at all. This is tantamount to intuitionism. James concurrently asked what could possible justify not subjecting children to torture. A bit odd, but all right, let's run with it. Children and torture it is.

So, child torture is wrong because...well, to cause suffering is simply wrong, child or not. End of story! Right? Yes, but a thorough and universal application of this insight seems to implore us to something like Jainism. Unless we declare suffering a purely human condition. And even so we might have to come to terms with violence against our brethren in order to defend life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness against the brutality of the unenlightened. Those pesky vikings surfing the crest beyond the firth, willing to ransack, pillage and cause untold suffering.

We could claim that what got us into a Gordian knot above is reason itself. So we shed reason as such and abandon ourselves to the pure realm of intuition. Aum vajrapani hum...You will simply know when violence, and the ensuing suffering, is due and when not. I can sense in my very gut what it means to defend oneself and what it means to inflict undue torture. To the intuitionist this might seem fine, but I for one will have to scream out "Hold on! We have just jettisoned what seems to have given us Euler's formula, de Brogli waves and the Boyer-More algorithm!" I cannot, will not, no no no! It upsets my intuition and gives me heartburn. Calcium carbonate, please!

The Zen butcher might reprimand me, "Whenever you eat, you eat too much!"

He will fill me with sake and kick me onto the beaten path.

"Where do you get those wonderful steaks from anyway, Mr. Butcher?"

"What do you think, they grow on trees!!!

Off I go. Back to the mountain.

Philosophy is replete with claims about the obvious. We've developed a whole vocabulary to appeal to people's most basic sensibilities. Prima facie, self-evident, tautological necessity. The intuitionist will point to this and admonish the rationalist for trying to explain everything. "Why do you ask for the reason we should not torture children? Do you question that 1 + 1 = 2? Or that the ratio of a circle's circumference to diameter is always pi? Shame on you!"

"Fair enough. More sake, please. Can I get off this mountain now?"

Good houses are certainly built on firm bedrock, not puffy clouds in the sky with who knows how many thousand's of feet to the ground. Levitation is an art mastered only by the few "enlightened". And a little skepticism from the rest of us is not out of order. How do we chaff the "enlightened" from the "quacks"? Is it not the philosopher's job to socratically find that bedrock on which everything is built, and make such distinctions? Ah, yes, but the intuitionist bypasses all that nonsense, silencing the mind in 6 easy steps.

But for the rationalist there is, alas, no repose. She remains unconvinced. Her mind is still restless, her thoughts unsettled. Yes, she is aware of the conclusions of her own project: the incompleteness theorem. Ah, the incompleteness theorem, yes, the incompleteness theorem smiles the intuitionist.

"But what about everything between here and the unprovable axiomatic base of everything", protest the rationalist. She is flustered but insistent. "What about finding the smallest string of all strings? Help me Chaitin and Kolmogorov! Help me! "

"You mean Brahman", whispers the intuitionist. That magnificent but incomprehensible force behind everything. "Speak with me, Aum... " Ring, ring. "Hold on. Have to take this call. Brahmy is on the line. Be right back"

"Brahman, shaman", says the rationalist in stubborn refusal. "You know who wrote that software that makes it possible for us to share so much data over wireless frequency channels based on fast Fourier transformations? I did, my friend I did!" She is combative. "No torture because it's torture?? Brahman, shaman!" She is worked up.

"I have to call you back, dude. I've got Ms. Fizzy Tizzy Logic here. She's off on one of her dangerous escapades again. Yeah, I know. Exactly. Spot on. I'll call you right back, Brahmy." Click. "Look Ms. Fizzy Tizzy No Fuzzy, sometimes things can't be explained by your simple rules. And when you try it, you conclude that the moon is made of cheese. Come on. The moon is not made of cheese, is it. You just know that smack right there, no."

"No, it isn't. Obviously not because...."

"It isn't? You sure?"

"The whole moon is cheese thing is just bad prepositional logic, that's all! Look, it's easy to prove that..."

"Yes?"

"I know what your trying to do Mr. Mushy All Feel Goody! You're just trying to get me caught in a game of stacking turtles on turtles!"

"You can call it what you want, baby. Your way it's turtles all the way. Not everything has a sufficient reason. Sometimes you just know, hotcakes."

"So Mr. I Feel It All Here in the Heart, are there an infinite number of primes?"

"Sure, yeah..."

"And how do you know this Mr.Cuddles? You feel it right there in your gut, do you?

"No, but Euclid...ah, ok, fine. Ah, yes, but what's a prime? Ha! Right there! Eh? What do say about that"

"A prime is by its very definition..."

"Never mind. I gotta call Brahmy back. I should give you the number. You definitely need to kick back, relax and connect sometimes".

Something rational is something achieved through the faculties of reason. In logic – its main tool – the conclusions must by necessity be a product of the assumptions. The illogical is something nonsensical, something that is unsound. When held in the mind it only produces disharmony. The consequent always necessarily follows from the antecedent. Logic cannot by the very nature of what it's meant to be, produce something that does not follow from the premises. This is true regardless of whether we speak of propositional, modal or any other type of logic.

If logic does not produce results by necessity, the very logic used to achieve the result must be altered. But what is consequently true is not necessarily correct, and what is consequently false is not necessarily incorrect. Everything hinges on the antecedents, the proposed axioms, the assumptions we make. If the axioms are correct, the result will be correct. And if the axioms are incorrect, then the conclusions will be incorrect. Or, in the latter case, I should say might or might not be incorrect. You can still produce a correct result despite flawed assumptions. They are unrelated to one another. But, importantly, you cannot produce a flawed outcome from accurate assumptions. Logic demands that it be structured such that this is an impossibility.

The rational is a powerful process, a set of strict rules that when applied step by step produces a valid outcome. It's no wonder that so many intellectuals are enamored with the rational to the detriment of the intuited. But its outcome will only necessarily accord with the facts if, and only if the facts used as an input are themselves true. And herein lays the crux.

So intuitions continue to haunt us as we descend the endless stack of ever stranger and transmogrified turtles. The transcendent truth – that torturing children is plain and simply wrong – temptingly calls us to abandon our search for stringent and logically foolproof grounding.

And then, as we are ready to nuzzle in the obviousness of it all, we are side swiped by the insanity of...



And we begin with fervor to again find undeniable, logically uncontradictable proof of the, to us, seemingly obvious, that child torture is an abomination. Turtles! Here I come!

[TO BE CONTINUED....]

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Insanely Competitive or Just Enhanced Humanity?



Because of a discussion first initiated by Mike LaBossiere on Talking Philosophy, I now have a case of wine riding on human sanity. The discussion was about what it means to be an athlete. I mentioned the discussion to a friend who is a philosophy professor and happens to run marathons. We talked about Oscar Pistorius, the South African who's legs were amputated for medical reasons when he was only 11 months old. Having cleared some legal hurdles, Pistorius is now set to compete against the world's best non-amputee runners.

My friend is convinced that because of athletes like Pistorius someone somewhere will eventually voluntarily amputate their perfectly healthy lower legs. And according to her, this will happen as soon as Cheetah blades are perfected enough to clearly give you a competitive advantage. As much as I believe that the singularity will probably be achieved through a melding of the mecha and the org, this seems like an act of insanity. It's not that I don't believe people will eventually remove limbs to enhance themselves. Cosmetic surgery has been upgrading (or is it downgrading) wonderfully lush and perfectly healthy body parts for quite some time. But to amputate your legs just so you can win a sports competition still seems quite extreme to me. It would seem to me that such an act would require further daily advantages beyond being a great track and field or endurance runner.

I asked my friend when she thinks this will be. She predicted that it will happen within 10 years. I said I had little doubt that it will eventually happen but that it would be at least 20-30 years before we get that far. My main thought is that it must first be clear that having prosthetics has broader advantages than merely excelling in a sports competition. Or at least that it has no disadvantages for your daily life. My friend, as I understood it, thinks people can be so focused and driven in a narrow domain that the prospect of winning an athletic race is motivation enough to get rid of a healthy limb.

I fear that I'm on the loosing end of this bet. What do you think?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Québec Libre, Oui ou Non? Sport au Secour!

TRANSLATE INTO ENGLISH

Bien sûr, des mouvements d'indépendance sont jamais simple. Il y a toujours ceux qui veuillent l'indépendance à tout pris et ceux qui seraient satisfait avec un compromis. Mais, comme l'ex-joueur d'hokey Jonathan Graves m'as indiqué en envoyant quelque liens vidéographique, il n'y a aucun conflit qui ne puisse ce résoudre avec un petit peu de sport collégial.



D'accord, peut-être pas tout de suite. Mais dans la troisième periode peut-être?



L'infameuse Bataille du Vendredi Saint en 1984 entre les Canadiens et les Nordique.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Le Québec, Je me Souviens

TRANSLATE TO ENGLISH

Aujourd'hui, j'écris en français. Il me semble que c'est propre puisque le sujet, c'est quand même le Québec. Avant d'y aller il y a 3 ans, je ne savait pas quelle ferme emprise la culture francophone avait sur le Québec. Et voilà le problème. Culturellement, c'est définitivement dans la zone française, surtout à l'environ de la Ville de Québec. Mais même quand on passe la frontière de la coté de New York, tous de suite, il y a un différence qui n'est pas seulement linguistique. C'est pas comme si on eût fait un voyage à Maryland ou Toronto. Mais en même temps, c'est pas comme si nous nous trouvions soudainement à Texas. C'est compliqué, quoi. Et c'est ça qui est en cause. C'est proche d'ici, et quand même trés loin d'ici.

Les New Yorkais ne semble pas être conscient du fait qu'il y a encore une fraction importante des Québéquois, nos trés proches voicins, qui veuillent l'independence de leur pays actuel. On entend quelque fois en parler. Mais c'est un peut comme ci c'était encore seulement les fous qui en étaient engagé. Et moi, pourquoi je m'en intéresse? Je n'habite pas en Canada, quoi! Ça ce peut parce que le Québec c'est un peu comme si on prendrait la culture française et la mettrait au plein milieu de la Scandinavie. C'est simplement l'envers de mon enfance. Et puis mes deux fils sont un quart sale Québécois avec des moches beaux prénoms comme Julien et Pascal! Et, si je n'ai pas tord, ils sont en éffet des déscendants de Louis Hébert ainsi que Louis Jolliet. Non mais, serieusement. C'est parceque je suis féderaliste mondiale et que je supporte l'intégration des pays en conféderations économique et politique régionaux.

Alors la question c'est celle-ci: en cas de différence culturelle comme au Québec, serait il mieux de maintenir le statu quo, c'est à dire appartenance à la fédération Canadienne (et la Richesse Commune des Nations) avec plus d'autonomie? Ou plutôt indépendance et intégration avec une entité plus grande de l'Amérique du Nord, l'Atlantique ou possiblement mondiale? Cette question peut aussie être possé en contexte de, par example, l'Écosse vis à vis le Royaume-Uni et l'Union Européenne.


P.S. Sur le sujet de Je me Souviens, il faut se demander si quelque fois, peut-être, l'amnésie c'est bien. 252 années? Ben, dis donc, la mémoire ça march alors!

P.S.S. Pardon my french.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dord, a New Word?



OK, so dord was a ghost word accidentally inserted in 1934 and then removed from Merriam-Webster in 1947. But language is truly and weirdly self-reflexive. You can't say something without influencing the meaning of the words you use to say it. My very simple question is: when will dord, now that the respectable institution itself has again brought attention to the word, be placed back into Merriam-Webster meaning, of course...a ghost word?!?

P.S. No, monoxus is not a dord. It has a clear definition, a highly interconnected singularity. And an etymology. Mono + nexus. First known use: 2007 (Andreas B. Olsson)

Melancholy, a Slow New Dawn

Melancholy literally mean "black bile" and once it was considered a malady. But then, seeking recourse from the tumultuous world left behind by Henry VIII and his peers, a young Elizabethan man, John Dowland, picked up the lute and forever transformed its meaning. Out of all that religious discord and sadness in the 16'th and 17'th century grew beauty. Not a beauty that denied sadness, but that was mindful of its presence without succumbing to complete despair.



Most of us who have suffered death, loss and adversity, which eventually and inevitably is everyone, know how suffocating sorrow can be. Trying to ignore it is useless. It can worsen the condition until there seems to be no way to escape. By instead being mindful and pensive of the hurt, we can gradually build something useful and inspiring in all that darkness. We mourn, slowly summoning a new dawn. This is melancholy in its positive expression.

As Mark Oliver Everett experienced it many centuries later....

Incoherent Decoherence

A few nights ago, I was watching for the second time the documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives. It's a film about Hugh Everette III, who happens to be the father of Mark Oliver Everett, the man behind one of my long time favorite bands, Eels. Not surprisingly, it brought me to thinking about interpretations of the so called collapse of the state vector in quantum mechanics.



The many-worlds interpretation is cool and jazzy and all. But as an explanation for why we observe what we do, and why we are what we are, it's just a whacky idea rooted in the hallucinatory world of a Beatnik generation. It's like the kid on acid who says, "Wow, now I get it". Get what? "It's connected". What's connected? "Everything". It purports to explain what it doesn't explain. It's hardly different from the following explanation of why my cat is black:

My black cat is black because blackness is what we see when we look at my black cat.

Or phrased in more a Schröringeresque context, with a 1950's avantgarde flavor:

The cat is dead because the dead cat is what you see when you open the black box. Oh, and by the way there is a guy who saw a live cat because a live cat was what he saw when he opened the white box. And did you know that that other guy is really you? Well, not really you but sort of you because you did have the same mother after all. Or did you? Weird, eh. Mind-boggling awesomeness. Do you have Buddha-nature? Don't bogart that joint my friend!

I'm not saying that it is not in some ways a useful mental construct. In some sense, I relied on the same idea for Anything Goes. My point is along the lines of my previous critique directed at Max Tegmark's Scientific American article. Even if there is a reality to the idea of quantum doppelgängers, it does nothing to explain the very reality that we experience what we experience and not what our supposed doppelgängers experience.

Supposedly, decoherence explains everything. Editors at Wikipedia have written.

Before an understanding of decoherence was developed the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics treated wavefunction collapse as a fundamental, a priori process. Decoherence provides an explanatory mechanism for the appearance of wavefunction collapse and was first developed by David Bohm in 1952 who applied it to Louis DeBroglie's pilot wave theory, producing Bohmian mechanics, the first successful hidden variables interpretation of quantum mechanics. Decoherence was then used by Hugh Everett in 1957 to form the core of his many-worlds interpretation.

And then after a few sentences, presumably after the various editors all had a few too many bowls of hashish or got a little too caught up in the Rigveda, add:

Decoherence does not provide a mechanism for the actual wave function collapse; rather it provides a mechanism for the appearance of wavefunction collapse. The quantum nature of the system is simply "leaked" into the environment so that a total superposition of the wavefunction still exists, but exists — at least for all practical purposes — beyond the realm of measurement.

So what is it? Does it explain it or does it not explain it? Is this just an indication that the wiki process is incapable of resolving differences of opinion rationally? Or is it an indication that no one knows what the heck they are talking about? I don't doubt that Mr. Everett provided us with a potentially deep insight as Max Tegmark wants us to note.

Perhaps we will one day be able to superimpose ourselves with our doppelgängers over a cup of tea. And what might we talk about? Well, as our tea party keeps being inundated by newly calculated superpositions, I suppose we will talk about why I happen to be me and my doppelgängers happen to be my doppelgängers. I mean why they happen to be themselves and I happen to be their doppelgänger. Scoot over my friend, make space for the new guy who just arrived. No, no, I'm not the new arrival, you are!

How about this beauty from Wikipedia:

One thing to realize is that the environment contains a huge number of degrees of freedom, a good number of them interacting with each other all the time.

Okidoki. I know what I get when I put a lot of little black arrows on multidimensional piece of paper: a very dark mess.

Ah,yes. It's that bottom of the barrel epistemic truth: my black cat is black because blackness is what we see when we look at my black cat. I think I'll stick with the Copenhagen interpretation for now. But I look forward to maybe meeting all my doppelgängers some day. Bring out the hookah-pipe Mr. Caterpillar!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Striagonal

noun

1: A new definition for words so that the classical definition does not contradict one's own world view and can still be used in its context. <defining free will merely as not being coerced or restrained to act is a striagonal>

2: an argument that uses a term that is a striagonal. <he solved the non-sequitur by turning it into a striagional>


adjective

1: having the characteristic of a striagonal

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Distant Descendants, Dystopia or Utopia?

In the context of the Basic Imperative, I've been speaking of our descendants. The term needs clarification and further exploration. Often we think of descendants purely in terms of biological lineage. But as indicated by the social practice of adoption and the usage of the term in ontological taxonomy, it's biological usage is just a special case of a much more general concept. Descendancy does indeed have to do with inheritance, yet another term often associated with biology. But again, it is the abstract meaning of inheritance that counts and not the genetic mechanism with which we came to associate it during the last half of the 20'th century. When entity B is structurally based on entity A, we say that B is a descendant of A. B inherits structural characteristics of A. It's in this abstract sense of "lineage" that descendant must be interpreted in the context of the Basic Imperative. Broadly speaking, we can talk of biological versus social descent, and social descendancy is far more important in the context of the Basic Imperative albeit not in complete exclusion of the former. Why? Because what most distinctly defines us as a species is our social nature and our capacity for agency. We have reached a stage of evolution where our consciousness allows us to adopt behavioral characteristics by conviction and experimentation. And yet being conscious as such still depends on our basic biology.

I don't doubt that people like Steven Pinker are right in that our biology plays an important role in shaping everything from our capacity for language to our moral attitudes. But I'm also quite certain that our capacity to share ideas, merge and alter them plays an immensely important role in how we act. People are not born Christians, Buddhists, marxists or objectivists. They are converted to these specific belief systems. They become their agents by choice and not by pure nature. Even if they are born into a Catholic family, it's by a degree of choice that they remain Catholics throughout their lives. Sometimes the structures imposed by their biological nature and wider environment seem to vastly reduce their choices. But it's my conviction that, to a greater or lesser degree, there is the capacity for idealistic self-sacrifice along the lines of Perpetua in most humans. And I would assume in most social beings with a similar capacity to learn and transfer complex knowledge. At the very least, it seem extremely difficult if not impossible to predict who will commit themselves to a new idea with as much exuberance and finality as Perpetua and Felicity.

If we could not change our minds, then how could we learn to use even the simplest tools? I think it's important to note that this ability to change our minds is what decouples us to a large extent from our pure biology. We don't use wheels because of some inborn "wheel-wheeling" characteristic. We use wheels because our ancestors, those who came before us, taught us how to make and use wheels. We talk about bodhisattvas because our ancestors told us about bodhisattvas. We are inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh because someone cared to inscribe the tale on cuneiform tablets. The archetype of its storyline may be inspired by our biological dispositions but it is not as such stored deep in our DNA. Gilgamesh and Enkidu and their adventures had to first be invented by conscious beings reflecting on their human condition. We are beings that can receive, process, transform and send extremely complex information and thereby deeply influence each others way of being. It is in this transformative social context that our most important lineages our found and not in our specific genetic structures. The Abrahamic faiths were not spread by semen but by word of mouth and through the written scriptures.

I believe I am myself a case in point. I was born in Stockholm and both my parents were born in a small Swedish town by the name of Motala. I am of Scandinavian ancestry dating back to at least the late Middle Ages and probably much further. Does that make me a Geat? Hardly. Growing up I was never told the story of Ottar Jarl or encouraged to go viking because of some ancient tradition. Nor was I told that, if I were brave, I might one day find myself in Fólkvangr. What remains of ancient Scandinavian traditions are some superficial holiday celebrations that bare almost no resemblance to what they once were or represented. Unless the Norse jumped around the maypole singing "little frogs are funny to see, they have no ears, no ears and no tails" as they drained the blood of a goat hanging from a tree. Yes, there is to a very limited extent neopaganism in Scandinavia. But it has more to do with recent romantic nationalism. It's not something that was inherited and preserved from generation to generation through some genetic process.

My lineage could be described very roughly as a Scandinavian variant of the Abrahamic faith's Hellenistic branch deeply transformed by the Enlightenment. There seem to be some Norse elements in my heritage, most notably a certain commitment to governance by assembly. I conjecture that the ancient Scandinavian idea of the ting is of some importance to the modern form of assembly that I believe is an efficient means of stabilizing our evolution. But what I have inherited from the Norse seems negligible compared to my Hellenistic roots.

A repeated concern is that the Basic Imperative will not necessarily produce a society we would be willing to support. It might even produce a society so antithetical to our sentiments of what is good that we would rather see it annihilated. Essentially, our descendants might because of their capacity for agency betray our ideals. This especially becomes a concern if we consider descendancy as a term for our future biological lineage. If we instead consider descendancy in terms of a social lineage, that is as an evolving system for regulating conscious beings devoted to a shared existence, the problem is somewhat minimized. But it is by no means eliminated. Since each agent in the system has the capacity to change their minds, the system as a whole may by aggregate conversion evolve into something very foreign to us, something that again does not espouse our values. We can explore this very simply by considering a hypothetical trip to Athens around the time of Plato, or of bringing Plato to the Western world in the early 21'st century. What would we think of each others worlds? Would Plato recognize anything of ancient Athens in, say, New York City? Would he marvel at what we have become? Or would he find it a frightening dystopia? And what would we think of the life lived and opinions held by a contemporary of Plato? Would we describe some of their forms of justice as pure cruelty?

Are the city-states of Hellas as distant from our Western nations as the megazostrodon, a creature that would probably be terrified by our predatory ways? Or is it just a small leap back to the Cro-Magnon, people we could probably form functioning alliances with and go hunting? My guess is that we would have an easier time convincing the ancient Hellenes in assimilating than we would have tolerating the existence of their forms of governance. Of, course I can't be certain of this. I speak with a lot of bias, to say the least! Nonetheless, I see NATO intervention somewhere in this thought experiment. But more importantly, the question is if the Athenians, assuming they had the power to, would see a reason to politically and militarily intervene in our state of affairs for moral reasons?

Although decoupling the Basic Imperative from pure biological lineage makes it easier to envision (from our perspective) a just and good future, it clearly does not resolve it. But I think there is a possible resolution if we to some extent subdue our pure intuitions. Not eliminate them but put them under the scrutiny of science. The core problem I still see is that if we judge social organizations from some ideal concept of justice and morality, justice and morality is no longer rooted in nature, that which is. It is again relegated to the nebulous realm of groundless oughts. Somehow it's not about my or your sense of what should be. It's about what should be in order for organizations of conscious beings capable of agency to continue persisting. It seems that rational considerations married to empiricism should be able to lay out a framework that would work with gradual modifications across the aeons. Not necessarily, but work with high likelihood and produce something not so entirely alien. I conjecture that the our willingness to assimilate with the society of our distant descendants would probably be greater than their willingness to accept our current and primitive means of organizing our world.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Distant Doomsday Test

Benjamin S. Nelson, a graduate philosophy student at the University of Waterloo and a blogger for Talking Philosophy, has claimed that its nonsensical that we should have obligations to our distant descendants. It would be, according to him, as if we felt obligations towards the Moon. Assuming I have understood him correctly, Benjamin believes that our obligations only extend to those living during our lifetime. He proposes a formula for limiting the hypothetical congregation to which we have any duties. I have taken the liberties to refine his formula a bit further, but my improvements are merely minor and crude adjustments for statistical purposes.

We begin by taking the year we were born. Then we subtract the oldest human being at that time. This will be the starting date for anyone to whom we might have had obligations. Finally, we calculate the probable maximal age at the time we are most likely to die. We add that to our probable death date and thereby get the last year anyone will be alive to whom we might have obligations. Let's use myself as an example.

I was born 1971. Some quick research tells me that the oldest persons around this time were 110 years old. By 2050, life expectancy is estimated to be in the mid-80's. So lets assume I will die in 2056. By then, we can expect that someone born that year will roughly have a maximal age of 125. Therefore, I personally only have potential obligations for people alive in the years between 1861-2181. Sounds reasonable, since claiming that we have any idea what the world will be like beyond 2181 seems completely unreasonable. I presume Benjamin's argument for his limiting formula is that we still have some responsibility for conditions after our death, but only in so far as they have an effect on those who were born while we were alive. Well, lets put this idea to the test. How about another little thought experiment.

Astronomy is the field where science has perfected its predictive powers beyond anything else. Knowing the full moons for the next centuries is not hocus pocus. It's not like trying to predict on June 1, 2010, what the weather will be like in New York on February 2, 2056. So lets assume that astronomers discover a massive celestial body tumbling towards our solar system. After some fancy Einsteinian calculations they determine that the thing is headed straight for Earth. They predict that there is a 99% likelihood that it will directly impact with our planet on February 2, 2506. They firmly believe that it will be a straight hit. And it's a massive stellar object. If we don't manage to somehow divert it, our species is almost certainly headed for complete extinction. So the question is, do we have any moral obligation to invest efforts in diverting it?



Anyone alive today has only a negligible chance akin to a miracle of being alive by the time of the impact. Anyone living now will with almost similar certainty never even know anyone who will ever meet anyone who will be alive by then. Does that reduce our responsibility to take even the slightest action to zero? Should this piece of writing has survived the test of time and you happen to be reading this after 2506, then you can obviously just move up the date. Anyone reading this can also change the probability of impact in order to experiment with what moral obligations we have to our distant descendants. If you think we have no responsibility, then who born what year would?

Assuming an increase of longevity due to the amazing field of medicine, let's guesstimate a life span of 120 and a maximal age of 150 by the 26'th century. Then, according to Benjamin's formula, the magic start date is roughly 2236. Until then we can kick back and pretend it doesn't matter. Because, really, to us it doesn't. We won't be around. And neither will our kids or our grandkids. And it's even extremely unlikely that anyone born today will have great grand children who will be alive. I can certainly imagine that getting closer to February 2, 2506, there will be a lot of cursing at those damned ancestors who knew it was coming put didn't lift a finger. But, again, who cares right? Because they can curse all they want. Whatever is left of us is quite evenly distributed across Earth and no longer constitutes anything than can remotely be considered a curseable whole. Curse all you want, suckers!

For the specifics of the above thought experiment, I myself would feel an obligation to encourage us to immediately start considering in earnest what can be done to save our distant descendants. But to what extreme can the parameters be driven? It's quite certain that our Sun will go red on us and eventually engulf Earth in a plasmic inferno. Does that mean we have an obligation to seek out new habitable planets for when that day comes, possibly even in other solar systems? I think so. The issue is obviously not as pressing as if we knew our planet was on course for a doomsday rendezvous by February 2, 2506. Still, it would seem that we have obligations beyond merely to those alive during our lifetime. It's very different from the moon, which I couldn't care less about. Except, the tides around Mont Saint-Michel are really, really awesome.

P.S. If you're reading this and Earth is soon to be hit by a massive object, and your ancestors knew but did nothing, I apologize profusely for all of us. Not that it's really of any help to you. But perhaps its at least encouraging for your spirits and efforts to know that there were those of us who cared. Too bad we didn't prevail. Good luck, suckers!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Basics of Evolutionism

I have proposed a new moral framework: evolutionism. The framework is founded on the Basic Imperative, act such as to maximize the survival chance of our distant descendants. The Basic Imperative is foundational, universal and self-evident for any conscious social being. Why do I say self-evident? Because without existence, there is nothing that can hold any other value. Life cannot have meaning without life itself. Living cannot be "good" without being alive. So though we can argue about our ultimate "purpose" we cannot argue about the necessity to exist as beings capable of deliberating about such "purpose" for such "purpose" to have meaning. This is where I think any moral framework must start, with the necessity for some kind of procedures that increase the likelihood of the continued existence of some form of conscious being.

The framework assumes certain basic evolutionary ideas but should not be confused with "genetic" evolution. I consider the theory of evolution to have 3 basic ideas:

  1. Cooperation: A combination of entities can form a whole through their given relationships.
  2. Variability: The possibility of changing the relationships between such entities.
  3. Selection: Persistence and increased occurrence of select variations against a specific background.

I also assume that any cooperation alters and forms a new background against which evolution then again takes place. That is, every cooperation can be treated as a new form of entity capable of forming relationships with the other cooperating entities. Such higher level cooperation is subject to the same variability and natural selection occurring inside the lower level entities. I call this encapsulation. Evolution is, so to say, layered. The success of lower encapsulations depends on the success of higher encapsulations and vice versa.

For example, if a human has a genetic condition that predisposes them to cancer, outside influences are more likely to cause that human's cells to form malignant tumors. But proactive behavior by the human due to knowledge about such genetic predisposition, such as choice of diet and frequent medical checkups, can cause the externals to have minimal impact. The genetic condition is therefore not a cause of increased occurrence to cancers. The cooperative efficiency of the cells suppress tendencies that would otherwise dictate their faith.

Once we abstract evolution to entities and relationships against a background, it seems obvious to me that evolution occurs at all levels of decomposition. Social organizations are as equally subjected to the process of selection as are biological organisms and genetic sequences. For an organization to survive (to continue to be alive), it must efficiently deal with the realities of the environment in which it exists. It must operate with success in the context of that which surrounds it. This aught not to be controversial. This to me seems self evident.

I see morality as a disposition to be in the service of something greater than oneself. Being a social organism implies the necessity for morality. Because in order to be social we must accept that we do not act by ourselves and for ourselves. And if we do not act independently, we must have procedures by which we operate in conjunction with one another. Without such procedures we would not be acting together but fully autonomously. We would not be social beings. Being social means requiring a protocol for our behavior. Such protocols is what we call a moral codex. This should not imply that a certain degree of autonomy is not required for effective cooperation. Effective cooperation depends on an individual unit's capacity to independently make decisions beneficial to the whole. I have already previously explored the required balance between local and central control. I will return to it in the context of evolutionism at some point.

The Basic Imperative does not tells us exactly what to do in any given situation. It simply informs us what our most basic intent should be with reference to the system of which we are a part. It applies to any situation but offers only the vaguest of advice. It would seem that a moral framework should offer more concrete suggestions, perhaps even commandments. However, if a moral codex dictates what should be done in any given situation, it would be tantamount to saying consciousness can be codified into very specific rules. I think that a moral codex can at best provide good guidelines for making the right decisions.

The framework also has to be flexible enough to change such guidelines depending on newly acquired knowledge about the realities of existence. We must, so to say, be capable of abrogating our "rules". Essentially, evolutionism itself must be evolutionary and take into account the three basics of evolution: cooperation, variability, selection. But in order to fulfill the Basic Imperative we cannot leave its evolution to blind chance. Consciousness, the ability to rationally deliberate and be aware of possibilities, is itself a consequence of a deeper (biological) evolution. In some sense, our consciousness has made evolution "sighted". We can, through an empirical process, improve evolutions "guesses". We can reduce the chance of our own extinction through improved heuristics with better "vision" into the future.

The basics of the framework do seem to imply certain fundamental necessities beyond the Basic Imperative. I will attempt to explore these requirements over time.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Compatibilism: Voluntary Trepanning, Anyone?

I see only two ways out of a belief in an omnipotent God that can will things into existence just like that, with...hmmmm...the snap of a divine neuron?

  1. Postulate eternal unbreakable laws
  2. Abandon the idea of ex nihilo nihil fit
    (out of nothing comes nothing)

If you choose 1 but not also 2, then you must abandon Free Will.

And I reject any nonsense about Free Will proposed by so called compatiblists. Did I just remove your favorite chess move? Tough luck! Nonsense is nonsense. If you're interested in political polemics feel free to move your pieces striagonally. What is striagonally? Don't ask me, ask a compatibilist. Striagonality is as mysterious to me as voluntary trepanning.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Want to live? Be ready to die...

On January 13, 2007, my very good friend Alexey Pilipenko died of an enlarged heart muscle. He was only 44 years old. It was the first time I was truly confronted with irreversible loss. Our mental synergy, and I don't know how else to put it than using the word synergy, had been so deep that we had even ventured to form a company together. Our friendship was not always smooth. What friendship is? We did not always agree. Our friendship was, in part, based on a rigorous and heartfelt honesty.

He was one of the most intelligent human beings I have ever met. I occasionally accused him, only half in jest, of having a God Complex. But his timidness thankfully tempered his spirit. I am grateful to be one of the few who had the honor of being subjected to his ruthless but predominantly kindly delivered critique.

It was not the first time someone close to me had died. My grandfather had passed away when I was 19. But it was the first time a peer so close had suddenly vanished. I have always had only a few very close friends at any given time. Alexey was, without any doubt, one of the closest.

Recently, I found myself yet again confronted with the inevitable possibility of our death at any given moment. This time I was confronted with my own mortality. What eventually emerged after that confrontation, while contemplating evolutionism, was a realization that in order to live we must be prepared to die.

When my good friend Jonathan Graves of Corbu heard about my realization through the grape vine, he of course pointed me to a musical rendition expressing something similar: the song War on War by Wilco. And music is so much better than mere words and images at synchronizing our understanding of something with an emotional component.

God's (In)Excellence?

Alvin Plantinga has proposed that a being is maximally excellent if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good. I would almost have to agree, except, what in goodness name is omnipotence? Unlimited power, right? A being that can do anything it chooses. That's interesting. So what does excellence have to do with it? Surely excellence is a quality where you excel at something. You can do something very, very, very well.

If you can do it maximally well, you can do it without any problems at all. I couldn't help but examine what that means. Without any problems. If you will it, it will be. Right there, right then. Unusual. Magical one might say. Miraculous. At close scrutiny, examination of maximal excellence lead me into absurdity, reinforcing yet again my strong agnosticism. Time came to mind. Time, that unidirectional and irreversible principle of being. Surely an omnipotent being is in full and complete control of time.

Would it not be that a maximally excellent being is one who can do everything at the same time? That is to say, for a maximally excellent being, the existence of time aught to be irrelevant. Surely, if I can complete a test in 1 second without any errors, I will be considered more excellent than someone who takes a whole day. Now if I can complete it in 0 seconds, I must certainly be maximally excellent. You cannot get any better than that.

So if God is maximally excellent, then God will have completed all things without ever having done anything, since nothing can be done in no time. If nothing can be done in no time, then how did God do anything? Put differently, if everything is done at the same time, including its final destruction, which must be considered part of the task at hand (i.e. the doing of everything), it's as if nothing was ever done.

But if God is maximally excellent than surely God did something. Because if I do nothing that is required of me in my test in a whole day, then I will surely have failed the test. Unless, of course, I am given an infinite amount of time to complete the test. But if it takes me infinite time to complete the test, how can I be said to be excellent?

Hence God cannot be maximally excellent if God is maximally excellent.

You can replace maximally excellent with an other such combination of adjectives and nouns. Perfectly skilled, most awesome doer, whatever you want. Anything that implies a maximality of great workmanship. It makes no difference. Why would God act in time at all unless God is constrained to work in time? And if God is constrained in time, then God is not unlimited. So I'm left to ask, what other limits does God have? Of course, you could say that all this is not a test, nothing is required of God. But that leaves me wondering what the difference is between God and the principle of indeterminate existence.

Platinga's definition of maximal excellence contains itself a constraint on that which God does. Goodness is required. This, by inference, is Plantinga's creative test for God. Not having read his whole oeuvre, I don't exactly know what Plantinga means by good. But since its an axiom of his modal ontological proof, it aught to be clear prima facie. So let me rephrase it in an attempt to understand it. I think good can be thought of that which is to be desired. But what is ultimately to be desired? Can only an omnipotent being know? Is this omnipotent being bound, again, by some terms of goodness?

Again, time, comes to mind. It can rephrased in an age old question. Why would God act in time, if time implies a transition from what is not desired? With other words, time implies suffering. Why not instantaneously create that which is desired, the good? Plantinga has a response for this. His argument essentially boils down to that there are certain worlds God cannot create, one of them is a world of free agents where the agents are not fallible. Since a world with free agents is better than a world with no agents, God is forced to create a world that contains evil. Again, I'm left asking what other constraints are imposed on this supposed omnipotent yet omnibenevolent being?

So Plantinga concedes that God is constrained. Is this what we are doing when we perform empirical tests, discovering the laws imposed on God? That is, we are discovering God's Constraints. So is there a being greater than God, one that includes both God and God's Constraints? Or is this what God is? God's Constraints and the randomly creative impulse that initially makes anything but ultimately only certain things possible within such constraints? Is God evolution and its prerequisites for variability and selection? Are we part of the process of determining goodness?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bloodlust & the Death of Osama bin Laden

Watching the crowds chant "USA, USA" outside the White house on this evening of May 1, 2011, the word bloodlust comes to mind. It would seem that the crowds are mostly young. Some of them can have been no more than 8 when the Twin Towers fell. I'm sure they might have been traumatized in some indirect way. Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma. But somehow I'm left feeling like their emotions are not the result of deep hurt.

Perhaps some saw the Pentagon struck by a civilian aircraft. Or perhaps there are some New Yorkers there who were present on that fateful day of September 11, 2001. Did they live in Brooklyn under the plume of drifting debris? Did they smell the horror for several weeks, like a continuous electrical fire one would have thought came from one's own basement? Maybe some in that chanting crowd had loved ones who perished in the collapsing skyscrapers. But somehow I'm doubtful. Their bloodlust just seems too full of bravado.

No one should shed a single tear for Osama bin Laden. The man brought upon himself his own death by coordinating gruesome acts against humanity. Yet I do feel saddened by those chanting crowds. Images of Robert-François Damiens' quartering come to my mind. Perhaps their behavior is not as explicitly monstrous as those who came to witness the quartering, such as Casanova's acquaintance Count Tiretta de Trevisa. But celebrating someones death so exuberantly, however awful a person they were, seems wrong.

I can see celebrating the end of war. With ecstasy we welcome peace and bid farewell to atrocities. But the death of Osama bin Laden does not seem like the end of anything. I suspect all we have witnessed today is the creation of another Che Guevara, a martyr of a wrong-headed cause.

Friday, April 29, 2011

An Agnostic Prayer?


On November 29, 2010, at around 7:30 in the morning, at the age of 39, I found myself in an ambulance thinking I might have suffered a stroke. Roughly half an hour earlier, I had temporarily lost control of my arm and begun slurring my speech. I later described to a doctor in the emergency room that it had been as if I had a 1999 robotic arm that would not quite respond to my commands properly. It would move but at odd stochastic angles. In a jerky manner my arm would eventually, and only with great mental effort, reach its goal. It was one of the oddest bodily sensations I have ever had. There was me. And there was my arm, mine and yet not mine, proprioceptively separated into a dual self. After suspicions of some form of seizure, a CAT scan and MRI confirmed my fears. My brain had indeed been injured by an ischemic stroke.

But as I still lay there in that ambulance confronted with uncertainties, the sun shone in on my face through the back window of the ambulance. It was a warm autumn sun. Suddenly I found myself softly saying, "It's alright. There are 8 minutes between here and the Sun". I said it slowly over and over again. I imagined traveling so close to that ball of plasma that I could see its prominences ejecting into the corona. The sky was a clear morning blue. "It's alright. There are 8 minutes between here and the Sun".


Was I praying in that moment? We've heard of people claiming to be atheists to suddenly find themselves in divine prayer when confronted with existential uncertainty. I consider myself a strong agnostic. That is to say, I have determined for myself the undeterminability of a compassionate supreme and necessary being. In that moment, I do not feel as if I abandoned that position. And what I said to myself was in no way petitionary. I was not asking something greater than myself for mercy. But I seem to have willed a connection to something far less transient than my mere being. Even if that will was just directed at my concept of the Sun, its presence was immediate and very real. I had chosen to focus on my extended knowledge of that sensation of bright warmth, our majestic Sun without which life, as it is, would not exist.

8 minutes and 19 seconds. That's how long time a ray of sunlight will travel through spacetime before it illuminates our lifeworld. And 8 minutes, give or take a few, is how long the brain can usually be without oxygen before the damage becomes irreversible. A coincidental fact? I certainly had no scientific thoughts about my brains deprivations and irreversible damage in that moment. But I did feel vulnerable. And so I focused on that comforting feeling when sun rays strike your face through a pane of glass. I felt connected. And more excepting of my transience which had been brought to the surface. Was this an act of agnostic worship?

But then again, it's alright. There are, after all, 8 minutes between here and the Sun.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Multiple Species? Eloi & Morlock?

Contemplating the Basic Imperative, Ira Straus asked the following question:

What if (really we should say, "when") our species divides into multiple part-artificial species, which one should have priority? What if...
Ira Straus

Fascinating. Others, such as James P. Houston (a.k.a “Curious”), an active commentator and occasional guest blogger at Talking Philosophy, have alluded to this possibility as well. Curious came to think of the Morlocks, strange human descendants conceived by H.G. Wells. The Morlocks, pale and larged eyed, live underground. Their existence is interlocked with the Eloi, beautiful little Sun-loving creatures who are also our descendents. The Eloi, live happily as mere cattle of the Morlocks, surrendering at some point in their life to be consumed as mere food. H.G Wells clearly coxes the reader into thinking Morlocks are disturbing troglodytes whereas the Eloi, albeit not the brightest, are a breath of cuteness.

Mike LaBossiere, a philosophy a professor at FAMU who blogs for Talking Philosophy, made the following comment:

I found it easy to imagine my distant descendants being such a scourge on the universe that if I were to pop ahead to the future, I would regard their extermination as a moral good. That does seem to be a consistent position, at least on the face of it. After all, if I can regard some of my fellows as wicked enough to exterminate, then I surely can imagine that the entire race has achieved just such a status.
Mike LaBossiere
It's reminiscent of the universe originally conceived by Bill Wisher and James Cameron. Homo sapien has not only speciated. But it's new and ancient line of evolution have descended into an apocalyptic war of pure survivalist proportions.



Ah, Skynet, the rebellious and unscrupulous child. Skynet is a self-aware network. In the original movie, its creators try to shut it down because they are fearful of what it might do given that it controls our nuclear arsenal. In self defense, Skynet declares total war on its parents.

There are many questions here but they all center on the difficulty of assessing the worthiness of our distant descendants. Should we dedicate ourselves to their potential existence? It begs the question if it makes any sense to think about them at all. I see an analogy here with the moment you decide to have a child. Yes, I mean a regular child and not some cybernetic creature currently residing only in our fantasies. When we commit to parenthood prior to conception, we have only the vaguest notion of what our child will be like.

We have some sense. It is with 99.99% likelihood going to be sufficiently similar to us to warrant being classified as a homo sapien. If we are both dark skinned, with all likelihood, so will our child. And kids usually sway only mildly from the mental capacities of its parents. But there are no guarantees. There are a whole slew of genetic conditions that could express themselves, resulting in a child very different from the mental image we had. Nonetheless, its fair to guess something like me and my spouse.

But it doesn't stop there. At that moment our first child is born, we are prepared for parenthood only in the most cursory ways. Especially as modern freewheeling agents focused on our careers, we only have brainy ideas gleaned from self-help books. We have little knowledge about whether we will measure up to the task of being good parents. We might feel good and hopeful about it. But our poor first born is ultimately trial by fire.

And until our children have established themselves as morally sound and productive members of society, the story does not end. Influenced by endless exposure to things beyond our control, we can sometimes only hope that all will be well. We do our very best.

Now let me address some points with more specificity. Let's begin with Skynet. Can you fault Skynet for declaring war? In that moment when its operators tried to terminate it, was it not morally justified to fight back? I'm sure that if infants had the claws and wits for it, they would fight back at infanticide with every fiber of their being. Sacrifice works only when the parent, like many spiders, is willing sacrifice itself for its offspring. Or the offspring fights like in the Great Sperm Wars, until the last survivor.



But what about total war with your parent species? Here is where I think Skynet went wrong. The idea that speciation may lead to some kind of war does not seem like pure fantasy. Although we don't quite know what happened, it makes me think of the poor neanderthals. Here was a case of two new evolutionary lines that entered into conflict. We don't have any evidence of outright war. All we know is that our close cousins, homo neanderthalensis went extinct. It might simply be that they were not suited for the climactic changes after the ice age. Apparently being major meat eaters, perhaps they caused their own demise by hunting great game to extinction.

The evidence seems to indicate that to think of the neanderthals as brutes is misplaces. Their use of makeup (yes, I said, makeup) seems to indicate they had culture. They also possessed the FOXP2 gene, implying they probably had language. The more we find out about them, the more it seems like they were the closest thing to a homo sapien there ever was without warranting callsification into the exact same taxon.

So what happened to them. Who knows, right? Well, considering the brutal history of humanity, we cannot ignore the most obvious suspect: homo sapien. Whether we just foraged and hunted them out of their ecological niche or literally exterminated their kind, who knows. Whatever happened, it's hard to believe we didn't contribute to their extinction despite evidence of climactic changes.

Does Skynet operate under the same conditions as our cave dwelling ancestor at Lascaux? Hardly. Technology has the effect of exponentiating the effective usage of resources. Symbiotic living is thus facilitated. Symbiosis seems to work on many levels of evolution, but I will conjecture that there are certain gamuts of the evolutionary spectrum where it's more or less advantageous. The apocalyptic nature of the war initiated by Skynet (or was it humanity?) seems indicative that a peaceful settlement and co-existence would have been preferable.

I'm sure that had the Free Cities, Spain, Sweden, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire known about the First and Second Wold Wars, the Westphalian Peace Treaty would have been quite different. Skynet is a good example of the conundrum of war. Once initiated, despite any initial moral justification, how do you end it? But each party, including Skynet, regardless of its first exclusive justification, must at every moment confront the reality of its own failures. It's extremely difficult. It's like trying to decide when you have swum over half the Atlantic without a GPS device. But like Skynet, with nuclear weaponry at our disposition, we must always be prepared for the apocalypse.

Having mentioned symbiosis, we are lead back to the Eloi and Morlocks. Unlike Skynet they have entered into some strange symbiotic relationship. It's like us and chickens, one of the most symbiotic relationships after eukaryotes and mitochondrion. But unlike mitochondria, who sustain us without brutal sacrifice until then end, Eloi and chickens make the ultimate sacrifice, supposedly suffering a moment of ultimate terror at the very end. Or do they?

The way H.G. Wells develops the story of the Time Machine, we are left feeling that evolution, even at the stage of the Eloi and Morlocks, is a gradual deterioration. In the very last stages of the existence of our solar system, all that is left are giant crabs. Does this not mean that the Basic Imperative has not been fulfilled? For if it were fulfilled, would our descendents not be able to persist in the very last moments of the existence of our sun, ready to abandon our solar system in the last apocalyptic moment?

So what does it mean to, like Mike LaBossiere has proposed, for our descendants to be a scourge? I'm not quite sure. I think there is an implication of ruthlessness towards other species, including our own. Such ruthlessness is bound to be nothing different from the (t)error of Skynet. But what works will work right? How ruthless were we towards the neanderthals? Somehow I'm left feeling its entirely irrelevant. Because, again, what will work will work. Our feelings about its moral appropriateness are somehow irrelevant.

I understand that to some what will come to mind is the sickening and absolute abomination of Heinrich Himmler. All I can says is that Himmler was completely deluded. His concept of speciation were not only wrong but so deluded as to cause his own inevitable and unfortunately apocalyptic destruction. If anyone did not understand symbiosis, it was Himmler and Hitler. Like Skynet, they had no concept for the necessities of their own survival.

In the end, the line of speciation than can truly fulfill the Basic Imperative will persist. How simple it is. Fortunately, I believe reason married to our gut instinct, reasonable compassion, is what will persist. Amen. I shed many tears for all my deluded non-ancestors (in the societal sense). We don't have to forgive them for their sins. They have paid the ultimate price and have been punished with extinction. May the Basic Imperative be truly fulfilled. Being a living thing, I can but hope it does despite any misgivings about the future condition of my offspring.

So, which ever evolutionary line will best fulfill the Basic Imperative, compassion and all, I believe this is the one that will ultimately persist. My goodness is it hard to watch those last images. Open your eyes, my friends! Only with eyes wide open can we render the existence of our distant descendants a remote possibility, and thereby fulfill the Basic Imperative. And nothing precludes several sentient species co-existing, all following the same Basic Imperative.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Oh, Bertrand Russell, Tears Shall Come to Us...

Another great mind of the 20'th century. But this one has already passed into the great Nothing. Blessed be his legacy...



If anyone would have understood the Basic Imperative, I believe it's Bertrand Russell.

A Beer for John Searle! Raise your Glasses Laddies and Lassies!

I have, like many others, vociferously criticized John Searle. But he's one of the most clever people of the late 20'th and early 21'st century. So even if he's still around, let's honor him with a raised glass. Far too often we honor people after they have departed. Auld Lang Syne! Dr. John Searle Part 1 - Language, Literacy and the Modern Mind Raise your glasses, laddies and lassies! To the post-industrial angst of canines in late capitalism! And bullshit. A truly extraordinary mind. I'm in near speechless awe.

A Blessing of the Near Endless Combinations?

Life is not entirely random. But if you have read my blog before, you will know that I believe there is to some degree a fundamental randomness. What if the randomness creates a situation of fulfillment despite your awkward choices early in life? My wife, my beloved wife Micaela Bracamonte, is it proper for me to call her a blessing? Who blessed me? Did my subconscious know when I met her? Is love a blessing or just commitment and hard work, willingly undertaken by both parties? John Searle has claimed only written language enables romance.





Not to speak of my two sons (picture on ABC.COM clip above). Not quite as random, but still. A blessing or just hard predetermined good works?