Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The smartest man in the room

In my last post I made passing mention of Barry Jones, who is now 84 and has just written a book, Knowledge Courage Leadership. When I was a kid, growing up in the newly discovered and infinite possibilities of ‘television-land’, Barry Jones was a TV quiz champion on Pick-a-Box, sponsored by BP and hosted by Bob Dyer, an ex-pat American. In the days (decades) before the internet and Google, Barry had a truly encyclopaedic mind, and when he entered virtually every Australian’s living room, he was quite literally the smartest man in the room.

Many years later, when he published Dictionary of World Biography (in the late 80s) someone I worked with at the time, who was widely read and a self-imagined scholar, told me that Barry Jones was a 'savant', which he meant in the most derogatory sense. In other words, whilst Barry could summon facts at will, he had no analytical skills and no real intelligence worthy of the name. Looking back, I would put that down to intellectual jealousy, but, even at the time, I thought his observation very wide of the mark.

The point is, having read his latest offering, I think the sobriquet, ‘smartest person in the room’, still stands, especially compared to the current crop of politicians we have attempting to govern our country. At 84, he displays more vision than anyone currently involved in politics in Australia. For a start, he’s pretty scathing about the nature of what he calls ‘retail politics’, where the only criterion for a decision or a policy is if it can be ‘sold’ to the electorate. In the so-called ‘post-truth’ era, most vividly demonstrated by Donald Trump’s recent election campaign, ‘byte-sized’ slogans overrun and out-rate attempts at evidence-based explanations. In fact, he uses the word, ‘evidence’, quite a lot in his own preferred version of political discourse.

He gives a summing up of the political leaders in this country that he has known or met or worked with, giving a subjective yet honest appraisal. In his time in politics, he was told that he didn’t have a ‘killer instinct’, which means he could never engage in character-assassination, which has become increasingly an integral component of the ‘game’ as it is played in Australia. In fact, it’s probably the most important part of the game if you have any aspirations of party leadership.

He then goes on to do the same for a number of world leaders, whom he has personally had some engagement with; some more so than others. At the end of the book, he gives a rather scholarly and informed analysis of the French Revolution, explaining, as he does, why he considers it unique in the history of Western civilization and why it is still relevant to current global politics. It basically illustrates how precariously our civilised existence is when political power and economic subsistence are no longer in balance. I’m probably doing him an injustice in attempting to sum up his treatise with a one-liner; but that was the message I received. It’s happened in a number of revolutions, when paranoia and violence combine to completely destabilise a nation and drive it into civil war. There are examples in evidence right now, not to mention the ones from last century.

But the most important part of the book for me, was a chapter or section, titled: Evidence v. Opinion / Feeling / Interest; the attack on scientific method. It was an address he gave, apparently, at the Australian National University for the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) on 2 July 2014. He starts off with a quote from Don Watson, heavily laden with sarcasm:

The people are sovereign… to hell with the sovereignty of scientific facts, popular opinion will determine if the Earth is warming and what to do about it, just as it determined the answer to polio and the movement of the planets.

As anyone knows, who is a regular reader of this blog, this is a subject close to my heart. But Jones gives it a perspective that I hadn’t considered before. He points out that as the number of university graduates has increased in Australia and the information revolution exploded via the internet, there has been a ‘dumbing down’ in areas concerning legitimate science, evidence-based knowledge and the consequential political decision-making that should be informed by such learning.

To quote: Paradoxically, the Knowledge Revolution has been accompanied by a persistent ‘dumbing down’, with IT reinforcing the personal and immediate, rather than the complex, long-term and remote.

Barry Jones was Science Minister from 1983 to 1990 (the longest serving in Australian politics) and he maintains, in his own words: ‘an intense interest in science/research and its implications for public policy and politics generally.’

He wrote a book in 1982, Sleepers Awake, which I must confess I haven’t read, even though I always took an interest in what he said in the media. According to his own appraisal: ‘Three decades on, my central thesis stands up pretty well.’ And his ‘central thesis’ was ‘trying to predict the social, economic and personal impact of technological change, [but] in 1982 I was on my own.’ Note that I alluded to Barry’s predictions in my last post (Political Irony).

What makes Barry Jones exceptional in the world of politics is his grasp of the enormous gap between political expediency and reality. Yes, reality. I will allow Barry’s own words to illustrate my point:

I can claim to have put six or seven issues on the national agenda, but I started talking about them 10 > 15 > 20 years before audiences, and my political colleagues were ready to listen. In politics, timing is (almost) everything and the best time to raise an issue is about ten minutes before its importance becomes blindingly obvious.

We live in an era when science totally governs our lives, yet it is so subliminal, so ubiquitous, so everyday common, that we fail to appreciate that fundamental fact. Most of the public are science illiterate in the sense that they see absolutely no value in acquiring scientific knowledge. The argument is that you don’t need to know the laws of thermodynamics to drive a car – in fact, you don’t need to know anything technical about the dynamics of a vehicle to operate it.

This is a fair assessment as far as it goes, but when it comes to making decisions about issues like climate change or vaccinations or education of scientifically validated theories like evolution, then a large percentage of populations in well-educated societies, are plain ignorant.

The problem is, as Barry points out, in far more articulate and erudite prose than I can muster, politicians, who are often as ignorant as their electorate, exploit this shortcoming by giving slogan-bearing opinions in lieu of evidence-based facts, knowing that emotion will always win over rationality if the relevant emotional buttons are pushed.

He laments the fact that complex explanations of complex phenomena are considered simply ‘too hard’, and then, to illustrate his point, provides an entire chapter on the explanation of climate change and its history, going back to the 19th Century and even earlier. He gives the example (amongst others) of Tony Abbot (before he became Prime Minister of Australia, when he was Leader of the Opposition) stating: ‘carbon dioxide was invisible, weightless and could not be measured’. In fact, carbon dioxide is not weightless and is easy to measure. We know from chemistry that ‘On burning, each tonne of coal produces 3.67 tonnes of CO2… (a confirmation of Lavoisier)’. This is a prime example of a science-illiterate politician (a future PM, nonetheless) exploiting a largely science-illiterate voting public.

Jones makes the salient point that ‘Not to choose is to choose’, citing ‘French statesman and diplomat Charles de Talleyrand (1754-1838)… failure to act in a crisis has the same effect as an intervention: in practice there is no neutrality.’

I know, and I imagine Barry Jones knows as well, that the people who are stubbornly opposed to climate change are not persuaded by facts or evidence and often provide their own facts and evidence to make their point. Anyone who has studied science, even to the rudimentary level that I have, knows that science is complex, not easy to understand or communicate and can rarely be broken down into byte-sized chunks for easy digestion. Nevertheless, as I alluded to earlier and in other posts, I’m often struck by the obvious contradiction between our total reliance on science and our ability to ignore or obfuscate its message when it conflicts with our ideological agendas. Science is our best tool for predicting the future and for planning for future generations on this planet, yet very few politicians, not to mention commentators in the media, give science more than lip service in providing this essential role. One of the problems is that its message is often negative and pessimistic, which is when we should take most heed, yet politicians can’t win elections with negative messages. As a consequence, we only hear the negative message when its effects have become so obvious it can no longer be ignored.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Political Irony

There’s a strange phenomenon happening worldwide (in the Western world, at least) whereby centrist politics is not working, or should I say: not winning. Politics naturally divides itself into 2 because the population naturally divides itself into 2: right leaning and left leaning, though there’s a broad spectrum.

There is evidence that our genetic makeup contributes to which way we lean, possibly even more than environmental factors, which would explain why there seems to be roughly an even divide and why almost all societies seem to be split between the two. It comes down to personality traits as I’ve discussed once before, albeit a long time ago. Basically, conservatives are more conscientious, arguably less impulsive and more resistant to change. I know that’s being a bit stereotypical but studies pretty well support that view. Liberal-minded individuals are more open to change and diverse ideas. The thing is that it would seem functional societies need both types: people to challenge the status quo and people to maintain the status quo.

But recent events in Britain, America, parts of Europe, and here in Australia, indicate that politics is becoming more polarised, virtually worldwide, with people on both sides of the political divide becoming disenchanted with the status quo. The status quo has been to go for the centre in order to grab the highest number of people on both sides, but we’ve seen a clear desertion of the centre when it comes to polling and actual elections.

I’m not an economist or a political commentator, but I am a participant in the process and an observer. I should say at the outset, something that I don’t hide, which is my political leanings are definitely towards the left, so that will have a subjective influence on my particular interpretation of events.

I don’t believe that there is a single factor, but a confluence of factors, some of which I’ll try and elaborate on. However, I think that we are going through a socio-economic change not unlike the one that must have been experienced during the industrial revolution, only this time it’s a technological revolution caused by automation. Basically, automation is putting people out of jobs in the Western world, and I would suggest that this is only the beginning. I know this, partly because I work in the industry where it’s taking place: industrial engineering. But I can remember Barry Jones, Australia’s first science minister, foretelling this coming ‘revolution’ some 30 or more years ago. Barry Jones was most unusual in that he was probably more scientist than politician; certainly, he was a scholar of the highest calibre, which made him something of an oddity in politics.

I would argue that our economic paradigms are yet to catch up with what’s happening in the workplace, not that I’m claiming to have any solutions. But if things stay as they are then the divide between those with jobs and those without is going to become greater as technological advances in robotics and data management become more ubiquitous. So what about all the jobs going offshore? Yes, cheap labour is being exploited in countries with lax OHS regulations and where the cost of living is cheap. But, despite what Donald Trump told his voters, manufacturing has increased in America, not decreased (over the last decade) while unemployment has gone up. How do I know this? Chas Licciardello, the nerd on Planet America showed the graphics on one of the shows he co-hosted with John Barron, explaining that this was due to automation and not offshore labour, otherwise the manufacturing graphic would have declined with the employment graphic.

But, as I alluded to earlier in my discourse, there are other factors involved, not least the still lingering effects of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), which, need I remind anyone, actually started in America with the sub-prime mortgage debacle. So that also had its biggest impact on the least affluent in society, or most economically vulnerable, and they are the ones who are having the biggest say in our collective democracies. We should not be surprised that they feel betrayed by the political system and that they want to turn back the clock to a time when jobs weren’t so scarce and they weren’t at the mercy of the banks.

Someone once said (no idea who it was) that when times get tough, economically, societies have a tendency to turn against their fellows. People look for someone to blame and we have witch-hunts (which actually were the consequence of dire circumstances in medieval times). One only has to look at pre-war Europe when Jews were demonised and blamed for everyone else’s economic plight. John Maynard Keynes warned after the armistice deal at the end of World War 1, that it would bankrupt Germany and start another war, which, of course, we now all know it did.

And now we are in similar, if not exactly the same, circumstances where an election candidate can gain substantial ‘populist’ votes for promising to stop immigrants from taking our jobs and undermining our society with un-Western cultural mores. Protectionism and isolationism is suddenly attractive when globalism has never been more lucrative. And it is the right wing of politics, and often, the far right, in whatever country, that has had the most appeal to those who feel disenfranchised and essentially cheated by the system. No where is this more apparent, than in Donald Trump’s recent win in the American presidential election. He has demonstrated just how divided America currently is and the division is largely between the big cities and the rural areas, just like it is in Australia and also England with the recent Brexit vote. It’s the people in outlying regions that feel most affected by the economic crisis – this is a worldwide phenomenon in the Western world. It’s a wakeup call to all mainstream political parties that they can’t leave these people behind or think they can win elections just by appealing to city voters.

However, as alluded to in the title, there is an irony here – in fact, there are a few ironies. Firstly, all politicians know, including the ones who don’t admit it, that immigration, in the long term, is good for the economy. Countries like Australia, America, Canada and New Zealand are dependent on immigration for their continued economic growth. There is a limit to economic growth by population growth - and whilst that’s another issue which will need to be addressed some time before this century is over - it’s not what the current political climate is about. The other irony, particularly in America, is that Trump will promote deregulation of commerce, which is what created the financial crisis, which is what spawned the disenfranchised and unemployed workers, who voted him into office.

There is a further irony in that many of these populist leaders – certainly in Australia and America – have an almost virulent opposition to science when it doesn’t suit their ideological agenda. This is particularly true when it comes to climate science. Why is this ironic? Because science has created all the affluence, the infrastructure and the extraordinary communication convenience that everyone in the West considers their birthright.

A recent article in New Scientist (3Dec16, pp.29-32) claimed that people on both sides of an ideological divide will use whatever science they believe to bolster their position. This is called confirmation bias, and we are all guilty. But the issue with climate science is that many on the right believe that it’s a conspiracy by scientists to keep themselves in a job. Most people find this ludicrous, but anyone who is a climate-change sceptic (at least in Australia) believes this with absolute conviction. One Australian politician (recently elected into the Senate) claimed: “I know science fiction when I see it”. How could you argue with that? Not with ‘science facts’, obviously.

Somehow, all these issues get tied to the opposition of gay rights and gay marriage, which one can understand in the classic conservative versus liberal political arena. What this has in common is that it’s a desire to turn back the clock to when things were simpler: men were men and women were women; and marriage was between sexes and not with same sexes. So Trump’s slogan: “Let’s make America great again”; is also a call to turn back the clock by bringing in protectionism and stopping immigration from taking jobs and losing jobs offshore. When Americans made American cars for Americans to drive and didn’t import them from Japan or Europe because they were more fuel-efficient. In fact, he’d love to go back to when fossil fuels were easy to access and there was no limit on their supply. Addiction to oil is arguably the hardest addiction for Western nations to overcome, and, until we do, we really will be living in the past.

But the gay marriage issue is like a marker in the political sand, because one day, like abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, it will become the status quo and it will be valued and defended equally by both sides of politics. We are in a transition: politically, culturally, technologically and economically.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

How algebra turned mathematics into a language

A little while ago I wrote a post arguing that mathematics as language was just a metaphor. I’ve since taken the post down, though those who subscribe may still have a copy. In the almost 10 years I’ve been writing this blog it’s only the second time I’ve deleted a post. The other occasion was very early in its life when I posted an essay on existentialism (from memory) only to post something more relevant.

The reason I took the post down was because I thought I was being a bit petty in criticising some guy on YouTube who was probably actually doing some good in the world, even if I disagreed with him on a philosophical level. Instead, I wrote a comment on his video, challenging the premise of his talk that the reason mathematics is ‘difficult’ for many people is because it’s not taught as a language. I would still challenge the validity of that premise, but I would now change my own approach by acknowledging that there is a sense in which mathematics is a language, but not in a lingua franca sense.

In my last post – the review of Arrival – language and communication are major themes, and I make mention of a piece of expositional dialogue that I thought very insightful and stuck in my brain as a revelatory thought. To remind everyone: it was the realisation that language determines the limits of what we can think because we all think in a language. In other words, if a language doesn’t define the specific concepts we are trying to comprehend then we struggle to conjure up those concepts, and mathematics provides a good example.

The reason that mathematics is best not construed as a language is because mathematics, as it’s generally practiced, has its own language and that language is algebra. As I’ve said before: mathematics is not so much about numbers as the relationship between numbers, and the efficacy of algebra is that it allows one to see the relationships without the numbers.

And this is the thing, because some people find it easier to think in algebra than others. I will illustrate with examples.

A = k/B then B = k/A

If k is a constant (can’t change) and A and B are variables then there is an inverse relationship between A and B. In other words, if A gets larger then B must get smaller and vice versa. This can be written as A ∝ 1/B or B ∝ 1/A, where ∝ (in this context) means ‘is proportional to’. Note that if the number on the bottom gets smaller then the whole term must get larger and, of course, the converse is also true: if the number on the bottom gets larger then the whole term must get smaller.

People who are familiar with these concepts think this automatically. They also know that if you move a term from one side of an equation to the other, then you either invert it or take its negative. So if you have a language that captures these concepts, then you can think in these concepts with no great effort. It also means that you are not easily intimidated by equations.

To give another common example: the distributive rule, which is arguably the most commonly used rule in algebra.

A = B(C + D) is the same as A = BC + BD

And if A = -B(C - D) then A = BD – BC

(Note that multiplying by minus changes the sign: from + to - and - to +)

We could have done this differently because –(C – D) = D – C and B(D – C) = BD –BC   (So same answer)

This is all very simple stuff and it can be extended to include square roots (including square roots of -1), logarithms, trig functions and so on. Even calculus is just algebra with numbers disappearing into zero with the inverse of infinity.

One of the problems in learning mathematics is that we are trying to learn new concepts and simultaneously a new ‘language’ of symbols. But if the language of algebra allows one to think in new concepts, then a hurdle becomes a springboard to new knowledge.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Arrival; a masterclass in storytelling

Four movie reviews in one year; maybe I should change the title of my blog – no, just kidding. Someone (either Jake Wilson or Paul Byrnes from The Age) gave it the ultimate accolade: ‘At last, a science fiction movie with a brain.’ They also gave it 3.5 stars but ended their review with: ‘[the leads: Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner] have the chops to keep us watching even when the narrative starts to wobble.’ So they probably wouldn’t agree with me calling it a masterclass.

It’s certainly not perfect – I’m not sure I’ve seen the perfect movie yet – but it’s clever on more than one level. I’m always drawn to good writing in a movie, which is something most people are not even aware of. It was based on a book, whose author escaped me as a couple in front of me got up to leave just as the name came up on the screen. But I have Google, so I can tell you that the screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer, and Ted Chiang wrote the novella, “Story of Your Life”, upon which it is based. French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve has also made Prisoners and Sicario, neither of which I’ve seen, but Sicario is highly acclaimed.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the music and soundscape, which really adds another dimension to this movie. I noticed that beginning and end scores were by Max Richter, whom I admire in the contemporary classical music scene. Though the overall music score is credited to Johann Johannsson. Some of the music reminded of Tibetan music with its almost subterranean tones. Australia also gets a bit of 'coverage', if that's the right word, though not always in a flattering manner. Forest Whitaker's character reminds us how we all but committed genocide against the Aboriginal people.

I haven’t read the book, but I’m willing to give credit to both writers for producing a ‘science fiction story with a brain’. Science fiction has a number of subgenres: the human diaspora into interstellar space; time travel; alien worlds; parallel universes; artificial intelligence; dystopian fiction, utopian fiction and the list goes on, with various combinations. The title alone tells us that this is an Alien encounter on Earth, but the movie keeps us guessing as to whether it’s an invasion or just a curious interloper or something else altogether.

I’ve written elsewhere that narrative tension is one of the essential writing skills and this story has it on many levels. To give one example without giving the plot away, there is a sequence of narrative events where we think we know what’s going to happen, with the suspense ramping up while we wait for what we expect to happen to happen, then something completely unexpected happens, which is totally within the bounds of possibility, therefore believable. In some respects this sums up the whole movie because all through it we are led to believe one thing only to learn we are witnessing something else. It’s called a reversal, which I’m not always a fan of, but this one is more than just a clever twist for the sake of being clever. Maybe that’s what the reviewer meant by ‘…when the narrative starts to wobble’. I don’t know. I have to confess I wasn’t completely sold, yet it was essential to the story and it works within the context of the story, so it’s part of the masterclass.

One of the things that struck me right from the beginning is that we see the movie almost in first person – though, not totally, as at least one cutaway scene requires the absence of the protagonist. I would not be surprised if Ted Chiang wrote his short story in the first person. I don’t know what nationality Ted Chiang is, but I assume he is of Chinese extraction, and the Chinese are major players in this movie.

Communication is at the core of this film, both plot and subplot, and Amy Adams’ character (Louise Banks) makes the pertinent point in a bit of expositional dialogue that was both relevant to the story and relevant to what makes us human: that language, to a large extent, determines how we think because, by the very nature of our brains, we are limited in what we can think by the language that we think in. That’s not what she said but that was the lesson I took from it.

I’ve made the point before, though possibly not on this blog, that science fiction invariably has something to say about the era in which it was written and this movie is no exception. Basically, we see how paranoia can be a dangerous contagion, as if we need reminding. We are also reminded how wars and conflicts bring out the best and worst in humanity with the worst often being the predominant player.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

When evolution is not evolution

No, I’m not talking about creationism (a subject I’ve discussed many times on this blog) but a rather esoteric argument produced by Donald D Hoffman and Chetan Prakash in an academic paper titled Objects of Consciousness. Their discussion on evolution is almost a side issue, and came up in their responses to the many objections they’ve fielded. I read the paper when I was sent a link by someone who knows I’m interested in this stuff.

Donald Hoffman is a cognitive scientist with a Ph.D. in Computational Psychology and is now a full professor at University of California, Irvine. Chetan Prakash is a Professor Emeritus at California State University, San Bernardino and has a Master of Science in Physics and a Master of Science in Applied Mathematics.

I should point out at the outset, that their thesis is so out there, that I seriously wondered if it was a hoax. But given their academic credentials and the many academic citations and references in their paper, I assume that the authors really believe in what they’re arguing. And what they’re arguing, in a nutshell, is that everyone’s (and I mean every person’s) perception of the world is false, because, aside from conscious agents, every thing else, including spacetime, is impermanent.

Their paper is 20 pages long (including 5-6 pages of objections and replies) most of which are densely worded interspersed with some diagrams and equations. To distil someone’s treatise into a single paragraph is always a tad unfair, so I’ll rely heavily on direct quotations and references to impart their arguments. Besides, you can always read the entire paper for yourself. Basically, they argue that ‘interacting conscious agents’ are the only reality and that nothing else exists ‘unperceived’. They formulate a mathematical model of consciousness, from which they derive a wave function that is the bedrock of quantum mechanics (which I’ll refer to as QM for brevity). In other words, they argue that the Copenhagen interpretation of QM requires consciousness to bring objects into reality (except consciousness) which are all impermanent.

It’s a well known philosophical conundrum that you can’t prove that you’re not a ‘brain-in-a-vat’, and theirs is a similar point of view in that it can’t be proved that they’re wrong, even though, as they point out themselves, we mostly all believe their view is wrong. I don’t know of anyone (other than the authors) who think that the world ceases to exist when they’re not looking. This is known as solipsism and there is a very good argument against solipsism even though it can’t be proved it’s wrong. In fact, solipsism is absolutely true when you’re in a dream, so it’s not always wrong. The point is that when we’re in a dream, despite all its inconsistencies, we actually don’t know we’re in a dream, so how can you be sure you’re not in a dream when you’re consciously awake? The argument against solipsism is that it can only be held by one person: it’s impossible to believe that everyone else is a solipsist too.

In the objections, item 6, they ‘reject solipsism’, yet ‘also reject permanence, viz., the doctrine that 3D space and physical objects exist when they are not perceived [but not conscious agents]. To claim that conscious agents exist unperceived differs from the claim that unconscious objects and space-time exist unperceived.’ In other words, consciousness is the only reality, a point they make in response to Objection 19: ‘reality consists of interacting conscious agents.’ But if one takes this seriously, then even the bodies that we take for granted don’t exist ‘unperceived’ whilst our consciousness does. It’s utter nonsense, except in a dream. What they are describing is exactly the reality one perceives in a dream, so their theory is effectively that the reality we all believe we inhabit is, in fact, a dream. Which is effectively a variation on solipsism. The only difference is that we all inhabit the same dream together. So we’re all brains in a vat, only connected. The authors, I’m sure, would reject this interpretation, yet it fits exactly with what they’re arguing. Only in a dream do objects, including our own bodies, cease to exist unperceived.

Evolution comes up a lot in their paper because one of the centrepieces of their thesis is that evolution by natural selection produces perceptions that favour ‘fitness’ over ‘truth’. They claim to run 'genetic algorithms’ that show that evolution by natural selection benefits perception for ‘fitness’ over ‘accuracy’. The point is that we must take this assertion on face value, because we don’t know what algorithms they’re using or how they even define fitness, perceptions and truth. In fact, Objection 12 asks this very question. Part of the authors' response goes: ‘For the sake of brevity, we omitted our definition of truth and perception… But they are defined precisely in Monte Carlo simulations of evolutionary games and genetic algorithms…’

In particular, the authors use vision to make their case. It’s well known that the brain creates a facsimile of what we see in ways that we are still trying to understand, and to which, to date, we’ve failed to engineer to the same degree of accuracy in artificial intelligence (AI). But theoretical algorithms and Monte Carlo simulations aside, we have the means to compare what we subjectively see with an objective representation.

It so happens that we have invented devices that create images (both stationary and dynamic) through chemical-electronic-mechanical means independently of the human brain and they show remarkable, but unsurprising, veracity with what our brain perceives subjectively. Now, you might say that the same brain perceives this simulated vision, so one would expect it to provide the same image. I think this is a long bow to draw, because the image effectively gets ‘processed’ twice: once through the device and once through the brain, yet the result is unequivocally the same without the interim process. In fact, the interim process can show what we miss, like the famous example of a gorilla moving through a room while you are concentrating on a thrown ball. But, in the context of their thesis, the camera is not a conscious entity yet it captures an image that is supposedly nonexistent when unperceived. And cameras can be set up to capture images without the interaction of so-called ‘conscious agents’.

Now the authors are correct when they point out that colour, for example, is a completely psychological phenomenon – it only exists in some creature’s mind, and it varies from species to species – this is well known and well understood. We also know that it’s caused by reflected light which can be scientifically explained by Richard Feynman’s (I know it’s not his alone) QED (Quantum Electrodynamics) and that the subjective experience of colour is a direct consequence of the frequency of electromagnetic radiation.  But the fact that colour is subjective doesn’t make the objects, from which the effect is consequential, subjective as well.

Regarding the other mathematical contribution to their thesis, the authors have created a mathematical model of consciousness, from which they derive the wave function for QM. I’m not a logician, so I can’t say one way or another how valid this is. However, it should be pointed out that Erwin Schrodinger, who originally proposed the wave function, in his famous eponymous equation, didn’t derive it from anything. So the authors claim they’ve done something that the original creator of the wave function couldn’t do himself. As Richard Feynman once said: ‘Schrodinger’s equation can’t be derived from anything we know.’ However, the authors claim it can be derived from consciousness. I’m sceptical.

You may wonder what all this has to do with the title of this post. Well, in response to objection 19, the authors propose to come up with a ‘new theory of evolution’ based on their theory of conscious agents. To quote: ‘When the new evolutionary theory is projected onto the spacetime perceptual interface of H. Sapiens we must get back the standard evolutionary theory.’ This means that the DNA, and the molecules that make the DNA, that allowed consciousness to evolve are actually dependent on said consciousness, so the ‘new theory of evolution’ must logically contradict the ‘standard theory of evolution’.

As part of their thesis, the authors make an analogy between a computer desktop and spacetime, only, the way they describe it, it appears to be more than an analogy to them.

Space and time are the desktop of our personal interface, and three-dimensional objects are icons on the desktop. Our interface gives the impression that it reveals true cause and effect… But this appearance of cause and effect is simply a useful fiction, just as it is for the icons on the computer desktop.

(The interface, to which they refer, is a ‘species-specific interface’, which means it’s a human consciousness interface. They don’t say if this interface applies to other sentient creatures, or just us.)

The issue of cause and effect being a ‘useful fiction’ was taken up by someone (authors of objections are not given) in objection 17, to which the authors of the theory responded thus:

Our views on causality are consistent with interpretations of quantum theory that abandon microphysical causality… The burden of proof is surely on one who would abandon microphysical causation but still cling to macrophysical causation.

I could respond to this challenge, but it’s not relevant to my argument. The point is that the authors obviously don’t ‘cling to macrophysical causation’, which I would contend creates a problem when discussing evolutionary theory. The point is that according to every discussion on biological evolution I’ve read, extant species are consequentially dependent on earlier species, which means there is a causal chain going back to the first eukaryota. If this causal chain is a ‘useful fiction’ then it is hard to see how any theory of evolution that excludes it could be called evolutionary. With or without this useful fiction, the authors ‘new theory’ turns evolution on its head, with conscious agents taking precedence over physical objects, including species, all of which are impermanent. In spite of this ontological difficulty, the authors believe that when they ‘project’ their ‘new theory’ onto the ‘species-specific interface’ of impermanent spacetime (which doesn’t exist unperceived), the old ‘standard theory of evolution’ will be found.

I’ve left a comment on the bottom of the web page (link given in intro above) which challenges this specific aspect of their theory (using different words). If I get a response I’ll update this post accordingly.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Dr Strange; a surprisingly philosophical movie

I have to admit I wouldn’t have gone to see this based on the trailer, as it just appeared to be a special effects spectacular, which is what you expect from superhero movies. And it seemed very formulaic - an apprentice, a mentor, a villain who wants to destroy the world - you know the script. What changed my mind was a review by Stephen Romei in the Australian Weekend Review (29-30 Oct. 2016), who gave it 3.5 stars, and re-reading it, gives a lot of the plot away. I’ll try not to do that here, but I’m not promising.

Dr Stephen Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is much better cast here than in The Imitation Game, which I thought was a travesty. As an aside, The Imitation Game was an insult to the real Alan Turing, but I don’t believe that was Cumberbatch’s fault. I blame the director, writers and producers, who, knowing the audience’s ignorance, gave them the caricature of genius that they expected the audience wanted to see.

Cumberbatch’s Dr Strange is a self-obsessed, egotistical, unapologetically self-promoting brain surgeon. He’s never known failure and that’s an important psychological point in my view. The first subliminal philosophical reference in this movie is the well-worn trope: the unexamined life is not worth living. This is pretty much the theme or premise of every story ever told. The point is that no one examines their life until they experience failure, and, of course, Strange faces failure of a catastrophic kind. Otherwise, there’d be no movie.

He then goes on a mystical journey, which many of us may have done at an intellectual level, but can only be done viscerally in the world of fiction. I should point out that I went through a prolonged ‘Eastern philosophy’ phase, which more or less followed on from the ‘Christian’ phase of my childhood. I’m now going through a mathematical phase, as anyone reading this blog could not have failed to notice.

Anyway, Strange’s journey is distinctly Eastern, which is the antithesis of his medical-science background. But he is introduced to an ‘astral’ or ‘spirit’ dimension, and there is a reference to the multiverse, which is a current scientific trope, if I may re-use that term in a different context. I don’t mind that ‘comic book’ movies allude to religious ideas or even that they mix them with science, because one can do that in fiction. I’ve done it myself. The multiverse is an allusion to everything that we don’t know scientifically (even in science) and is the current bulwark against metaphysics. Employing it in a fantasy movie to enhance the fantasy element is just clever storytelling. It embodies the idea, that is still very current in the East, that science cannot tell us everything.

There are 2 mythological references in the movie, including one biblical one. At one point the villain, Kaecilius (played by Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to seduce Strange to the ‘dark side’, which is very reminiscent of Satan’s attempt to seduce Jesus in the desert. I’ve always liked that particular biblical story, because it represents the corruption of power and status over the need to serve a disenfranchised public. In other words, it is an appeal to ego over the need to subordinate one’s ego for a greater good.

One of the themes of the story is mortality and immortality; something I’ve explored in my own fiction, possibly more explicitly. We live in a time where, as Woody Allen once explained in literary terms, we ‘suspend disbelief’ that we are going to live forever. We tend to avoid, in Western culture, any reference to mortality, yet it is an intrinsic part of life. We all eventually get there but refuse to face it until forced to. This is actually addressed in this movie, quite unexpectedly, as we don’t expect lessons in philosophy in a superhero movie.

Last but not least, there is a subtle but clever allusion to Camus’ famous retelling of the Greek Sisyphus myth (look it up), not something your average cinema audience member would be expected to know. It is embedded in one of those plot devices that I love: where the hero uses an unexpected ‘twist’, both literally and figuratively, and where brain defeats overwhelming force.