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, 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.