December 5, 2013
Religion does not belong in a science classroom. Recently a young student went on Reddit to share a quiz his Florida schoolteacher gave their third grade class.
Take a look at the last two questions. Einstein’s general relativity explains gravity beautifully as an effect from the bending of the fabric of space-time. Our descriptions only break down in extreme conditions, like within the center of a black hole, where bizarre quantum effects come into play, and we haven’t been able to unite the two theories.
Why does it break down? What’s the big deal? Why is it so difficult to solve this problem? Well, many physicists believe that black holes collapse into new universes. The big bang which originated our universe may well have been initiated by the collapse of a black hole in some sort “other” universe. Naturally, trying to figure out something of that complexity is a monumental task. To connect the two theories, us physicists may well have to devise a mathematical framework which unites our universe into a pantheon of other universes, all with their own distinct laws — laws which themselves probably evolve within each universe’s distinct flow of time.
The physicist Lee Smolin wrote a book called The Life Of The Cosmos in 1992, advocating the fecund universes theory. Basically he argues that natural selection and mutation may well be going on at the grandest scales of the cosmos. There are all these universes being born and universes are developing within universes, within universes. Leonard Susskind of Stanford has taken similar positions with his string theory landscape model.
Considering we haven’t figured all of that out yet, I guess you can just say, “God did it.” But you know, that further begs the question, “What is God?” Explain to me what God is? Why does God do these things? How do you know this being exists? Why are you so certain? Maybe the universe came into existence some other way? Maybe we’re all part of a much larger scheme of things and there is no plan or design?
I’m an agnostic. I don’t claim to know everything about this universe. The more I look into it, the more complex it is. I find it hard to believe people who claim to have answers to questions like these. I’ve been spending the last eight years of my life studying physics, and I look at how religious folks get their answers and wonder why anyone should believe them.
Take the last question. Christians do not “know” that gravity was designed by God. What sort of proof do they have? They have blind faith which isn’t based on anything. We physicists build giant particle accelerators and do careful experiments to confirm carefully tested theories. Any single violation of our theory, just a single experiment where the elementary particles of the universe violate our mathematical laws, and we’d all throw our hands in the air and say, “Back to the drawing board. We’ve been wrong all along.” They’re the complete opposite. No experiments, no way to ever prove them wrong. They just pull magical beings out of their butt and say, “He did it!”, and if we don’t believe that, we’re condemned to eternal damnation. Ask them who “He” is and they babble incoherently. It’s more likely that the laws of physics evolve and change within different universes, and there isn’t even a set ultimate law to begin with.
Science is about what we do know, as little as that may be, and we do know that Einstein’s theory can explain the motion of things through space-time in all but the most extreme circumstances. Teach that to our students. Keep religion out of the classroom.
December 3, 2013
The other day I recommended you all watch Andrei Tarkovski’s film Solaris. After watching several long interviews with him, I just love his style.
He will take some difficult philosophical concept and build the entire film around that. Take Solaris for instance. The central theme of the movie is whether a man can remain human in an inhuman environment. It’s not about the giant alien planet, or the space station, or any of the “sci-fi” stuff. All of that is just a plot device he’s exploiting to put the main character in inhuman situations that test him spiritually and emotionally. We the viewer then grow from watching the film.
He had a lot of deep insights. Watch this clip above and listen to what he says about young people. Growing up, all of my friends were always wanting to do something. Busy, busy, busy. Playing games, sports, listening to music, going to concerts, watching television, whatever it was. Something had to be going on.
We tend to view that as a form of vitality. That’s life. Those people are alive! They’re wanting to live life to the fullest. Think of all that’s out there to experience! Why are we sitting at home, doing nothing?
Tarkovsky makes an interesting observation. Young people are uncomfortable being alone with themselves. There must always be a distraction. Loud noises, silly entertainment on Youtube, guns blazing in video games, there always has to be something. That something temporarily takes them away from themselves.
Take the club scene. You have this loud music blaring, bass thumping, and lots of alcohol. Those sorts of places are not so much about living as escaping. You even hear it in the lyrics of dance music. ”Forget the world”, “Let’s just have fun”, “There’s only tonight”. Is that truly living in the moment?
Young people insult the elderly and say they’re boring for just sitting on the porch, enjoying the breeze, watching the birds in the water bath, but I don’t think that’s the case. They’re actually more spiritually developed. They don’t need distractions. They’ve learned to be themselves. They can sit and be whoever they are, and experience their life, in their home, on their porch, in their body.
I had never realized that.
Are you able to just sit, in quiet, no fantasy keeping your mind occupied on the television, no video games, no music in the background. Can you just sit for one evening and simply be you? Not consuming someone else’s life or work. Not reading other people’s blogs and ideas. Not daydreaming in a storyline someone else wrote. Can you sit and live in a world of your own creation?
This world, as you, creating your destiny. Your work of art. Your composition. Your story. Your pursuit into the unknown. Can you do it?
There’s an emptiness in passive consumption. Something special happens when you engage yourself and your imagination toward something you desire to accomplish or know. It integrates into your being and life. Take my former life as a software developer.
I remember spending a lot of time with my friend Greg, and we’d just sit and talk about what we at that time called “bases”. We’ve always been people who dissect the things around us into their parts and then combine them in new ways.
When we would design software, we always had deep philosophies about everything. The entire process, we were always building and revising complex philosophical systems, based on design, implementation, deployment, support. The whole works. What do I mean by that?
You may think that writing software is, well, writing software. But no. That’s how amateurs do it. It’s really about purpose. Technicals are secondary.
The first and most primary purpose is why are you doing what you’re doing. Do you believe in it? Does it matter to you? Why are you developing software? What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? What does it mean for someone to use your software?
You say, “How could I know something like that?” As a novice, of course you don’t. You don’t know that when you start. That’s what you have to find out!
I’d land all kinds of contracts. We’d be sitting at my desk in the office with the development tools open, designing screens. I’d have a contract for a medical clinic and this software was to manage different medications for cancer patients.
I would sit in my office and fill notebooks with designs, flow-charts, and plans. Not necessarily the technical aspects of the software, such as the database, and all that. No. I’m talking about the human “flow”. The interactions.
There’s a lot more to it than the “job”. There’s your presentation and interaction with the people in your life. Who you work with. How do you present yourself. Your ambitions. Your standards. Your qualities. Who will and won’t you work with? What are your standards? What do you require before you’ll even start a job? All sorts of things like that. That’s the real meat. That’s the hard stuff to figure out. That’s what so few people ever figure out.
Once you have your way of doing things, you can serve everyone better. I remember a doctor hired me to develop some software to manage their Radiology laboratory and he gave me some ideas about what he wanted the software to do. He had some basic screens drawn on a piece of paper and so forth. An amateur would’ve said, “No problem. I’ll develop it just as you’ve drawn out here.” But did I do that? No. I told him, “I have a better idea.” He looked at me puzzled. I said, “I must live and immerse myself in the lives of these nurses in this laboratory for the next week or so. I have to know everything they do, sometimes better than they do. Then I’ll start.”
After I’d do that, I’d move on to optimizing the whole thing. Lay out each process. Think of the purpose of each step. It can be a really tough challenge to sit and take some complicated process and reduce it to the simplest possible set of steps. It has to be broad enough to cover anything they may want to do, but also streamlined enough to where the things they do most often can be done quickly and easily.
I remember being so proud when I’d deploy the software. I’d just leave an icon on their desktop and then wouldn’t say anything. Wouldn’t tell them anything. They’d open up the first screen and the software was so intuitive, and so easy, there was absolutely no training necessary. They just clicked around for a few minutes saying, “Oh, ok. I see.”
The IT man would be talking to me about deployment. ”Does this have an installer? How do I install this on other machines?” I’d say there’s only two files. There’s a database file, and the software executable. That’s it. He’d exclaim, “What!?” I’d say, “Yes. That’s it. No complex installations of any kind. Just put a shortcut to this executable from this server folder on any machine. It will work.” The simplest possible deployment.
Why? Because I designed it exactly around their current work-flow, but just got rid of everything tedious. Everybody in the entire building who had anything to do with my work. As simple as possible without losing the purpose of what the software was intended to do. I’d then drive back to the office smiling, “It can’t be done any better.”
But what did I really do? All of that stuff I mentioned just now, that’s just details. What is the central core of why it would always go so well? Why would I succeed when others failed? Here’s the real point, so make a note of it.
I went into their organization and discovered their purpose. The purpose of each worker. Of each computer. Of each step in their process. The purpose. It’s ALL about the purpose.
It’s not about the software. It’s not about the screens or pretty graphics. It’s not about the servers or the databases. In their case, it was about treating patients with cancer. That’s it. That’s the basis. This organization takes care of people with cancer. The nurses don’t give a care about the software. They want to take care of the sick. That’s the ultimate basis. If you don’t get that, go home. You will fail. You will never make it.
But you know, nobody’s going to tell you the basis. You have to discover the ultimate basis. Every job I’d do had a different basis. I had to find it. Once I had it, THEN I could start the design process. Before that? You’re just spinning wheels.
It was the same process as when Tarkovsky was creating films. You say, “How are they the same?” They’re exactly the same! When you’re a master at something, the technicals are just petty details. The philosophy, the system, the “basis” is what matters. The creativity flows around the purpose of whatever it is you’re doing. You have to believe and have a passion in the purpose.
Tarkovsky’s basis for Solaris was to find a way to express a human being struggling to stay human in an inhuman environment. That’s it. That’s the core. That’s what really matters. That’s the purpose of why he created the film. The rest was just details of expressing that theme.
He’d spend nights thinking about the world, about life, about the universe. All kinds of things swirled through his brilliant mind. But at some point he formed a philosophy of what was important to him. What things mattered. And based on that, he was able to find a purpose for his films. Then he weighed all kinds of options and said, “This is the most important thing to make a film about.”
Think about the normal Joe. Why don’t they create things? They’re not flowing with a purpose. They’re not integrated into the world, with some thing they’re trying to do. Tarkovsky was an artist, inspired by his father, a poet. He looked at the world and had a perspective on it. And because he had that perspective, he had ideas he wanted to share, things he wanted his audience to see and think about.
There was some inner discontent. That was the source of his art. There was some dissatisfaction with the world, and his work came along to try to do something about that.
If you’re passive, you can’t be creative. You have no purpose. Art and all creativity are born from discontent.
Before you can live as a creative person, living as yourself in your world, you have to create your philosophy. Your system. Your way of doing things. Your way of interpreting the world. The world comes into you, some process of creativity and imagination happens within you, and then something is churned out. The best of the best are always working on their inner system, their purpose. Their essence.
Living as an entrepreneur, a very creative enterprise, I was always developing inner philosophies toward everything. This is who I do business with. This is the kind of work I do. These are my standards. This is the quality of my software. This is my process of development, deployment, and fulfillment.
Now my shift has been toward theoretical physics, but it’s still purpose driven. I’m no different than Tarkovsky. I have deep philosophical issues plaguing my mind, an inner discontent with the current explanations given to me as to what this world is, and I want answers.
I talk about them here on my blog all the time. What is free will? What am I? How can I be free but made of these particles which follow physical laws? What is consciousness? What is the origin of all of this? Why does the world follow rules at all? Are there other universes? How do they work? Is there a God? All sorts of questions brewing in my head, and physics is the best way I know to pursue them.
The research papers are just like films. They’re sharing with the world some thing that mattered to me. Unfortunately physics papers have a limited audience, but it’s no different than producing a film.
Lots of people crank out worthless research papers. Nobody reads them. They just write them up to have a fancy CV. But the best physicists, you can read any of their papers and work and it’s always a deep inquiry into something fascinating they were exploring. Something they wanted to understand.
Whenever you start engaging the world, your thing almost becomes religious. It’s the most important thing in the entire world. Satan could come up to me and say, “I’ll offer you fame, women, and money, if you’ll just abandon this pursuit of yours.” I’d exclaim, “No! You’re crazy. What am I going to do with this wad of paper? Is it going to tell me why the stars shine? Why I exist? The fate of the universe? You can keep it.”
Have you ever went to the store and just didn’t want anything in there? There are things you want, but they can’t be bought. You’re going to have to create them. Bring them out of the void. It’s your calling. Your thing.
To be creative, it’s all about integrating the world and everything it offers into some purpose of yours. That’s how you grow to live in your world and not somebody else’s. Being in the moment is not about being distracted; it’s about being totally immersed, emotionally, physically, intellectually.
November 29, 2013
A lot of us have time off for Thanksgiving. Everything’s closed and we’re stuffed full of turkey and dressing. That leaves us with a problem — what are we going to do with ourselves? We need something to do!
You know what you need? A good sci-fi. I’ll recommend the 1972 classic Solaris. I watched the original in Russian, with English captions.
So what’s it about? In the distant future, the human race is exploring the cosmos and we come across a strange planet that seems to have evolved into a giant brain. Hovering over the surface in a space station, a team of scientists are sent in to investigate the electromagnetic swirling oceans, trying to determine what this massive mind is thinking, what it wants, and the general nature of this alien entity.
Initially eighty scientists were stationed there to investigate, but over time all but two of them have committed suicide or have gone insane. What in the world’s going on? A psychologist is sent there to investigate, and that’s the set up.
Spoilers from here on out, so you may not want to read on.
It turns out the entity is so intelligent and so foreign, it’s beyond human comprehension, though it kind of communicates. It doesn’t need words. Its communications are far more intense. Initially it did nothing, but as the scientist probed it more and more, it began to respond. It seems to create things from the scientist’s minds, mostly their repressed fears and anxieties, and it drives them all insane. It might be some form of experiment the mind is performing on them, but it’s impossible to tell.
The psychologist lands at the station and finds the place nearly empty, trashed, and the two scientists who remain are obviously mentally deranged. He goes to his quarters and then starts seeing things himself. He thinks he’s hallucinating, but he’s not. The giant brain creates a sort of copy of his dead wife based on his memories of her. He freaks out, but no matter what recourse he attempts, he can’t get rid of her.
The alien entity created a physical being just like his wife, sometimes seeming to put thoughts in her head, but otherwise she’s an independent woman. She doesn’t know what’s going on either. Where did she come from? What is she? What is he, her husband?
At first she thinks the entity is messing with both of them, and he agrees, but neither know what to do. She attempts to commit suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, but she’s made out of a different type of substance than an ordinary human, and her body seems to repair itself shortly after being damaged. They shoot her out of a rocket out into space, but she just “teleports” back. Or they may have just created another copy of his wife. I’m not sure.
She can’t live with the fact that she’s a copy of a woman who committed suicide due to her own unhappiness. As the movie goes on, the psychologist wonders if in some inexplicable way, that “thing” really is his wife. At the very least, he begins to treat her as he would anyone else. After all, what is consciousness? How does it work with the body? Why wouldn’t this woman be conscious and alive as well? She’s not just a “thing”.
Either way, he’s filled with guilt when it comes to this woman. Their last encounter together on Earth was an argument, and he threatened to leave her. He knew she couldn’t live without him, but he stormed out anyway. She thought he was gone for good and killed herself. He returns to find her dead in the hallway. Is this weird entity giving him a second chance, or just messing with him? Or maybe it’s amoral and just making him think about death and life?
You can see how the entity makes you go insane. Is his wife really dead, or is death an illusion? Is she there with him, or is that really some other woman, a sort of weird puppet?
Eventually the psychologist decides to leave the station and go home. Once he gets back to “Earth”, he’s cutting a cucumber and slices his finger. He’s totally shocked. He’s made out of the same strange substance as his “wife”. His wound instantaneously heals itself. He runs out of his log cabin, in total shock. He’s still well within the clutches of the alien mind.
But wait, what happened to his original physical body? When did they transfer his consciousness into this different body? Or did they? His “wife” is there and she tells him, “Does it matter? We’re together now.”
He doesn’t know who or what he is. It’s as if the alien mind is asking him why he thinks the Earth is some familiar place he understands? He doesn’t know what the Earth is, what matter is, what mind and consciousness are. He doesn’t understand anything anymore. Is it all a vast illusion the mind is putting on for him, or are the other people there he’s experiencing real like him? What is real? Maybe he’s always been immersed within this mind? How could he ever possibly escape this? What does it even mean to escape it?
He has to step back like Descartes and think, “What can I know for certain?” All he knows is “he” is having experiences of different sorts. Their origin, ultimate mechanism, and nature is completely unknown to him. The encounter with the alien mind is beyond anything he ever asked for.
November 25, 2013
If you’ve been keeping up with the news, left-leaning organizations have been attacking Wal-mart over the low wages they pay their employees. They’re earning billions of dollars ($15~16 billion this year) in profits, yet even their full-time workers are on food stamps and other government assistance.
I read a story where Walmart workers were preparing food baskets for other employees so that they could have a Thanksgiving dinner of their own. Not a very happy picture.
But you know, things are going to get worse. I don’t think those workers will even have jobs for much longer. While I admire anyone fighting for the underdog, progressives are fighting a lost cause. Another ten to fifteen years, robots will be doing those things.
Robotics researchers at Cornell are already programming their robots to work the check-out at a grocery store. Check out what Baxter can do in just a few minutes of training.
Walmart has already completely automated their distribution centers. My cousin used to work at one, and the pay was pretty good. Now it’s all done by machines and robots. Warehouses all over the world are that way. They’ll soon be stocking the shelves and checking you out as well. And if you’re following things like Google’s automated car, I’m sure AI will be driving the produce and delivery trucks really soon. Production and distribution of all our daily goods will be run and managed completely by machines within our lifetimes.
There will be an entire class of workers who will be displaced and there’s not going to be any unskilled work for them left to do. Society’s going to have to change.
November 23, 2013
Have any of you read Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World? I want to spend a little time and reflect on some of the themes in the book.
It takes place in the year 2540, far in the future. We’re introduced to a strange society that has went to great lengths to eliminate every form of human suffering, but in ways which would leave many of us uncomfortable.
They have advanced machines which can do pretty much anything, leaving the people with few important roles to play. However, they do have several castes within their society and everybody is genetically grown and conditioned from birth to do their function, whatever that may be. They never age, though they do die, but that’s because they chose to. They simply lie down in a special bed when they reach age 60 or so, and they’re given massive doses of drug called soma. Then they just peacefully leave this world in a state of bliss.
Soma was developed as a drug to put a person in a conscious state of bliss without impairing their cognitive abilities or side effects.
What little forms of tedious work are left, specific types of humans (Episolons) are bred and grown specifically to do those jobs. They’re engineered to be mentally deficient. They’re just smart enough to do their little job and that’s it. They’re also given soma to leave them in a state of bliss as they do their boring tasks.
Soma is used any time a person is feeling lonely, stressed, or down. They never experience discomfort of any kind. They instantly snap out of it, feeling joyful, connected, and in love with everyone and everything. They also have machines of all kinds which massage, amuse, and comfort them in every possible way.
Their culture stresses very different values from our own. Since genetics technology exists to grow children, none of them have families in the traditional sense. Everybody belongs to everyone. Taking soma, they all feel connected and one with one another. Women and men are encouraged to have as many sexual partners as possible, sharing one another’s bodies. Their social values encourage them to sleep with a different person each night, if possible.
Romantic relationships are discouraged because it isolates the two people from the others. There’s no competition either in the workplace or for sexual partners. Each person is specifically bred in their caste to do their function, and their minds are molded to only want to be what they are. They’re completely content.
Death is not a problem. Nobody ever gets sick or old. They die gracefully and of their own volition. They have no family which they leave behind, and their society goes on.
When I spent today thinking about this society, though it seems shallow in a way, I also have to admit it’s far superior to our own world. I don’t know if this life has any real purpose to it, but I do know it’s filled with lots of suffering and I’ve never been able to justify it. People fight to command resources. They look at the world around them and are discontent, wanting more beautiful homes, cities, and things. They fight for lovers. They struggle to find purpose and meaning. They fall in love and are rejected. They get sick. They get bored. They feel alone. The list goes on and on. What if you could live a life that never had any of that?
They’ve managed to create a world without conditional happiness. In this world we live in, we have to make decisions every day with little clue where any of it will lead to. We choose to have friendships, romantic relationships, and careers, but things rarely go as planned. We silently cross our fingers hoping that everything will work out in the end, but we never know for sure.
The vast majority of us spend our lives trying to fill an emptiness inside of us, hoping to feel alive. We want excitement, joy, curiosity, wonder, and love. It’s a real struggle to find that place of peace and contentment, where you’re just glad to be alive. Where you love your work. Where you love the people you’re around.
I found myself thinking that if I had the choice, I can’t think of any rational reason why I shouldn’t want Huxley’s future world. I imagine feeling total peace and bliss at all times, feeling loved by everybody and a part of a larger social order which adores and values me. Being totally safe and secure. Never hungry, sick, or in pain or any discomfort. Pleasures of every kind. Every woman would look beautiful to me, and they’d all love me and be receptive. I’d love myself. I’d love others. I’d laugh and play and relax. I’d eat and goof off.
You’d live in a sort of beatific dream. A temporary paradise. From birth to the grave, everything around you is, “You’re loved, you’re wonderful, enjoy all these nice things!” Then you’d peacefully lay down and die in a soma stupor of total bliss, not even the least bit afraid or anxious.
Even still, something deep down within me, in some inexplicable way, screams out, “NO!” It’s almost as if a deep essence within me knows there’s greater things in store.
I wonder if there is some greater good in the things we suffer? It reminds me of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and then were dispelled from paradise. As I was talking about the other day, the Western tradition values knowledge, to seek the truth. If that’s our goal, to understand the universe, to grow greater and more powerful, then this sort of society has to be rejected. In Huxley’s world, we’re all soma addicts, living in a drug induced stupor.
Every time I’ve grown and became a deeper, more thoughtful person, I’ve had to venture off into the darkness and experience things which I was terribly uncomfortable with at the time. I was confronted with obstacles and people I did not understand, but I learned and grew from the experiences. I think the unknown darkness is where your greatest growth will take place, if you’ll venture there.
If you’re religious, you have let go and read those books which everyone’s been telling you are written by servants of the devil. If every relationship you’ve ever been in has went up in flames, it’s time to date men and women who are totally different from who you’ve been with in the past, even if that leaves you very uncomfortable. If every ambition you’re pursued has failed and left you flat on your face, you have to try something you’ve never done before, even things you may be deeply prejudiced against.
You’re bound to fail, be heartbroken, and feel hopeless. There’s going to be fear, anxiety, and anger. You’ll become disillusioned in the things and people you loved most. You’ll feel lost and find yourself spinning. You’re going to see things which you don’t want to see again. There will be scrapes, bruises, and scars. There’s no avoiding this process.
The spirit of our age is that if you’re happy, you’re in some sense more successful than someone who isn’t. I was with a friend a while back and he was telling me about some simple man he met while on a vacation, and he just gushed about him. He told me how he was smiling and enjoying life. I don’t think I would admire him like my friend.
Is life really that simple? I think about a doctor working in the emergency room, saving what lives he can, having to watch people die and suffer, on the verge of death each day. That has to be depressing, especially when many of the people you treat are addicts who over-dosed on drugs. You see the young man’s mother rush in just as the patient flat-lines and watch her burst into tears.
I think about those who take care of the mentally ill, the helpless, and those in poverty. They say social workers suffer from depression more than any other occupation. But is that surprising? Every day they have to sit and listen to people tell them how they were raped, locked in closets and beaten by uncaring parents, and abandoned by a society which doesn’t seem to care.
Or what about political leaders who fight for important reforms, dealing with entrenched special interests, protecting the people. All the lies, the propaganda, and misinformation. Who really wants to spend their life saving the world from greedy low-lives?
It’s not all fun and games. I have nothing against that simple man’s happiness, but I won’t be lifting him to any pedestal unless he’s seriously helping to alleviate human suffering and improve our society.
There’s a large portion of the population who just hope they can ride off of others work and contributions. When things get ugly, they hope someone will show up and save the day, then they can get back to their little world. Someone else can study hard to learn how things work. Someone else can work hard to fix things. Someone else can stand out in the rain and fight for important social changes. But not them. It’s easy not to care.
I suppose I reject Huxley’s utopia out of a blind faith in our potential for more. Then again, I’m a romantic. I don’t completely reject sadness from the human experience. It comes down to whether or not we allow a world of conditional happiness. If we’re to explore the unknown and grow, we have to allow it, because we have to experience new things. That growth comes at a huge cost. We can always live in a delusional paradise filled with happiness pills, superstition, and false joy, never asking why we live the way we do, or do the things we do, protected by advanced technology left to us by former generations who greatly suffered. We’ll one day have the power to artificially put the world back into an age of innocence, but I say we move forward.