Why People Should Be Respected

Earlier today I was watching an interview featuring Richard Dawkins, and while I normally agree with him, especially on science related issues, I disagree with his views toward respect.   Here is the first part of the interview:

Before we begin, let’s define what respect is.  My dictionaries define the term several different ways, but the definitions I like best are as follows:

1)  A courteous regard for people’s feelings
2) An attitude of admiration or esteem
3) A feeling of friendship and esteem

Of those definitions, I think #1 is the most important.

I tend to read the news here and there.  Though I used to read it about every other day, now I do so a lot less.  Even still, I get most all my news from various internet websites.  Most of them feature clips of various pundits from mainstream television networks discussing issues.  I’m not old enough to know what news and television was like 30 years ago, but over the past 10 years or so, it seems to me that there’s been an erosion of respect.  More and more, it seems that I open up various blogs and websites and am finding less and less substance, and more and more name-calling.  I’m finding more and more personal feuds between networks and pundits, and less rational argument.  I’m no saint in this regard, as I’ve said terrible things about people myself, but I set myself out starting this weekend to put an end to it.

I was thinking about posting lots of clips showing all the hatred and feuds and commenting on it all, but then I decided not to.  Instead, I’d like to focus on why I feel it’s important for us to respect and love one another — even those we vehemently disagree with.  When I think about life for most people, things are so difficult for them that we need to be kind and loving.  We shouldn’t add to all the hatred and madness out there.

My father pastors a church and growing up I remember families from every walk of life coming over to our house and my parents counseling them.  I’ve had first hand experiences with drug addicts, alcoholics, families with every sort of marital and family issue, people suffering from depression, anxieties, families struggling financially, and the list goes on and on.  I think I’ve seen more problems than most people ever will.   Some children have listened to their parents fight.  I’ve overheard many families fighting in the kitchen as my parents tried to calm them down.  One memory of mine immediately surfaces.  I can remember a woman screaming out, “I never loved you!  I don’t know why I married you!”  Then the husband started yelling back and it was a nightmare.  At another time, I can remember a meth head wanting to speak with my Dad.  I wasn’t sure what to do with him considering my parents were gone.  Since I knew him I let him stay in the living room and I waited with him.  The man was out there.  He went on and on about the devil, how he’d had experiences with demons, how he wanted to go around town casting them all out, how an angel had appeared to him while he was listening to a Benny Hinn tape, and so on.

In short, I suppose we can summarize it all by saying life is very difficult.  It takes a lot of time to figure out, and everyone makes mistakes traversing life’s maze.  Sometimes big mistakes.  I don’t know what made that man initially turn to drugs for relief, or what all had happened in that marriage, but either way, I simply don’t judge anyone anymore.  At most, I think, “This is the current situation we’re in.  Is there anything we can do to fix things?”

I think a lot about poverty, cancer, divorce, those who have never had or found love, drugs, alcohol, religion, people’s career struggles, war, greed, how difficult the world is to figure out, and so on.  I find myself thinking about the anthropic principle and how amazing it is that life exists at all.  I also sometimes find myself thinking how improbable it is that someone should be successful in this difficult world.  There’s a million mistakes you can make, and there’s many mistakes which are irreversible.  Out of all the possible decisions afforded to you during your lifetime, the vast majority lead nowhere.  You always have to be prudent.  You really have to play your cards right to end up on top.  (If there even is a “top” in life).  As for the ones who typically do end up doing really well, more often than not, they sort of fell into good fortune.

Out of all the possible ideas you can hold about the world, most are wrong.  Most of the ideas you’ll hear people discuss are wrong and completely off base.  Most people live in world they don’t understand.  They don’t understand how money works, why there’s inflation, and why the prices are always rising faster than their wages.  They don’t understand the political issues going on, or the wars.  They don’t understand their origins or what’s going on in the universe.  Most people I encounter don’t have the slightest clue what life is, or even what they’re up against.  But how can you blame them?   With everything else they’re having to juggle and manage, nobody should be blamed for not understanding those sorts of deep truths.

Even so, I think everybody understands that there’s many forces against them and their happiness.  If you don’t understand this, I don’t think you’re capable of loving another person.  I don’t think I’ve understood this lesson to any real degree until rather recently, and if a lot of the suffering I’ve had to face has helped me learn this, then it was worth it, I think.

I’ve said this before, but I’m not a very demonstrative person.  I give off an aura of spartan discipline.  Though it’s not easy for someone like me to say, and I don’t know how to really put this into words, but I believe in you.  There’s a million forces in the world which is always telling you, “I can’t”, and it seems like there’s every rational reason in the world why you can’t and it’s impossible.  But somehow, even if I can’t tell you how, I think there’s a way.  There are people out there who will help you, and work with you, and you can move on to bigger and better things in life.  Get out there and try again.

When I enrolled in my university there was a lot of talk about leadership.  I think the most important duty of any leader, counselor, or teacher is to believe in those around them, and in their lives.  They take whatever they’ve given, and they make the most of it.  This is the entrepreneurial side of me speaking, but if all you’re given is sticks, mud, and some stones and you’re asked to build a wall, don’t whine about how the materials aren’t any good.  Build the best damn wall sticks, mud, and stones can build.  Then you say, “This is the best damn wall of sticks you’ll find.”

Circumstances in life will never be ideal.  As the old proverb says, if you look to the winds and the weather before planting your seeds, it’ll never seem the right time to plant.  Even so, you get out there in the weeds and bad weather, and do what you need to do.

Sometimes I hate talking about “life” in a broad sense.  I feel so unqualified to give any sort of advice on anything.  I look at my own life and think, “Who am I to say anything to anyone else?”  The more I learn, the less I want to write and comment about things because I don’t feel qualified to do so.  It’s ironic because the more knowledgeable I am, the less I want to write.  I look at many of my older blog posts from years back and they’re just ridiculous.  I was brimming with confidence as I said all kinds of things which are completely wrong.  Those posts are embarrassing.  I had to remove a few the other day.  They’re so terrible.  To be knowledgeable in anything – to be a true expert – requires a lifetime of dedication and research.  I feel like an amateur in just about everything.   But what I wanted to say that after studying what I have, I find most people to hold views that could never be held by an educated, thinking person.  Also, as I said before, I don’t blame them either.  They don’t typically have the time to figure everything out.  And even when people hold ridiculous worldviews, we need to be kind to them, and not insult them.  What good does that do?  It’s only going to get them angry and close their minds to whatever we’re wanting to tell them.  I’ll give you an example.

Here on my bookshelf I have a little booklet a Jehovah’s witness gave to me while I was out enjoying a pizza.  It’s called ‘What Does the Bible Really Teach?‘  It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I remember it saying that after the judgment God is going to give each holy saint his own planet to rule.  It also talks about spirits possessing humans, causing them to do bad things, like get angry, and how the Earth is going to be made in into a paradise.

When I read it all, I thought, “There are many reasons why this can’t be right.  The stars will burn out, many of them exploding and becoming black holes.  Our universe is also expanding.  We have to deal with the heat death.  As for the eternal earthly paradise, in a few billion years the Earth will be destroyed as the sun goes into the red giant phase.  Our emotions, including anger, are governed by known processes in our brains, not demons.  That’s why various medications and drugs can alter our emotions as well.  And sickness is caused by bacteria, viruses, hereditary diseases, injuries, and so on.”  Similar sorts of reasons make the other things religious texts and books say impossible for a thinking person to believe.  But to someone who hasn’t studied science, and doesn’t understand how their body works, or how the universe works, such accounts make sense to them.

I want to mention churches while I’m on this topic.  As I mentioned, my father is a pastor, so I’m very knowledgeable about how churches work.  Churches tend to focus on what’s called “out-reach”, which is being kind to people, making friends with them, helping them out, and bringing them to church.  One thing I’ve noticed about many members in the science and agnostic/atheist communities (my experience anyway), is they’re not near as welcoming.  A lot of them can be downright nasty.

I saw a physicist in a video recently and he was talking about life and the universe and he made a few wrong comments about evolution.  A prominent biologist, on his blog, tore into him.  “Is this guy an idiot?”  He railed against him.  I thought, “Alright man, he had a few misconceptions toward some rather subtle biological concepts.  He’s a physicist, not a biologist like you.”  The arguments against the physicist were flawless, no doubt.  He was also right in correcting him.  What was missing was a level of respect and courtesy.  If we treat each other like this, nobody is going to want to become a scientist, or get involved in research endeavors.  People also are going to be scared to share their ideas because they know if they get one little thing wrong, some nasty expert is going to jump out of the bushes, ambush them, making him or her look like an idiot.  “Idiot!  How could you think that?”  You know, if this were a peer review journal, that’s one thing.  But when we’re dealing with one another, on a casual level, such as our blogs, we need to be kind to one another, and kindly correct each other’s mistakes.

It’s hard for me to understand how someone could get so angry like that, especially over someone who holds 99% of your worldview, but gets a few minor things wrong.  When people talk to me about physics concepts, I don’t look down on them when they’re wrong.  During the holidays a family member was talking with me about sci-fi movies, and he wondered about building special suit and if he could use it to walk along the ocean floor in it.  He thought about putting a thin wall of air inside the suit’s vest, which would then cushion him from the pressure.  Unfortunately, this sort of thing would never work, and I explained to him how and why he was wrong.  Nobody got angry, nobody was insulted, and he learned something new.  That’s how that should work.

….

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

– excerpt from A Prayer For My Daughter, by William Butler Yeats

Now that I’m in college, I’ve also experienced professors who look down on their students.  Nearly half of my professors have been guilty of this at one time or another.  It breaks my heart to see it because I know it’s going to run students off.  If the scientific community, as well as our educational institutions, make people feel so unwelcome and stupid, people are going to turn to other organizations, like churches, where they’re loved and respected.

It’s easy to fall into intellectual hatred.  When people are saying and believing ridiculous things, it’s easy to do.  There’ s a right way to correct someone, and a wrong way.  From now on, I’m going to try to write every blog post in a similar format to Paul Krugman’s recent post on inflation.

Good Inflation, Bad Inflation

And another economistic piece: FTAlphaville reports that some people believe that surging commodity prices might be good for Japan, because they will make deflation go away.

OK, this is a failure to understand the principle.

Why does deflation have a depressing effect on the economy? Two reasons. First, it reduces money incomes while debt stays the same, so it worsens balance sheet problems, reducing spending. Second, expectations of future deflation mean that any borrowing now will have to be repaid out of smaller wages (if the borrower is a household) or smaller profits (if the borrower is a firm.) So expected future deflation also reduces spending.

So, does a rise in food and energy prices do anything to alleviate these problems? No. In fact, it makes them worse, by reducing purchasing power. So while the commodity surge may temporarily lead to rising headline prices in Japan, the underlying deflation problem won’t be affected at all.

In a way, this is another illustration of the need to differentiate among inflation measures. It’s not exactly the same as the usual case for focusing on core inflation, but it’s related. And once again, the point is that looking at “the” inflation rate is a bad guide for policy.

I don’t agree with Krugman on a lot of things.  I don’t tend to agree with many of the principles behind Keynesian economics in general.  I tend to lean more toward an Austrian perspective in economics.  But look at that.  There was no name calling.  There was no, “This person’s an idiot.”  It was a rational argument telling why the ideas put forth in that article are wrong.  Here he clearly points out the misunderstandings the author holds toward inflation.

We often communicate by the internet now, and it’s so much easier to say terrible things since we’re not speaking face to face.   We need to hold ourselves back.  Don’t do it.  I try to remember that consciousness resides in each person I deal with.  They’re alive and have feelings, just like me.  The longer I live, and the more I think about it, the more sacred that truth becomes to me.  It’s like I want to grab someone and say, “Don’t you realize, that’s a conscious living being that is suffering.”  But when it’s not us suffering, or our family members, or loved ones, or close friends, it can be difficult to have empathy.

As the world becomes more and more closely interconnected, it will be harder and harder to avoid one another.  It’s going to become more important everyday that we develop tolerance and respect one another.  Otherwise the tensions and fighting will only increase.  You won’t be able to say nasty things and then just disappear and hope the world forgets about it.  People will blog about the terrible things you said to them, and then when people Google your name, you’ll pop right up.  That’s pretty scary really.  When you say something online, it’s there for good.  There’s even websites which store old copies of your website, archiving everything.  Even if you remove it, there’s still records of it all.

People have enough troubles on their plate without us adding more pressures to their lives.  Try to make people’s lives easier, not harder.  I think humanity is capable of great things.  There’s all kinds of advancements and progress going on everyday.  Let’s celebrate that and believe in one another and our common future.

Stabilized Images And Blind Spots

What is it that we see when we look out of our eyes onto the world?  Most of us believe that we’re directly seeing the image that light is forming as it comes into contact with our eyes.  What really happens is quite a bit more complicated than that.  I want to talk today about stabilized images.

What the brain actually does is use the light signals coming in from the eyes as a sort of starting point.  That initial data is then loaded into the brain’s virtual reality model where it is processed.  The sensory information is run through all kinds of algorithms, and then after being segmented into regions, objects, and so on, we then have our conscious perception of interacting with the world – for example, seeing a circle on the computer screen.   Learning the subtleties of this process is very interesting.

Let’s do a quick test.  Stare at the black dot in the center of the image below.  If you’ve never done this before, you’ll find it quite amazing as the gray circle fades away into the white background of my website.

Now if what you saw with your eyes was the light directly landing on your retinas, then why would the gray circle fade into the background?  This is a vision experiment illustrating what’s called stabilized images.  I’ll let my book, Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology, discuss the topic in detail.

Evidence from Stabilized Images. We have suggested that edge detection, however it might actually be computed, is a likely mechanism for segmenting the image into different regions, but we have not yet provided any evidence for this claim.  As it turns out, there is some striking support for it from experiments on the perception of stabilized images:  images presented so that they are completely stationary on the retina.  Strange as it may seem, the visual system actually stops responding (or adapts) to optical structure in the retinal image if there is no change over time.  (Recall from Chapter 1 that this is why we don’t perceive the blind spot or the blood vessels in our retina.)  The startling result of the experiments on stabilized images is that after viewing one for more than a few seconds, it fades away completely!”

Before we move on, let’s take a brief moment to discuss the eye and its blood vessels.   The human eye ball is laid out rather strangely.  Many engineers who have looked at the “design” of the eye give it a D.  One of the main problems with its design is that its blood vessels are strewn out in front of the retina.  It’s kind of like building a camera yet deciding to leave all the wiring to in front of the CCD plates  (the digital circuitry which collects light).

As you can see, these blood vessels are blocking the light coming into our eyes, and should be present in the image that is coming into our brains.  But why don’t we see them?  Well, if the brain didn’t process the image and filter out the junk, we would actually be seeing these structures.  Like I’ve been saying, the brain builds up a virtual model which is what you consciously perceive.  The data coming into your eyes is just starting data which it works with.

If you have a small penlight, you can place it near the outer corner of your eye.  If you shake it up and down, the light will cause the blood vessels to leave shadows on your retinas, and this structure will become visible.  The reason you can’t see it now is because your brain has adapted to it.

Now let’s get back to Vision Science.  What comes next will really blow your mind if you sit and think about it.

“The relevance of stabilized images to the claim that edge detection is the basis of region segmentation is that it supports the conclusion that people experience the shape and color of regions solely on the basis of edge information.  Perhaps the most striking demonstration comes from a simple but elegant experiment by Krauskopf (1963).  He presented observers with a central red circle surrounded by a green annulus (ring).  Under normal viewing conditions, it looks like a red circle inside a green ring.  But Krauskopf stabilized the inner contour between the red and green portions of the visual field without stabilizing the outer one.  The astonishing result is that the inner red disk disappears and is filled in by green to create the perception of a single large green circle!”

What is this saying?  Why do I find this so incredibly important?  Well, what you see and perceive is never the raw information coming in from your sense organs.  In the case of looking at something with your eyes, say one colored circle within another, your brain looks at the color contrasts, which fires off in a certain pattern based on the edges of the circles.  These areas are then separated into “regions”, which is a sort of abstract mental concept.  This is part of the object formation process.  What you consciously perceive, in this case, are regions.  I want to write a whole post on how we perceive objects sometime, but it’ll probably have to be four or five post series.  Consider this a small taste of what’s to come!

Next the book talks about a similar experiment to the one we started out with here.  I can’t reproduce the image, however, because my scanner isn’t working.  Basically it’s a gray circle, with a fuzzy white circle within it, with a black dot in the center of the central white circle.  It’s very similar to the image I have in this post.

“You can experience a closely related phenomenon by staring at the dot in the middle of Figure 6.2.5 for a minute or so.  Because you cannot hold your eyes steady enough to stabilize the inner edge completely, it has been made “fuzzy” so that the small movements of your eyes make involuntarily have only small effects on your visual system.  As a result, after staring at the black dot for long enough that your visual system adapts to the fuzzy inner contour, the light center region disappears and is filled in by the darker surrounding gray.   If you then make a large eye movement, the inner region will reappear because the fuzzy edge is once again perceived.

Krauskopf’s results are just what one would expect if the perceived color and boundaries of regions were determined exclusively by edge information.  Once adaptation to the inner edge is complete (because of its stabilization on the retina), only the outer edge has any effect on the visual system.  Thus, the situation is the same as when only a large green circle is present:  the presence of an outer green edge with no further edges inside it.  That is precisely what people perceive when the interior edge is stabilized, despite the continued physical presence of the inner red circle on the retina.”

Last semester I had to take a political science course.  I can remember oftentimes being bored and one time during the lecture I sat there closely staring into my teachers eyes.  It’s not what you’re thinking. (LOL).  She wasn’t directly looking at me, so it’s cool.  I don’t think she noticed.  If she did notice, I’m sure it was very awkward, but I’m so socially unaware, and I wouldn’t have noticed.  She would’ve taken it the wrong way.  She’s a lovely woman, but what I was actually watching was her eye movements.  This was all in the name of science, you see.  I have to have some way to entertain myself during lectures!  She has really brilliant green eyes so they were easy to watch from where I was sitting.  They were moving all over, back and forth, quickly twitching left, then right, up, down, left, and right.  She wasn’t conscious of this.  All of our eyes do it.  I’m not 100% certain of this, but I think that if our eyes didn’t do that, and we sat still, everything would quickly fade away, just like that circle you were staring at earlier.  We’d have to jerk our heads back and forth in order to continue seeing.  We’d sit for a moment, everything would start fading away, then we’d jerk to the side, sit for a few seconds, everything starts to fade, then we jerk the other way, sit for a moment… repeat ad infinitum for the rest of our lives.

Speaking of her, she was a really fun teacher.  I used to break into silent laughter during her exams, and then when I’d look up she’d be in my face, smiling and asking, “Jason, why are you laughing at my exam?”  She had conceptual questions where she’d ask for real life examples of the concept she was asking about.  I would leave her absurd answers.  I would also draw elaborate doodles on all my tests and quizzes.  I was going to draw one picture of me sitting in a desk, daydreaming, with a little bubble over my head with a Penrose triangle in it asking, “Dr. Pierce, why can’t I rotate this figure?”  Then I thought, “Uh, that’s pretty nerdy Jason.  You probably shouldn’t do that.”  (Since when did I start being self-conscious?) Instead I drew the function f(x) = | 1 / (2-x) | and the asymptote x = 2.  Then I drew a stick man on a motorcycle and he was going to try to ride to the top of the asymptote.  A stick man news crew was there reporting, with the reporter exclaiming, “Man attempts the impossible!  Stay tuned.”  A religious man was cheering on the rider, “All things are possible to him that believes!”  To the side there was the stick man astronomical society, and they had a giant telescope aimed at the figure.  One of them was saying, “There’s no end in sight.”  Then other stick men were debating infinity and what it would mean to cross the asymptote.  “What would be beyond infinity?”  I was rather proud of that drawing.

Sorry about that.  Drifted off into my neurotic little world.  I want to talk about one final thing before I end this post – Dr. Pierce’s eyes.  As they were jerking back and forth, they were also accommodating for her blind spot.  The main reason I bring up blind spots is because there’s one interesting thing you have to think about.  Both of our eyes have this gaping hole in the retinal image where all the wiring runs back into the brain.  Take a look back at the figure.  We don’t see an empty hole in the images we consciously see, so what’s going on there?  Basically the brain just fills it in with a similar pattern to what’s going on around it.  Take this blind spot test for example.  Cover your right eye (or just close it) and stare at the right star.  Move closer and closer to the screen and when you hit the right distance you’ll notice that the red star disappears from view.  The brain just sort of fills in the space with the same white background.


I like to do this sort of thing from time to time.  I stare at the screen, watch stuff disappear, and then turn my head a little and say, “A ha!”, turn back to the right and it disappears.  “Where it go?”  *in a stupid voice*  Then I turn a little to the left and say, “A hah!”  Ok.  I’m in way too good of a mood.  (I get nerdy when I’m in a good mood, just so you know.)

Or take this next blind spot test.  On the left you’ll notice there’s a big circle and a bar.  Cover your right eye again, stare at the right dot, and move toward the screen.  Eventually that left circle will disappear into the blind spot.  What does your brain do?  Does it just leave a hole there?  Nah, it just makes stuff up.  It decides to fill in the space with the bar.  To a large extent, the brain takes in information and then makes a best guess as to what it’s looking at.  It then feeds the best representation it can come up with to your consciousness.

In my next post on all of this, I want to talk about how we perceive objects and shapes.  I’ll cover the sorts of processes our brain performs when it sees everyday objects around us.  Until next time.

Arianna Pockets $300 mil

I read an article today that Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, sold her website to AOL and is pocketing $300 million in cash herself.

Have you guys ever seen her on the television?  She’s a liberal who is frequently on various news television programs, and she talks about helping communities, giving back, how the rich are making too much money, how the middle class is fading away, and so on and so forth.  Now she’s waltzing off with $300 million, selling her website off to corporate America.

If you’ve never seen her before, here’s a link to a video of her:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_qIhXrwGpA

I can’t say I have a very high opinion of her.  She gets on the television talking about how corrupt the politcians are, and how they’re spending our tax dollars without regard, and they’re all in bed with rich Wall Street and corporate CEOs, then we look at her and she’s living in a luxurious Los Angeles mansion and has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. I can’t help but think, “Oh?  And you’re so different from them?”

If she actually believed any of the things she’s saying, I would think she would be helping all the unemployed with her millions.  But will she?  I can’t imagine it happening.

Occasionally I browse various news sites and see what they’re talking about.  About a month or two ago I saw an article on the Huffington Post about the richest politicians.  The author of that article was infuriated at the net worth of many of the richest politicians.  Many had a net worth of several million dollars or more and the richest were worth a little over $10 million.  It seems a bit dishonest to complain about their wealth on huffingtonpost.com when Arianna’s worth 30 times that.  She has more money than all those politicians combined.

Here comes my cynicism — brace yourselves — People like Arianna Huffington turn the “help the poor”/”struggling middle class”/green message into big business.  She knows there’s a large target market which she can drive to her website, all while selling advertising to corporate America.  Look at all the movies, celebrities, and books her site promotes.  It’s a giant marketing/promotion vehicle for corporate America, and that’s why they’ve now paid her $300 million for the site.

I rarely read or watch the news.  I mainly just read sites like physorg.  I don’t believe all news is theater, but a whole lot of it definitely is.

Albert Einstein’s Beliefs Toward God

Albert Einstein is one of the most misrepresented individuals to ever live.  Take this video for instance.

There’s a lot I could say about this video, and the message that it’s trying to get across, but I’ll hold myself back and simply say that this never happened.  Einstein was an agnostic.  His conception of God was similar to Spinoza’s.

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

– Albert Einstein

If you’ve never studied Benedict Spinoza’s philosophy, or his conception of God, you’ll have to read Part I of his Ethics.  Wikipedia summarizes it as follows,

In Spinozism, the concept of a personal relationship with God comes from the position that one is a part of an infinite interdependent “organism”. Spinoza taught that everything is but a wave in an endless ocean, and that what happens to one wave will affect other waves. Thus Spinozism teaches a form of determinism and ecology and supports this as a basis for morality.

Additionally, a core doctrine of Spinozism is that the universe is essentially deterministic. All that happens or will happen could not have unfolded in any other way. Spinozism is closely related to the Hindu doctrines of Samkhya and Yoga.  Spinoza claimed that the third kind of knowledge, intuition, is the highest kind attainable.

Spinoza’s metaphysics consists of one thing, substance, and its modifications (modes). Early in The Ethics Spinoza argues that there is only one substance, which is absolutely infinite, self-caused, and eternal. He calls this substance “God“, or “Nature“. In fact, he takes these two terms to be synonymous (in the Latin the phrase he uses is “Deus sive Natura”). For Spinoza the whole of the natural universe is made of one substance, God, or, what’s the same, Nature, and its modifications (modes).

Source:  Wikipedia

Einstein wasn’t an atheist either.  He made this perfectly clear.

“In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

– Albert Einstein

In the quotation below, Einstein elaborates on his conception of God.

“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangements of the books, but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.”

– Albert Einstein

I hate seeing people misrepresented.  If you’re religious and believe in God and your holy book, that’s fine with me.  You can believe whatever you want to believe.  But don’t make up lies about great thinkers, and then claim they held a worldview similar to your own.   Christians can claim Einstein believed in God, but the real Einstein thought this about the Bible,

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

-Albert Einstein

Growth And Development

Years ago I remember sending an email to a scientist friend of mine who, at the time, worked for Lockheed Boeing.  I asked him how he thought the brain processed the objects we see and handle.  I remember posing a dilemma I wasn’t able to figure out at the time — how did the brain know it was looking at the same object even though it rotated, changed sized, and even appearance?

The example I gave him was actually a tree stump out in the middle of a field.  At a distance the stump is just a brown and beige dot.  You can’t really make out any detail at all.  As you approach the stump, you start to see the bark and if you get even closer still, you start to see all the detailed fabric of the bark, the wood grain, and the tree rings.  In terms of retinal images on the eyeball, these are vastly different experiences.  If you were a painter, and you were to paint the stump at a distance and the stump up close, the painting would be completely different.  Yet somehow our brain  knows that the stump is the same stump.

You may think, “What’s the problem?”  Well, maybe I can pose this problem another way.  Sit down on a computer and imagine having a digital video clip of a person walking toward the stump.  Now you have to write a computer program that examines each image from the video, one by one, see how the colors change, analyze them in some complex way, and know that it’s looking at blades of grass in a field, that you’re an observer standing so many feet above the ground, and that you’re approaching a tree stump.  How would you store each blade of grass?  How would the algorithm know that the blade of grass in one image is the same blade of grass in the next?  How would it know about the tree stump?  What sort of storage mechanism would you use to store the information about the stump, the grass, and the spatial relations between everything?  How much detail would you keep? How would you relate them in a time sequence?

I pondered away at the problem for another two years and I slowly made some headway, but it was very difficult.  I can remember one evening going out to Lowes and buying a bunch of meter sticks and heading out to my backyard.  I sat out there for four hours staring at meter sticks laid out across the yard.  I walked toward them, away from them, and rotated them every which way.  After a while I thought to myself, “My God, the brain is simply amazing.  However it does manage to achieve this, it must be so complex that it’d take a lifetime to figure out.”

Though I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out that very smart people at M.I.T. and other universities had been working on this problem for decades with computer vision.  When I first figured out such a subject existed, I was like an elated school boy given a bowl of ice cream and chocolate milk.  It turned out that they have had algorithms since the late 1980s which could process objects and their orientation in space.  I was practically ripping the books open once they arrived from Amazon screaming in my head, “How did you guys do it!  How!”

I opened up David Marr’s book Vision and I was greeted with this introduction,

“What does it mean, to see?  The plain man’s answer (and Aristotle’s, too) would be, to know what is where by looking.  In other words, vision is the process of discovering from images what is present in the world, and where it is.

Vision is therefore, first and foremost, an information-processing task, but we cannot think of it just as a process.  For if we are capable of knowing what is where in the world, our brains must somehow be capable of representing this information – in all its profusion of color and form, beauty, motion, and detail.  The study of vision must therefore include not only the study of how to extract from images the various aspects of the world that are useful to us, but also an inquiry into the nature of the internal representations by which we capture this information and thus make it available as a basis for decisions about our thoughts and actions.  This duality — the representation and the processing of information — lies at the heart of most information-processing tasks and will profoundly shape our investigation of the particular problems posed by vision.”

Marr wrote this book before I was even born, but I believe he somehow was thinking of me.  Several hundred pages later, he had done just what he set out to do — give a series of algorithms and processes the brain might use to parse objects out of the images we see, and then store them in some usable format which we can use to make decisions.  It turns out I was correct about one thing — vision is practically a miracle.

Scientists from all over the world have been working on these issues and they’ve came up with so many clever ideas trying to reverse engineer what the brain is doing for us.  It turns out the problem I was thinking of has a fancy scientific name vision scientists use: the inverse problem.  Quoting from my other great book, Vision Science:  Photons To Phenomenology,

1.2.3 Vision as an “Inverse” Problem

We have now described how light reflected from the 3-D world produces 2-D images at the back of the eye where vision begins.  This process of image formation is completely determined by the laws of optics, so for any given scene with well-specified lighting conditions and a point of observation, we can determine with great accuracy what image would be produced.  In fact, the field of computer graphics is concerned with exactly this problem:  how to render images on a computer display screen that realistically depict scenes of objects y modeling the process of image formation…”

Ah, computer graphics.  My love in life — programming computers to do fancy 3-D graphics, virtual environments, and simulations.  I was floating away as I read that.  I thought, “I’m right at home in this world.”  Vision Science continues,

“In effect, the program simulates the optical events of photon emission, reflection, transmission, and absorption to construct an image of a “virtual” environment that does not exist in the physical world.  Such programs allow the effects of different orders of light reflection to be illustrated (e.g., in Color Plate 1.1 A-D) because the program can be stopped after each cycle of simulated reflection to see what the image looks like.  This is not possible with real optical image formation.”

Mmmm.  Ray-tracing.  Reflective surfaces.  Specular highlights.  Dynamic lighting.  Mirrors. I can remember the first book I learned 3D graphics programming from.  It’s called The Black Art of 3D Game Programming, written by Andre LaMothe.  I still have it here.  It’s a gem.  It was one of the first books out on the subject.  It’s old school.  Real old school.  New books use OpenGL or DirectX to do all the rendering for you.  LaMothe does everything by scratch, rendering each line and polygon, pixel by pixel.  That’s how real programmers do it!  I can remember the early chapters on mathematics and line drawing.  He loads up the screen to 320×240 VGA, then he shows you how to draw a line from X1, Y1, to X2, Y2.  He writes directly to the video card’s memory buffer.  Next you establish your 256 color palette.  Yeah baby, those were the days!  Then you draw colored polygons, pixel by pixel.  Next up, matrices and transformations, camera positions and projections.  You scale and distort those polygons based on the observer’s position.  Then the later chapters he gets into lighting.  He gets into the physics of how surfaces reflect light and how you shade those polygons differently based on the relative positions of the light sources and the observer.  To save CPU cycles various optimizations, such as binary space partitions are introduced.  Visual illusions and effects, such as motion parallax are discussed… *Heart races… faints like a school girl meeting Justin Bieber*

Sorry, the sheer epicness of the subject matter being discussed made me faint.  I can’t stress how much fun it is to program simulators that say emulate mirrors, especially using OpenGL.  You use matrices and transformations to emulate them.  What you do is render your scene normally without the mirror.  Then you lay out a stencil over everywhere but the pixels where your mirror is located.  Then you get the mirror’s surface normal vector and render your scene again, but change your camera position as if you’re standing behind the mirror at just the right distance, aligned with the mirror’s surface normal.  So for every mirror in the scene you do multiple rendering passes.  It takes up a lot of CPU cycles and back when I was first programming these sorts of things computers weren’t near as powerful.  I think my first simulator which had a mirror in it was running on a Pentium II 450 Mhz, so I had to be careful not to overload it.  It’s not much of a simulator if it runs at 3 frames a second!  It was even more fun rending mirrors looking into mirrors.  Or even more fun, distortions caused by curved mirrors!  Back to Vision Science,

“The early stages of visual perception can be viewed as trying to solve what is often called the inverse problem: how to get from optical images of scenes back to knowledge of the objects that gave rise to them.  From this perspective, the most obvious solution is for vision to invert the process of image formation by undoing the optical transformations that happen during image formation.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do this.  The difficulty is that the mathematical relation between the environment and its projective image is not symmetrical.  The projection from environment to image goes from three dimensions to two and so is a well-defined function:  Each point in environment maps into a unique point in the image.  The inverse mapping from image to environment goes from two dimensions to three, and this is not a well-defined function:  Each point in the image could map into an infinite number of points in the environment.  Therefore, logic dictates that for every 2-D image on the back of our eyes, there are infinitely many distinct 3-D environments that could have given rise to it.”

Ouch!  An infinite number of possible 3-D environments could give rise to each 2-D image.  No wonder I was having such difficulties figuring out how this worked!  But in comes Herman Helmholtz, one of the greatest physicists to ever live, and the founder of vision science.  He has a brilliant idea.  He theorizes that the brain makes certain assumptions about the environment, and those assumptions constrict those 3-D environmental possibilities.  These constrictions will allow the brain to construct, or at least estimate, a model of the environment by making educated guesses about what we might be looking at.  Keyword is MIGHT.  But what sorts of assumptions are we talking about?  Ah, here is where life gets interesting!

As you know, we humans evolved here on planet Earth, roaming about the fields under the sun and moonlight.  You find out that the assumptions mother nature filled our brains with are environmental conditions common to planet Earth.  For example, our brains unconsciously assume that light comes from above us.  Take a look at these images below.

You’ll notice that three of dents look like holes, whereas one looks like a bump.  That’s how your brain parses in the color shading and gives a spatial meaning to the picture.  The bottom left bump juts out whereas the other three are holes.  But what happens if I simply flip the image over?

Wild huh?  The three holes now become bumps, and the bump becomes a hole.  To those who don’t understand how the vision system works, these come across as party tricks and neat coincidences.  But this is no cheap trick.  This is very important.  Carefully examining the small and strange things in life oftentimes lead to the most important discoveries.  These sorts of things are key to understanding the very nature of how our brain gives a sense of space and time!  This is important — your brain builds a virtual model of space based on those 2D images on the back of retina, but it has to make certain assumptions about the environment in order to do so.  When those assumptions are not true for that instance, then we experience what we commonly call a “visual illusion.”

What you see is not necessarily what’s there.  Frankly, I’d argue that what we see in the virtual models in our heads is pretty far from what reality actually is.  For example, we see a stone as a solid object, whereas it’s actually mostly empty space.  We don’t see it moving, but actually the atoms of which it’s composed are vibrating and wiggling all over – not to even mention the strange quantum effects going on.  I don’t claim to fully understand the quantum effects yet, so I won’t even talk about them.

So how does the brain construct this model of 3D space?  And Jason, you’re saying space isn’t actually 3D?  Nope, it isn’t.  Einstein’s relativity tells us we live in something more akin to a 4-D space-time that curves and is very complicated.  Quantum mechanics tells us reality is even stranger.  But, probabilistically speaking, the photons that end up making it to our eyes have consistent enough probabilistic behavior to generate similar images each time and our brains have evolved to generate semi-accurate models or reality based on the most probable conditions and scenarios on the Earth.

Just to name a few factors the brain uses, it looks at shading (making assumptions about lighting), it parses out 2D contours and generates a sort of 2D line-drawing of each picture, then analyzes the angles and curves of those 2-D lines, building up objects and space.  It looks at shadows, it looks for horizon lines and uses a neat trigonometric relationship to establish depth, it looks for convergence in the 2-D lines which it parsed out and based on things like their slopes and where they intersect, generates surface normals and orientations.  It compares the images from both eyes and sees how much the images differ (binocular effects).  It builds up a gigantic database of objects which it is constantly comparing and analyzing and using in its calculations.  It looks at the textures of things, such as the statistical similarities in the colors of a field of green grass and it looks at how that texture pattern shrinks and blurs as it heads off into the distance and generates the depth of the surface from that.  It looks for a dulling of color, which happens for hills in the distant background as a lot of the light of lower-wavelengths is scattered as it travels toward you.

The 2-D line parsing system is pretty neat to understand.  Take a necker cube.  You’ve all seen it.

From the image you can see the necker cube, and the two possible ways your brain interprets it.  One of the things you learn in vision science is how these lines are parsed out and how say the vertex patterns are analyzed and interpreted.  It’s really neat stuff.  But sometimes the lines can play havoc with your brain, which tries to assemble the lines into surfaces and assemble the surfaces into space, but then finds it to be impossible.  Take the famous Penrose triangle.

Your brain starts to parse out the lines and form surfaces but then says, “Wait a minute.  This surface won’t go with this other surface.”  These are called impossible objects, but they are neat to look at and ponder.

Everything gets really complicated in vision science.  Different information starts to conflict.  The 2-D line contours which your brain parses out may say that space is doing one thing, but then the shading information may say another.  The brain has a whole complex system it uses to make the best guess as to which information source best represents what you’re looking at.

The brain also does more than this though.  We’ve just scratched the surface of all your brain is doing.  It also groups things together by their similarities in color, their similarities in size, similarities in orientation, similarities in “fate” (it calculates a trajectory of where an object is moving), it looks for parallel and symmetric patterns in the image, searches for continuities, and the list goes on.

I’ll have to write more on all of this at a later time.  What interests me about all of this is that the model our brain builds up is inaccurate and the assumptions it makes aren’t true all the time.  As Richard Dawkins points out in his books and many of his lectures, our brain assumes slow walking speeds and medium sized objects.  Our brain builds up a model that is intended to lug our big body around and help it walk from one place to another, and do common things like find something to eat.  But the world of much larger than our bodies, and much smaller than our bodies, follows different rules than the model in our head.  For example, if you accelerate up toward light speed the object shapes start to morph due to the Lorentz contraction.  Though your brain tells you, “This coffee mug has this cylindrical shape, with this circular bottom and open top, in reality the cup’s shape is much stranger.  If you were the lay that cup on your kitchen table and then zoom past it at near light speed, it would bend and morph and do all kinds of weird things.  There’s actually relativity simulators you can download for the computer.  One is called Real Time Relativity, which is neat to play around with.

If you’d rather just watch a video of optical relativistic effects, I found a video below.   In it, you can see how matter starts to behave at near light speeds.  You see that objects begin to bend in weird ways and their colors change.

It’s only weird to us though because we never see this happen.  Once again, our brain makes an assumption that we’ll never travel that fast, and so it makes assumptions about geometry and space which only hold up if we’re moving slowly.  I still haven’t mastered quantum mechanics, but from what I can tell, it seems our brain’s views on causality and time are flawed as well.  I’ll write about that when I feel more comfortable with quantum physics (if that ever happens).

Combine all this with neuroscience and how brain activity gives rise to consciousness, and you’re getting the gist of where my research takes me.  It’s nice to see that things I had no idea about just a few years ago are starting to make sense to me now.  I suppose that’s growth and development.