Are We Civilized?

I’ve spent the past few days watching a series of documentaries and mini-series, and it all has left me thinking about life’s big picture.  The first series I watched was Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: Is The West History?  Later I decided to watch Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and have just finished watching Michio Kaku’s BBC series Time.  Watching all of these things got me in the mood to read some history, so I’ve taken a break from my normal cognitive psychology/physics studies, and thought about some other things for a while.

When you stop and think about life on rather large scale, say the past few thousand years, and look at how people in our modern society act, it’s not only comical, but sad.  They’re spoiled rotten and their expectations about what life should be and what they’re entitled to is completely out of proportion.  Life for mankind for near all of human history has been, to use Thomas Hobbes words, “nasty, brutish, and short”.  Their lives were filled with war, famine, starvation, disease, and every misery you can imagine.  They lived in fear and complete ignorance as they roamed about through the forests and the fields, trying to scrape by a meal.  They had to hunt using primitive equipment made from sticks and chipped stones, and frequently were badly injured during the process by the wild animals.  When archeologists dig up their bones which are found in caves all around the world, you see how they were maimed and injured in every conceivable fashion – broken legs, missing fingers, disfigured rib cages, and so the list goes on.  I can imagine a young man of around twenty-one years of age, out with his tribe hunting wild antelope, and as they’re surrounding one, the herd turns around and stampedes.  He watches his best friend get trampled to death and he ends up being impaled through his arm by one of those long horns.  He runs off in terror and crawls into that cave where he bleeds to death, his wife and small children wailing in tears.  Their average life expectancy was under 30, if that says anything.

Last night, after I was feeling pretty tired from studying and reading, I decided to watch a program called How TV Ruined Your Life, as it seemed to be pretty interesting.  Though the presenter is far too pessimistic for my taste, I found it fascinating to watch him give a broad overview of the types of programs on TV today.  I haven’t watched television in probably 15 years, and what little shows I watch is from the internet.  I had no idea how bad normal cable television had become.  I sat back in amazement thinking, “No way.  There’s no way people watch this…”  But they do!  You can watch it yourself if you want.

I absolutely loved the introduction to that show, so much so that I want to quote it.

“We’re living in a world where everyone expects the best of everything, with the unhinged sense of entitlement that used to be the sole reserve of insane Roman emperors…”

– Charlie Brooker, How TV Ruined Your Life – Aspiration

The question of human civilization goes something like this, “Life used to be so miserable and toilsome, but now human beings dominate the Earth and live relatively comfortably.  How did this change take place?”   What struck me was that so many things the television promotes and injects into our mind runs counter to the trends which have made great civilizations.  I’ve known for a long time that television is pretty mindless, but I never considered it harmful and evil until I really started thinking about it.  Just as Charlie Brooker said, television ruins our lives in so many ways.

One episode of Brooker’s series focuses on fear, and how the television is always drumming up fear.  When I heard that I immediately thought of a comment made by Kenneth Clark in his Civilisation series.   He showed the prows of various Viking ships and how they were intended to instill terror and apprehension in all who saw them.  They were marauders who floated up and down the rivers and sailed the oceans plundering and looting societies around them.   He then compared that to the head of a famous Greek sculpture – Apollo of the Belvedere.

“The Viking prow is a powerful work of art, more moving than this Roman head and yet this is from the figure that was once the most admired piece of sculpture in the world – the Apollo of the Belvedere.  Well, whatever its merits as a work of art, the Apollo surely embodies a higher state of civilization than the Viking prow.  The northern imagination takes shape in an image of fear and darkness, the Hellenistic imagination in an image of harmonized proportion and human reason.”

– Kenneth Clark, Civilisation

Clark pointed out that a civilization requires hope and stability in order to progress to any great height.  People must have firm ground beneath their feet in order to pursue long term goals and do great things.  Anything which destroys that hope, stability and security is an evil against human progress.  He talked about the Roman empire and showed their great aqueducts, which are still around even to this day, thousands of years later.  Those things took forever to build but the people constructed them because they believed their society would be around for a long time.  They built those for us and our children.  To build things with future generations in mind, thousands of years from now, that’s just beautiful to me.   What was also fascinating to me was that the barbarians tried to destroy those aqueducts but were too primitive to even know how take down such a massive structure.

Niall Ferguson’s Civilization sets out to answer a question that he identifies as the “most interesting” facing historians of the modern era: “Why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?”  He wants to explain the origins behind western power.  He identifies six core factors behind our civilization’s success:  1)  Competition, 2) Science, 3) Private Property & Democracy, 4) Medicine, 5) Consumerism, and 6) Work Ethic.

To summarize it as quickly as I can: 1) Competition: you have to have a constant flow of new ideas about every aspect of society, all competing with one another.  People must be free to think about every aspect of their lives and how they want to live.  Alternatives must be set in front of them and they must be free to choose how they wish to live.  2) Science: understanding the world is the main driver of progress because it allows human beings to flow with the world around them, mold it how they wish, and live in harmony with and dominate the forces around them.  3) A private property owning democracy:  everyone must have some stake in the action and a say in how things are being run.  Home ownership is the most important.  Ferguson directs us to John Locke’s vision for Carolina, where near every citizen was a significant property owner and everyone had a vote — the American Dream.  4) Medicine:  Diseases and plagues are always ravaging mankind so medicine must be a central focus, being continually improved and researched through science, and made readily available to all citizens so their lives aren’t wasted by an early death or some debilitating handicap.  5) Consumerism:  this basically amounts to the free market determining, at least to a large extent, what that society produces.  This allows people to enjoy the comforts and joys of their labor, and for factories to produce what people really want, not what a government bureaucrat thinks people want.  It’s a form of freedom just as important as the vote.  6) Work ethic:  the society must encourage and also reward people for their hard work.  A solid work ethic must be placed into the hearts and minds of the people, with an unwavering belief that they can and will build a better world not only for themselves but for their posterity as well.

When I watched Brooker’s program on television, I saw that the “idiot box” fills people’s minds with vacuous empty content, devoid of science and an understanding of the universe, and props up false expectations of what life should be.  It puts us in competition with one another, but not the right type of competition.  True economic competition is about trying to create new products and technologies, your best ideas against other people’s.  Competition is like AMD vs Intel to make the best computer processing technology.  Television promotes a sort of inane consumerism totally geared to emotion and ego.  It focuses on making you the most beautiful, desired and revered person in the room, instead of being a truly valuable and knowledgeable human being.  It’s empty.  Today’s reality shows promote success and fortunes without doing anything for society.  You’re famous for being famous.  And when you look at the newspaper, who is being promoted and featured?  Lindsay Lohan, big brother police state, mindless comical videos of cats, and other inane things, never promoting work ethic, science, freedom, history, economics, or any of the things which make a society successful.

When we read the newspaper, why aren’t we focusing around architecture?  Why don’t we feature scientific discoveries?  Why don’t we feature medical breakthroughs? We don’t because we’re not civilized.

Have you guys ever thought about the future of mankind, or even advanced alien species?  We picture these great beings with huge heads filled with vast knowledge of the universe.  We even speculate about such great beings in sci-fis like Star Trek, searching for great civilizations.  Can you imagine finding such a species on a distant planet, with super technology, with the ability to manipulate their own genetics to make themselves into whatever they want to be, transporters to take them anywhere in the cosmos they wish to visit, the ability to turn raw energy to any form of matter they wish — and they’re sitting at their kitchen table reading celebrity gossip, psychological studies about why they feel empty and depressed, looking at ads for beauty cream for their face, all while entertaining shallow propaganda for why they should invade poorer, less technologically advanced nations, killing hundreds of thousands of their citizens.  That is not civilization.

Privacy Concerns

It’s recently been learned that the iPhone and the iPad are tracking our every moment and storing it all in an unencrypted file.  Apparently cell phone companies already track all of this data and keep it all on file.  That was news to me.  In the video below, you can watch two data experts analyze this file and what’s in it.  They wrote a little application which plots the locations on a map, and they follow their own movements over the course of a year.

I’m very concerned about privacy, and I don’t like this at all. There is all this digital information flying around these days, revealing every detail of our lives to corporations and the government and it’s scary. I get tired of people marginalizing this sort of thing, saying that if you’re concerned about all of this you’re entertaining “conspiracy theories”. There’s no “conspiracy” about this. Do you want your every move watched? Do you want corporations and the government to know every little thing you do? Do you like the idea that anyone who steals your phone can know everywhere you’ve been over the past year?

I’m in agreement with Senator Al Franken.

At a senate hearing today, Apple and Google defended themselves against allegations that the companies do an inadequate job of protecting user privacy on mobile devices.

“I still have serious doubts that these rights are being respected in law or in practice,” Franken concluded. “We need to think seriously about how to address these problems and we need to address them now. This is an urgent issue we need to be dealing with.”

Source: Huffington Post

No Solution To A Lack Of Knowledge

As I was responding to Kristina’s comment on my last post, I remembered a quotation of my own which I would like to ask you guys’ opinion about.  It goes like this,

“There is no solution to a lack of knowledge.”

I came up with this principle years ago, and I have yet to see it violated.

I’ll supply a handful of examples to illustrate, though it probably doesn’t need to be explained all that much.  If people aren’t aware of scientific advances and the importance of research currently underway, and they’re asked to make decisions regarding whether or not it should be funded, the ethical implications involved, and how we as a society should think about it, they’re going to make all the wrong decisions.  If people aren’t knowledgeable as to how the universe works, such as biology, physics, chemistry, etc., they’re going to have worldviews that don’t line up to the evidence and which inhibit future progress.  If people lack an understanding of the economy, the political issues we face, and the extent and scope of what’s facing us as a society, they will vote for the wrong politicians, and they will take stances terrible for everyone involved, themselves included.

If people have to make a decision, and if by the time they are to make that decision, somehow, by some method, the proper knowledge hasn’t made its way into their head, things will go badly.  I believe this to be a core law of the universe.  It’s like entropy.  The sheer probability is that things will end in a disordered chaotic state.  That’s the natural flow of things in this world, and absent knowledge to correctly navigate the world’s treacherous waters, we’ll sink.  The multitude of choices set before us at any given time is so vast, to correctly guess by chance alone which path will move us forward is about as likely as monkeys typing out a prize winning novel as they flail away randomly on the laptop keyboard left in their cage.

What we so often focus on is getting people to listen and hear each other out.  Is that a good thing?  Of course it is, but that’s far from all there is.  Yeah, it’s good that people listen to one another, and work together.  But, and this is a BIIIIGGGGG but, you can cram a room of idiots together and they can come to a consensus, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good consensus.  There’s one core principle behind all of this: actions have consequences.  This universe of ours is lawful and orderly, even though it’s extremely difficult to figure out.

Philosophers and great minds have always sought to give us some method, some simple universal principle which we can use to guide us in every decision we make.  It doesn’t exist.  A lot of people think, “Love one another as you love yourselves” will fix things, but without knowledge it’s not enough.  In most cases, good intentions won’t take you very far at all.  The common man thinks, “If we could just get a good honest man in office, he’d fix it.  He’d end the corruption.”  The problem is, if you’re not extremely knowledgeable and intelligent, you won’t even be able to identify corruption when you see it.  Bertrand Russell has a great quote, and it’s so good that I’ll add a picture with it as well!

Fools are so certain of themselves.  They think they understand everything.  The wisdom of the wise leaves them timid and unsure of all life’s complexities, and unless they’ve spent many years in focused study on that particular area or issue, they’re not inclinded to have a strong opinion.  But fools, they know it all.  The first step is to get them to understand that they don’t understand.  That is by far the hardest step of them all.  The same foolishness which makes them feel certain of everything keeps their mind closed.  This step is made even more difficult by the fact that they don’t even know the state of stupidity they’re in.

This brings us to the next step along the road to wisdom: knowing what you don’t know.   You’d think that people would know what they don’t know.  After all, almost everyone will tell you, “I don’t know everything.”  But that’s not what this step is.  Knowing what you don’t know is more than saying that phrase; it’s actually obtaining knowledge of what you don’t know.  You have to painstakingly learn it, and it takes a long time.  On the road to become an intelligent individual, you’ll spend your days studying various introductory books on a wide array of topics.  The main point of this is to make you aware of a humongous framework of knowledge which you currently lack, and if this step is truly successful, it should leave you feeling very small, humble, and far more cautious in your opinions.  There’s a world of difference between this semi-educated person saying, “I don’t know everything”, and the complete fool saying, “I don’t know everything.”

These two steps can’t be skipped.  There is no other solution to them.  If our education establishments fail to accomplish this goal, they fail and our society suffers.

Now of course, nobody can be an expert in everything.  So what do we do?  This is where you do the next best thing:  you hold people to a method of thinking and quality of argument established by the scientific method, rooted in strong empirical evidence, historical observation, and peer review.   We judge an “expert” by the quality of the arguments presented.  But, even then, people can write up reports which sound scientific, they quote numbers, present all kinds of cause and effect relationships, have charts and other data to support each claim, and so on and so forth.  What do we do now?  There’s nothing we can do.  Obviously the next step is for us as a society to let the expert make decisions in his or her special area.  But which expert do we follow?  How do we know an “expert” really knows what they’re talking about?  We can’t.  The only way you can know for sure is if you yourself are an expert too, but considering all there is for us to know in this world, that can’t happen.  In the end, we just have to trust one of our experts.  Why?  Because there is no solution to a lack of knowledge.  If you have to make a decision in some area, even if that decision is to let someone else make a decision, that person must have knowledge as to the consequences of their actions, and if that knowledge is not present in their head at the time they make that decision, or if they choose to do actions which benefit themselves and their buddies instead of you, that’s just how it is.  We’re left with another bad decision.   But even if this is as far as we’ve gotten, a group of critical thinking people is infinitely better than fools who feel they know it all and base their decisions on god knows what.   Hopefully the knowledge we’ve picked up from the introductory level education courses will help us decide between the experts and filter out those who are obviously wrong.  And, most of all, at least everyone’s minds will be open enough to have a quality discussion, and we can all make our case.  Keep in mind though, all of this only brings us to the starting line.  It doesn’t solve the problems at hand.

Why Do Humans Reason?

A recent paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences has been getting a lot of attention.  It covers a very interesting topic:  Why are humans so bad at reasoning in some contexts, yet so amazingly good in others?  It’s argued that human reasoning was not designed to help us discover the truth; it was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.  Our reasoning faculties so often lead to poor outcomes, not because we are bad at it, but because we have a strong tendency to seek justification for our beliefs and actions instead of the truth.

Here is the abstract.

Abstract: Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

Though we all dream of a world in consensus, it would be detrimental to our species and future progress.


The Foundations Of Geometry

The past few days I’ve been either studying physics, or researching material on space and time, trying to think up an outline for my “Space-Time and the Mind” section for the site.  Some of you may recall that one project I wanted to work on over the summer involved building a model of a 3D environment based on changing 2D images from a camera.  When I finally get around to doing this, I plan to use OpenCV (Open Computer Vision) and the PCL (point cloud library).  The more I learn about the work they’re doing at Willow Garage, the more I’m impressed.  It turns out that they’re working directly on the exact same project I’ve been thinking of for years.  They have two short videos explaining it, so take a look for yourself.

In this next video, they show how they’re storing the environment in an Oct-tree, which is a high-speed 3D graphics rendering technique for storing the polygons of the environment. It’s pure awesomeness.

I’m still blown away that they’ve managed to determine the 3D structure of an environment from the 2D images. You can see the robot looking around, with two cameras arranged in stereo like our eyes, and it builds a “point cloud” of the environment. Apparently, from what I can tell, their intelligence algorithms are sophisticated enough to distinguish the separate objects one from the other, and even has a separate storage area for high resolution versions of individual models. For all you folks at Willow Garage, I applaud you. That’s some amazing technology.

By accomplishing this great feat, scientists such as those working at Willow Garage, have reverse engineered one of the core processes of human thinking. To quote David Hume,

“All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic; and in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain. That the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the two sides, is a proposition which expresses a relation between these figures. That three times five is equal to the half of thirty, expresses a relation between these numbers. Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe. Though there never were a circle or triangle in nature, the truths demonstrated by Euclid would for ever retain their certainty and evidence.”

– David Human, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Many years ago I remember reading that text, and I sat in my room wondering what “thought” was.  How was my brain coming to this conception of what we call “Geometry”.  Why did the axioms of Euclid seem so intuitively certain?  To quote Immanuel Kant,

Space is not an empirical concept which has been derived from outward experiences. For in order that certain sensations may relate to something outside me (that is, to something which occupies a different part of space from that in which I am); in like manner, in order that I may represent them not merely as outside of and next to each other, but also in separate places, the representation of space must already exist as a foundation. Consequently, the representation of space cannot be borrowed from the relations of external phenomena through experience; but, on the contrary, this external experience is itself only possible through the said antecedent representation.

– Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

And another quote,

Space then is a necessary representation a priori, which serves for the foundation of all external intuitions. We never can imagine or make a representation to ourselves of the non-existence of space, though we may easily enough think that no objects are found in it. It must, therefore, be considered as the condition of the possibility of appearances, and by no means as a determination dependent on them, and is a representation a priori, which necessarily supplies the basis for external appearances.

– Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

What is the a priori process by which we come to a sense of space?  It seems to me that our brain performs an information processing algorithm of a similar nature to the computer algorithms these robots are using.   This is truly amazing.  I had always thought such questions couldn’t be answered.  It was a complete mystery to me what the foundations of geometry were.  But now, for the first time in human history, we have algorithms which can take 2D images, just like our eyes do, and produce a representation of “space”.  Ladies and gentlemen, there you go.

But wait, our sense of space also comes from the feelings our body generates.  Our arms, legs, fingers, toes, and so on, all send signals up to our brain, giving feedback and a sense of existing in the world.  So what about proprioception?  Have we reverse engineered that too?  Yes, we have!  How about we show another amazing robot?  Meet Rollin’ Justin.

There’s one big difference between us and these robots — our human brains also generate consciousness while performing these operations.  They’re performing the same sorts of computations but they also, in a sense I don’t understand yet, give rise to a conscious experience.  The brain lets us experience the world outside of us, and each other.  We’re not the ones performing these feats because when I study neuroscience texts, and read case studies of patients with brain damage in the these “space” areas, they can longer properly conceive and navigate space.  Without this “a priori” module to perform the calculations and generate the conscious feeling of being in space, they no longer know what space is.  I believe Kant was right, at least about subjective space.  The brain is, in many senses, a computer, decoding away at the sense data coming into it.  Nobody teaches a young child to understand space — it just does.  As its brain develops, assuming normal healthy development, once those neurons form into the correct network, space comprehension is possible.

However, that is not the entire picture.  Einstein showed us that this a priori conception of space is inadequate and that it is only an approximation to what true space and time are.  His theory of general relativity tells us that space and time are both dependent on the distribution of mass, because this warps a rather strange concept physicists call “space-time”.  I’ll talk more about that at another time.  But what’s nice about the physicist’s conception of space and time is they detach it from its abstract metaphysical hinges.  Space and time are mystical to many philosophers, incapable of being defined.  But by showing the logic operations of a computer-brain, and reproducing these things in robots, and then showing the laws of physics governing all of this, everything ties together into a grand unity.  Not only does physics describe things in space and time, but space and time itself as well.  Now a new question remains.  Physics depends on these numbers to represent quantities.  What exactly are these numbers these equations are using?  *Scratches head.*  That… I still don’t fully understand.  Apparently they’re a type of information as well because computers have no trouble with them.  But defining them is very difficult, especially when you wonder about irrational numbers, like pi.  Hopefully I’ll learn more about that this summer as well.

I hope you all are looking forward to my detailed space-time and the mind posts.  I have a whole library of books I’m pillaging through.  For example, I’d like to talk about experiments vision scientists and psychologists have done trying to discern exactly how our brain is representing objects we see.  It’s really fascination.  Yes yes, my desk is strewn with books at the moment.  I’m wondering how to organize all this wonderful goodness.  What is this?  Riemann’s Foundations of Geometry, Mach’s The Principles of Dynamics, Einstein’s Geometry and Experience, Minkowski’s Space and Time, Poincare’s Space and Geometry, William James’ Principles of Psychology – The Perception Of Space… My my, good stuff awaits those who read my blog.   Philosophy of space, time, the mind, consciousness, numbers, the universe — it’s all on the way.