January 2, 2013
Here are some quick notes I wrote down today, trying to lay out exactly what I think of when I say the word ‘self’ as in ‘myself’.
Instead of viewing yourself as just your brain and your body, and that alone, look at it from a slightly different point of view. More so from the perspective of you living as you. Your brain is structured in such a way that it can adapt to whatever inputs it’s given. You can literally place electrodes on your tongue, wire them to a camera, and then “see” from your tongue. Your neocortex, which is where all thought and identity resides, will rewire itself. The same goes for blind people. Visual cortex will be used to heighten the sense of hearing. The brain adapts to its inputs. I could take your brain out of your skull, place it in a vat, and if I could keep it alive, I could immerse you in virtual reality and give you all kinds of bodies and you would adapt and associate it yourself with them even if you no longer had a “real” body. There’s even tricks to make people think a plastic arm is your own. Ok, enough on that point.
Your body is an object, like other objects around you, but you have more control over it and you’re always experiencing it. It’s a very persistent object. You don’t have complete control over it though. Sometimes your hair doesn’t fall the right way, you trip over your own foot, and you can’t stop yourself from things like aging. The body is a slightly uncontrollable object, but we feel like it does our bidding much more than other things around us.
Since we’re speaking of objects, extend your sense of self to your home and your friends as well. Your home is an object that you can experience but you don’t experience it all the time. You can’t leave your body (without doing drugs), but you can leave your house. Think of your friends and coworkers as objects you interact with as well, but you don’t have nearly as much control over them. You can talk with them and try to influence their actions, but they’re a lot more unpredictable, but there is some control there. You can call up your best friend and he or she will likely come over and listen to your problems. Your friend is this complicated object you can summon. Is he or she also conscious? Of course, but you have to believe that by faith. You never experience it directly. There is room to doubt. You can’t doubt that you’re subjectively experiencing them sitting across the table. You can doubt whether they’re conscious like you are. Maybe they’re a ‘zombie’, having no subjective qualia? If we think of the self subjectively as this incoming stream of objects we perceive, our friends and family and others are all aspects of ourselves.
I don’t see any evidence that there’s free will. In reality, quantum physics determines what the atoms in my brain are doing, and their small oscillations and changes are governed by chance. Lots of tiny coin flips. And I know about these laws because I’ve inferred they exist based on observed relationships between my perceptions.
“It is possible to ask whether there is still concealed behind the statistical universe of perception a ‘true’ universe in which the law of causality would be valid. But such speculation seems to us to be without value and meaningless, for physics must confine itself to the description of the relationship between perceptions.”— Werner Heisenberg
If you want a quick thought experiment to identify all these different aspects of yourself, and your attachment to them, imagine that you were cryonically frozen and later resuscitated hundreds of years in the future. What would you miss? A huge part of yourself would be ripped from you. The culture is different and you no longer fit in. Your loved ones and friends are gone. Your childhood home was long ago bulldozed to the ground. It’s all unfamiliar.
All of that is is ourselves. I’m not just my body and brain. I’m also my culture, my family, my friends, and all of that. All of it is in this giant evolving machine, going on its own. The machine is us and we are the machine. In that sense, our individual selves are an illusion. However, I can never escape myself. The only decent definition I’ve ever came up with is ‘the ability to experience qualia’, or ‘the ability to have subjective experiences’, or something to that effect.
As for the so-called ‘objective’ world which exists outside myself, I can’t define it. It’s a bit misleading when I began this talk by talking about my brain. I experience a representation of my brain with my brain, I guess you could say. To be a bit pedantic, subjectively there’s only the present, but during the present moment I’m looking at my brain and other sorts of memories are conscious to me at the same time. There’s an awareness of a personal history, an object in front of me, ‘my’ spatial location, and so on.
As for the world, I never experience it directly as it is. I can say, “Oh, it’s made of atoms which are jiggling around, and there’s photons moving about in electromagnetic waves.” But when you carefully ask what those things are, it gets confusing very quickly. In my own conception of objective reality, the world is something which is different from how I perceive it, and language cannot capture it. Only mathematics and computer algorithms can do it justice. To quote Heisenberg,
“It is not surprising that our language should be incapable of describing the processes occurring within the atoms, for, as has been remarked, it was invented to describe the experiences of daily life, and these consists only of processes involving exceedingly large numbers of atoms. Furthermore, it is very difficult to modify our language so that it will be able to describe these atomic processes, for words can only describe things of which we can form mental pictures, and this ability, too, is a result of daily experience. Fortunately, mathematics is not subject to this limitation, and it has been possible to invent a mathematical scheme—the quantum theory—which seems entirely adequate for the treatment of atomic processes; for visualization, however, we must content ourselves with two incomplete analogies—the wave picture and the corpuscular picture.”
— Werner Heisenberg, The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory
I don’t think I can know what reality is as it is. What the laws of physics give me are probabilities about how I will subjectively experience the next moment based on initial conditions. I can never escape myself. The equations give me a method to determine what to expect if I were to observe things in different circumstances. In any real circumstance that requires computation and a lot of effort.
December 31, 2012
At the outset I’d like to say that I’m not gay. None of my friends are gay, and I don’t have any gay family members. This issue has little to no impact on me personally, but there are many people out there who feel alienated and abandoned in a so called “free” society just because of ignorance, stupidity, and bigotry.
I’d like to tell all of you a story about the inventor of the modern computer. Meet Alan Turing.
The man was not only a genius but a hero as well. During World War II, he built an early computer which cracked Nazi codes and literally saved the free world. But there was one problem — he was gay in a world which would not accept that.
After admitting having had sexual relations with another man, he was convicted of “gross indecency” and given two options. He could go to prison or take female hormonal injections to cure his supposed inordinate libido. He went with the latter and began to develop breasts and other female attributes. Falling into a deep depression, he laced an apple with cyanide and committed suicide at the age of 41, next to one of the computers he helped create.
Turing was literally murdered by his own society simply for being who he was, after liberating people who were being murdered for who they were. Talk about irony.
So next time you’re on the computer playing video games, surfing the internet, or texting on your fancy iPhone, remember that the core principles governing how they work were created by a tortured gay man who had to commit suicide because the world would not accept him. Remember his tragic story and think of how much we lost. Had he lived a longer life, I’m sure he would have had many more things to add.
December 31, 2012
Do we have free will? Many would like to believe so, but considering our brains are made of atoms, the same stuff as everything else in the universe, and atoms follow the laws of physics, does that leave any room for free will? We could try to invoke the weirdness of quantum mechanics, but to a physicist who actually understands quantum laws, does the idea make any sense? No, not really.
In the video below, CERN physicist Dr. Russell Stannard asks if we are really free to choose.
When I first studied quantum mechanics, I had this very problem of free will running through my mind. I hoped to find an open door for freedom. I didn’t find it. All I found was chance. It’s like if I wrote a computer algorithm to simulate this reality, I would use a randomize function to determine what happens at very small scales. It’s a bit disheartening to discover that we’re not in the least bit control over our lives or what happens to us. Life’s a sort of strange movie.
I tell myself that I might be missing something, but all evidence suggests that free will is not there. And it’s not something you have to deduce from physics. If you actually carefully look into people’s brains when they’re making a decision (and you know what you’re looking for), you can tell them what they’re going to do long before they’re even conscious of having made the decision.
But if reality is just this physical process which is happening on its own, the next question is why we’re aware of it at all. For some strange reason, my brain activity “encodes” my personal subjective consciousness. So here I am, watching this universe unfold from the front row seat of my body. Am I the only one who’s conscious? Not likely. How about animals? Insects? When I squash a bug, did it feel pain and suffer? Or what if I’m doing some yard work in my garden and accidently cut a worm in half? Which half is suffering? There is no significant “brain” in that worm, they’re more a network of nerves.
I find it all rather intriguing and bizarre. Dr. Stannard made another video on consciousness, and he shares the perspective I think many of us physicists share.
Maybe the questions of consciousness and free will lie at the boundaries of the knowable, as Dr. Stannard suggests? I’ve been thinking about them for years, and I can’t make any progress either. All I end up doing is mental gymnastics which leave me in an uncomfortable, contorted state of mind. And then when I finally figure out my initial errors and bad assumptions, straightening myself back out, I”m right back where I started, having made little to no progress.
December 28, 2012
What is the cause of the wealth of nations? Adam Smith examined the question centuries ago, yet we’re still trying to figure out how we can lift people’s lives out of poverty and misery. Outside of the deep questions of existence, consciousness, and the nature of our universe, I can’t think of a more important topic to discuss. Everyone should, at least once in their life, deeply think about why poverty exists and consider the source of mankind’s wealth and prosperity. Dr. Robert Gorden, an economics professor from Northwestern University, just recently published a paper related to worldwide economic growth. In it, he takes a historical look all the way back to the year 1300 examining the causes of our wealth and prosperity and whether or not those trends are going to continue. I’d like to discuss some of the paper’s contents.
Looking at this question from a large scale is mesmerizing. Mankind has lived in abject poverty and misery throughout almost all of our species’ existence. Take the year 1700 as a baseline. If you look at how people lived in 1700, you’ll find them very poor, struggling to live day by day. They’re toiling out in the fields, they’re slaving away, and they die at a very young age. They have no political power of any sort. The kings and feudal lords dictate every aspect of their lives. Their teeth rot out, the slightest infection or sickness does them in, and their clothes are dirty and stinky. They go to bed in straw beds filled with vermin. They itch, they’re tired, and their lives are short. There’s constant wars, conflict, and superstition is everywhere. Everything from a shooting star to an eclipse is interpreted as a divine warning. People suffering from mental disorders like epilepsy are thought to be possessed by demons and are forced to endure all kinds of tortures. You go to town and the entire place is dingy and smelly. Farm animals and horses are walking the streets, pooping in the middle of the road. Their lives are pretty much miserable. If you read the history books all you hear about is the kings and the nobles. You don’t hear about the peasants and the everyday men and women who lived in the era.
If you go back 300 years before 1700, it’s basically the same. Go back another 300 years, still the same. Go back 300 years before that, it’s all basically the same. There were some really minor advances but nothing really noteworthy. For the most part, people were uneducated, superstitious, and lived hard lives filled with toil and misfortune. People changed religious ideas all the time, and all kinds of wars were fought over which was the “true” god or goddess. Popes, prophets, and mystics ran around babbling nonsense. The religious virgins took pride in their abstinence and went to great lengths to fill people’s mind with guilt just for having a natural sexual attraction to one another. Kings, nobles, and warlords played God with people’s lives, sending them off to fight wars to defend fictitious territorial lines. It’s just depressing.
I have a whole book here at the house filled with maps of the world in different eras. You flip through it and see all the different empires and their territories. I try to be an educated scholar, and I’ve read the story of the history of mankind many times from different historians, but it’s never been a subject which truly grabs me. When I try to honestly assess why I feel this way, I think I’m ashamed of my species.
But let’s jump back to the year 1700. This is roughly the period when human progress explodes. There were these Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, David Hume, Blaise Pascal, and others, who looked at the world objectively. They acknowledged how bad things were, and they basically said, “It’s up to us to change the human condition.” When everyone around them was superstitious about everything , these great men and women argued that we should be free to think as we please. They minimized the role of religion in our lives and told us to look for naturalistic causes to things. Instead of looking to divine authority to give us ethical rules and guide our society, they told us to think for ourselves and carefully consider the best ways to live based on reason and evidence. They’d stumbled upon a recipe for success.
Dr. Jeff Borland of the University of Melbourne is offering a good Coursera (take it! they’re free!) course called Generating The Wealth Of Nations, which I’d highly recommend to anyone interested. Here is the course description.
If you had been alive at the start of the eighteenth century, your material well-being would have been much the same whichever region of the world you lived in, and it would almost certainly have been a precarious existence. Go back 300 years before the eighteenth century, and not much was different. But come forward 300 years to the present, and we see a startling transformation.
Incomes in some parts of the world have increased more than ten-fold; and now it most certainly does matter where you live – with income differentials of 50 times between the world’s richest and poorest countries. What has changed in the past 300 years is the development and application of new technologies at a pace unprecedented in human history – the steam engine, electricity and the computer, to name just a few. With these developments, for those who have access to them, have come huge gains in living standards.
In this course we’ll explore the spectacular (but uneven) story of economic development – beginning with the Malthusian era, moving on to the take-off of growth in the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence in living standards that followed, and finishing in the present with the Global Financial Crisis. We’ll cover the main episodes and events in the development of the world economy in the past 300 years, and have something to say about most regions of the world. As well as dealing with ‘what happened’, the course will emphasise what is known about ‘why’ – and what lessons historical experience can provide for understanding how some countries today are so rich yet others remain so poor.
Progress was exponential. As Dr. Gorden points out in the paper, and Dr. Borland mentions in his course description, there were three great industrial revolutions. The first happened in the years between 1750 and 1830. Research in thermodynamics led to the creation of engines which led to the first steam trains and railroads. A network of rail began connecting the world and products could be shipped cheaply all over the world. Next was the discovery and mastery of electricity during the late 1800s. This led to running water, indoor toilets, telegraph communications, indoor lightning, and so on. It was huge. By 1920 you start seeing modern cities powered by electricity. Old horse wagons were also replaced by cars running on similar thermodynamic engines, but now powered by petroleum. The last great revolution began somewhere in the 1940~1960s which was the advent of computers, the internet, and mobile communications.
Those three great revolutions made a mockery out of all that came before. People used to pray and wail before deities in temples and nothing happened. They sacrificed their loved ones on the altar to no avail. Nobody came to save them from their sicknesses and diseases. They tried drinking one another’s blood, hoping it somehow contained the “life-force”, but they couldn’t stop the aging process. Now matter how many times they prostrated themselves in the dirt, the rains came when they wanted to, and they still had to labor in those dry fields with hand tools, barely able to eek out an existence. Then a few hundred years later an explosion happened. It’s amazing.
Increases in technology aren’t the only thing important to prosperity, but I’d say they’re the most important. You can have a really efficient and just government, but if you can’t produce anything in any sort of abundance, you’re not going to get anywhere.
Speaking of which, our social institutions are going to need some major overhauls in the future. Wealth inequality is a huge issue today. The Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman commented on recent developments in automation in a blog post.
Consider for a moment a sort of fantasy technology scenario, in which we could produce intelligent robots able to do everything a person can do. Clearly, such a technology would remove all limits on per capita GDP, as long as you don’t count robots among the capitas. All you need to do is keep raising the ratio of robots to humans, and you get whatever GDP you want.
Now, that’s not happening — and in fact, as I understand it, not that much progress has been made in producing machines that think the way we do. But it turns out that there are other ways of producing very smart machines. In particular, Big Data — the use of huge databases of things like spoken conversations — apparently makes it possible for machines to perform tasks that even a few years ago were really only possible for people. Speech recognition is still imperfect, but vastly better than it was and improving rapidly, not because we’ve managed to emulate human understanding but because we’ve found data-intensive ways of interpreting speech in a very non-human way.
And this means that in a sense we are moving toward something like my intelligent-robots world; many, many tasks are becoming machine-friendly. This in turn means that Gordon is probably wrong about diminishing returns to technology.
Ah, you ask, but what about the people? Very good question. Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but also reduce the demand for people — including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.
- Dr. Paul Krugman, Is Growth Over?
As Jaron Lanier points out in this video below, there was a strange drop in middle class wealth during the third industrial revolution (computers and the internet). Why is that? Wealth is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands. As more things are automated, human workers are less needed, and Big Data is giving elites an almost unfair competitive edge, creating impossible barriers to entry.
Take a company like Walmart. They have such a powerful information network, small companies could never organize themselves or get the sorts of deals they can. Local shops are all pushed out of business. Combine this with the fact that Walmart’s warehouses are nearly completely automated, and their stores use automated checkouts, they take much more out of the community than they put back in. In the short-run, the people think, “Woohoo, cheaper prices.” Then in the long term, job prospects in their community dwindle. Eventually Walmart will become a complete vacuum, providing no jobs but sucking lots of money out everywhere they’re located. The circular flow of money doesn’t happen and their stores are a negative impact on the local economy.
Machines are still a long way from thinking as clearly as we do, but progress in AI is on an exponential climb. You can’t write it off. I think we’re going to have to eventually reexamine our notions of private property and whether or not it’s ethically right for a handful of business owners of a company like Walmart, which will eventually be completely automated (they’re getting close now), to keep all of the profits which were once paying people’s wages. This is especially true considering that most of the AI and robotics research took place in public labs funded by universities and the government. We can’t let these rich Wall Street tycoons run everything and reap all the benefits just because they own the corporations, the information networks, and the automated factories producing everything. All the wealth will concentrate in a few people’s hands and the rest of us will be left without.
December 24, 2012
I thought I’d take a little time and tell everyone what I’m reading at the moment, and why I’m reading those books in particular. When I study things, I tend to be reading a lot of books at the same time, but different books have different priorities and get more or less of my time.
I bought a textbook written by Dr. Gazzaniga called Cognitive Neuroscience, which I’m about to start reading. Cognitive neuroscience is like the mid-way point between neuroscience and psychology, covering how the biology of the mind gives rise to cognition. It talks about neurons, how our brain forms perceptions and encodes information, object recognition, cognitive deficits which we incur if we have brain damage, attention, learning, memory, language, how the neocortex is specialized in different areas, and so forth. Later chapters involve emotion, how our brain evolved, and eventually the book ends on problems related to how brain activity gives rise to consciousness. So I’m looking forward to reading that. I also purchased another textbook of his called Psychological Science. I’ll probably read that next.
You’ll always find some sort of neuroscience, psychology, or cognition book on my desk. Over a decade ago I started a quest to understand thought and what it means to be a human. I approach the subject from just about every angle you can think of. Lately I’ve also been watching lecture series on artificial intelligence, mainly because I believe that if you deeply understand something, you can build it. If you want to claim you understand how the mind works, you should be able to build a machine which can think, reason, and emulate human behavior. Looking at the algorithms we’ve created and seeing how well they work, and comparing them to how our brains are structured (cognitive neuroscience), I’m always learning what I do and do not understand about myself.
I ended up buying a textbook on International Relations written by Joshua Goldstein. From what I’ve read, it’s the most popular university textbook used. It’s also praised in Amazon.com reviews, so I figured I’d start with it. I’ve never formally studied international relations, but I’ve sort of picked up bits and pieces of it from all the history and economics books I’ve read. So far, I’ve read the first chapter, but I just got it the other day. Since we’re on the topic of politics, I’m going to soon read a book written by the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz called The Price Of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. Here’s the Amazon.com review of the book.
“Stiglitz draws on his deep understanding of economics to show that growing inequality is not inevitable: moneyed interests compound their wealth by stifling true, dynamic capitalism. They have made America the most unequal advanced industrial country while crippling growth, trampling on the rule of law, and undermining democracy. The result: a divided society that cannot tackle its most pressing problems. With characteristic insight, Stiglitz examines our current state, then teases out its implications for democracy, for monetary and budgetary policy, and for globalization. He closes with a plan for a more just and prosperous future.”
It seems like everyday things are getting worse here in the U.S, super PACs being the latest in a long line of atrocities. The rich and powerful completely control our political process and what do we get? We end up with corporate welfare, bailouts, removal of the Glass-Steagall regulations, exploding healthcare costs, exploding education costs, and the list goes on. The rich and powerful who benefit from this corruption keep out necessary reforms. I’ve watched Dr. Stiglitz in many videos on Youtube, and after viewing a lot of his stuff, I wanted to get some of his books.
Each day when I’m out for a walk, I have a small mp3 player loaded with Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels Of Our Nature. I listen to about an hour a day as I walk. I used to find going for walks pretty boring. It’s a lot better if I have someone intelligent and interesting to talk to. But if I don’t, the next best think is to listen to a guy like Steven Pinker.
Another book I’ve had my eye on is MIT psychologist Dr. Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. It’s about how online sites like Facebook and Tumblr influence the human mind and change how we interact with one another. She argues that these phones, blogs, and other digital communication mediums change who we are and not necessarily in good ways. We demand more from our technology and less from each other. We’re having trouble relating to one another.
I didn’t start attending college until roughly ten years after I had graduated high school. When I sat through my first classes, I couldn’t understand the culture. Young people today just sit there texting on their phones, ignoring the real people around them. They text one another during class and ignore the lecturer. Once they’re out of class they’re calling each other and texting one another. They walk out into the street, staring at that little phone, ignoring the traffic. Students in the hallway all have their heads down staring at these little glowing devices. It’s bizarre to me. I’m not that old, but when I was in school, nobody had these phones. I don’t understand them.
Now we can get into some of the math and physics stuff I’m studying — I’m always studying this sort of stuff as well. My other quest is to understand the fundamental laws which govern this universe. What is space? What is matter? What is the world I exist within made of? How does it work?
My main focus over the past six months has been related to computational physics, but I’ve also been studying quantum physics in general. I studied all sorts of algorithms related to simulating quantum physics and electromagnetic phenomenon. I also took time to write a lot of simulators and rendered them on my screen. I’m currently writing 2D and 3D time-dependent simulations of quantum wave packets scattering from various potentials. I’m using what would be called a leap-frog algorithm and it’s really fast.
I’ve also been reading two books, one that I’ve just about finished with, another I’m going to be starting. The first is a book called An Introduction To Quantum Physics by A.P. French which is a textbook they use at MIT. It focuses more on explaining quantum physics, and not so much mathematically working out problems. All of the MIT Introductory Physics series is good. I particularly enjoyed French’s Vibrations and Waves. Highly recommended. Next on my list is Quantum Physics of Atoms, Molecules, Solids, Nuclei and Particles by Eisberg and Resnick. It’s also another textbook which was written to explain quantum physics, being less focused around the mathematics, and more on explaining things.
Last on my “high priority” studies has been practicing programming clusters of computers. Over the past month and a half or so I’ve been researching MPI (Message Passing Interface), which allows you to program huge clusters of networked computers and have them all work together on a single scientific problem. Just this last semester I wrote a thermodynamic simulator for class and it took FOREVER to run. I simulated the magnetic properties of a material at different temperatures, looking for the phase transition, and as my lattice size grew the amount of required computations rose exponentially. If you do serious computational work, you have to know how to utilize computational clusters. I’ve pretty much figured out MPI now, but I haven’t yet had the chance to use it on any big clusters. I did however set up my computer to dual boot Linux and I set up Open MPI in my Ubuntu installation. I then wrote some MPI programs and simulated 10 cores on my laptop to see if I understood what I was doing. It worked like a charm.
I eventually got MPI working on my Windows 7 installation, but I’m learning that if you want to do scientific computing, you want to go with Linux. You can get Open MPI working on Linux with just a simple single installation with no configuration of any kind. It was a real pain to get everything working on Windows.
I’d like to also fool around with Posix PThreads and OpenMP, but I haven’t had a chance yet. I’ve got a book explaining them, but I still need to read it all.