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Friday, July 21, 2017

Moral Theory II: Trust and Obey

Moral Theory:

Last time we looked at how the default starting point for moral principles is the conscience, and how, although there is overlap, each person’s conscience is unique. This time, we are going to look at another default starting point, deference to authority. Many times the first thing someone does when they see the failures of the individual conscience is to look for someone wise, with better moral intuition than their own, to instruct them in how to live. There is a responsibility that comes with freedom, responsibility of thought. One has to think for oneself and find the answers through reason. This can, understandably, be frightening, which can drive many to give up their freedom and follow someone else's dictates. This view of morality is called authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism can also be imposed upon people in childhood by an environment of strict rules. These rules might be imposed by parents, a church, or an extortionist corporation or government agency, or more subtly as pressure to conform to the norms of the community. In this way, instead of coming to authoritarianism from a place of intuitionism, a person starts directly at authoritarianism.

Giving yourself completely to an authority can paradoxically feel tremendously freeing. After all, you do not have to go through the trouble and uncertainty that comes from making your own decisions. Working for a cause bigger than yourself, especially if you make a leap of faith because you do not fully understand it, can give you a great drive and sense of purpose. Authoritarianism can be tempting to those who see it from without, and intoxicating to those participating from within.

But authoritarianism has a dark side, and it is deep and filthy. Despite the fact that authorities come in all flavors, the most ardent followers of any of them will believe that they have discovered the one moral truth, and that their rules of right and wrong are absolute, for them, for you, and for everyone over all time. We find among those enthralled with this mentality followers of the worst of causes, from Nazis to Stalinists to Crusaders and Jihadists. Having given their moral judgment wholly to their dear leaders, those people, who may have begun with healthy consciences, participated in the worst of evils. Left to themselves, good people will do good and bad people will do evil, but authorities can redirect the good intentions of good people into evil acitons.

Of course, authoritarians are only as good or bad as the leaders they follow. Authoritarianism fails to answer the bigger question of morality's objective source, merely deferring it to someone who is assumed to have greater mental ability and better tuned intuitions. When questioned why they hold their moral principles, an authoritarian might say, “I cannot explain it, but I know it is true.” To me, this is a sign of hollow beliefs, devoid of any rational foundation.

Sometimes, those who begin authoritarian come to see the problems with it, and convert to intuitionists, just like those who see intuitionism's problems may try to compensate by giving themselves to authority. However, as we will see soon, there are other options. In the next entry of the Moral Theory series, we will explore one particular case of authoritarianism that attempts to get around its problems, and after that, we will begin to look at basic principles and try to construct an objective moral theory from the ground up, which will rely neither on authority nor intuition.

Friday, July 14, 2017

When Will There be Another Einstein?

A hundred years ago, everything we thought we knew about space and time was turned upside down. Albert Einstein proposed the Special and General theories of Relativity, which described how space and time rotate when something moves close to the speed of light, and how spacetime gets bent and warped by gravity. He also contributed plenty to all kinds of sub-disciplines of physics. Einstein is the iconic genius, instantly recognizable in photographs by his wild cloud of wispy white hair. For someone who made such a visible mark on scientific history, it is natural for us to wonder when someone else like him will come around.

But we have to recognize that extreme intelligence does not automatically lead to paradigm-changing theories. Einstein was in the right place at the right time; all the pieces of the puzzle were in place, and the world of physics was ready to hear what he had to say. After his theories hit the journals, the specific problems he had been worked on were solved. Difficult as it is to turn the world upside down, it is much harder to turn the world upside down again. There simply was not enough information to solve the problems that were left, and the technology to run the necessary experiments was not ready.

So when we ask when the next Einstein will appear, we may just have to look a little harder to find them. Plenty of progress has been made in modern physics since Einstein’s time, some of which has had a comparable level of impact on the theoretical frontier as Einstein’s work. Here are some of the people I know of who might qualify as the next Einstein, some of whom are still alive today.

Leonard Susskind

While pondering the connection between the electromagnetic force and the nuclear forces, Susskind discovered the equations he was working with described the vibrations of strings. These strings, if real, are as small compared to a proton as protons are compared to human beings. He found that this “String Theory” not only explained the electromagnetic force and nuclear forces, but gravity as well. It is a true Theory of Everything. String Theory has never been tested, but it has become incredibly popular among theoretical physicists.
Susskind also had a series of arguments and public debates against Stephen Hawking about what happens when matter falls into a black hole—and he won. He has also made other contributions to theoretical physics.

John von Neumann (NOY-man)

A true polymath. Von Neumann’s name pops up all over the place in physics, mathematics, computer science, and statistics. Among science fiction fans, he is best known for the von Neumann probe, a theoretical model for a robot that can create copies of itself from raw resources. They are often depicted as scourges of the galaxy, but could also be used for peaceful and safe exploration. Von Neumann’s contributions to science have played a significant role in making it the monolith it is in the 21st century.

Stephen Hawking

A theoretical astrophysicist who made a name for himself by his groundbreaking work on black holes, and doing it with a terrible handicap: he cannot move! He has been wheelchair-ridden for most of his life by ALS. He cannot hold a pen or chalk, nor type on a keyboard. He interfaces with his computer by twitching his cheek, and by doing this he writes mathematically intensive papers, books for a general audience, and he participates in high-level intellectual conversations regarding the future of earth, humanity, and technology. Hawking is a living testament to the power of technology and perseverance in the face of extreme challenge.

And these are only a few. Einstein himself was not the only genius of his own time. There were a group of people who pioneered modern physics, and there has been a strong community ever since. Both in science and outside of academia as well, many men and women with Einstein-level intelligence live and have lived. The theoretical frontier keeps moving, poetry gets written, songs get composed, and new and better ways of doing everyday things get discovered. When will there be another Einstein? We have never been without Einsteins. The next great paradigm shift of physics will happen when enough data has been collected, all the puzzle pieces are in place, and the scientific community is ready.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Moral Theory I: Intuition and the Conscience

Moral Theory:

Up until now, I have written about looking at things from different perspectives and trying to figure out descriptions of what they are and what they do. We humans are curious, always trying to understand the world and predict future possibilities from our understanding. Yet there is another dimension I have barely touched on, the idea of should. We prefer some actions and outcomes to others. We believe there are a collection of ways of life that all people should follow, and we call the actions that are in accordance with these ways of life, as well as their consequences and things that encourage these actions, good. And the entire system, we call morality.

As the atom opens the world of physics to chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and beyond, so a study of morality opens wide the space for discussions about humanity, politics, religion, and philosophy. To really get to the meat of these topics, we first need a solid intellectual grounding in the many colors and facets of morality. That is why I am starting this series, which will take us through the landscape of ideas and establish my own views so that you may understand where I am coming from.

In my second year of college, my class had a discussion. I don’t remember what it was about, but I remember raising my hand and saying something that I believed was so obvious that it did not need to be said, “what is wrong is wrong.” Everyone turned to look at me with strange expressions, and the professor said, “that is a bold statement. Can you back it up?” I was taken aback. I had believed it was logically trivial, the law of identity, that a thing is itself. The possibility that anyone could disagree had not even entered my mind.

So what did I miss? Well, I had a subconscious assumption that right and wrong are basic elements of reality, that actions are simply right or wrong, and that is the end of the story. I did not realize that there was more, that nuance, context, and circumstance change the game.

This was an example of the most common and naive theory of morality, Intuitionism. It is naive because it is what people follow before the philosophical question of morality enters their awareness. Intuitionism is the idea that morality is common sense. Everybody knows it, and simply has to pay attention to their conscience to live a good life and get along with others.

At first glance, there seem to be moral truths that are commonly accepted and understood the world over, like murder. But if you look closer, you will find that we have different ideas on what murder is. Does it count if it is self-defense, military action, abortion, honor killing, suicide, or capital punishment? It seems we don’t agree on the morality of killing after all, but only the semantic statement that the word for “killing that is wrong” should be “murder.”

Ask a random person if some action is right or wrong. For example, drinking alcohol. Some people will say it is good, and some people will say it is bad. But if you ask them why, you may find something intriguing: that they will either fumble around for an explanation they have never bothered to search for before, look at you as if you are stupid for not knowing, or even suspect that you are trying to corrupt vulnerable minds just by asking the question. Few will have made the effort to come to their view by starting from deeper principles.

The fact is, if we look at the way people act and the things they believe, we will see that everyone has different intuitions regarding morality. Should government support go to those who have gambled their lives away? Do men and women have specific roles to play in the household, or should people be free from gender-based constraints? Different people’s consciences tell them different things. Intuitionism as a moral theory leads directly to Relativism, the idea that morality has no objective basis, but depends only on the feelings of the person making a decision.

In light of this, we might be tempted to look down on Intuitionism. But in the heat of the moment when we don’t have time to weigh all the consequences in accordance with rational principles, we are all Intuitionists. If we want to be principled, then we must examine morality from a philosophical perspective in the times when our heads are clear, in order to train our intuition for the moments of decision. To find such a moral theory, we need to ground it in something outside of ourselves, which does not change and is universal to all of humanity. This is what the rest of this series is going to be about.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Reality and Its Images

The Nature of Reality:
Realism and Idealism

A few hundred years ago, a philosopher named René Descartes had a revelation. He realized that he believed many things about the way the world was, but had never thought about why. When he examined his knowledge, he found a complex web of hierarchies and feedback loops, with no clear foundation. So he decided to doubt as many things as possible, to search for the immutable foundation on which true knowledge could be built. What he discovered was revolutionary: his beliefs, his perceptions, and even his very senses might be manipulated, and for all he knew, the very world he lived in could be an illusion.

We live in a world of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, up and down, hot and cold. These, and more, are our senses, and they work together to paint a picture of a world we accept as real. We see our hand in front of our eyes. We can reach forward and touch the desk, feeling its smooth yet grippy texture. We can walk out the door and see the sky, feel the breeze, smell the summer air. It feels so real. So present. So true.

As I walked along the sidewalk on my way home from the university one day, I was struck by the sight of a tree. It was not unusual, just one of the average variety you can find all over the Midwestern United States. It had a long, thick trunk, branches that spread out like a shelter from the sky, and a shaggy head of leaves. I reached out and touched it, feeling the roughness of the bark, and was hit full force by the fact that this tree as I saw and felt it was a creation in my mind, an image built from nerve signals feeding into my brain. Yet the tree itself has its own existence, independent from and different from the way I perceive it to be.

We unconsciously assume that the world as we see it is reality, but in fact it is not. What we perceive is our mind's picture of reality, constructed from the data our senses bring to it. To illustrate, let's talk about what it means to see something. First, light falls on the object, bouncing off it. Some of that light goes into our eyes, where it is focused onto the retinas in the backs of our eyeballs. The rod and cone cells in our retinas translate the light into electrical signals, which travel up our optic nerves into our brain. Finally, the visual cortex in our brain processes the electrical signals into the colors and shapes that we experience. From object to light to electrical signal to picture, the object and the image that we mistake for the object are four steps removed.

In order for us to perceive something, there must be a representation of it constructed in our mind. This representation is not the thing itself; it is always at least one step removed. The stunning consequence of this is that reality-in-itself cannot be known. It is logically impossible. The only exception to this is experience itself. When we see a flash of light, we can know with absolute certainty that we are seeing a flash of light, but whether it came from a real lightning bolt or the illusion of a lightning bolt is open to question. This is the metaphysical theory of representationalism.

So what is real? If we cannot experience reality-in-itself, if everything including the ideas constructed in your brain about what is written on this page are mere representations, is it possible to know anything? Can truth exist? I would say yes. Even though we can never know anything directly, that does not mean we cannot know it at all. The truth of our picture of reality is proportional to how well we can draw lines between the pieces of our picture and reality. Of course, because we cannot perceive reality directly, neither can we be absolutely sure the connecting lines between our picture and reality actually work. But it does not matter if we know it works, only if it does work. This leaves us with uncertainty, but it can be made small enough that we can justify being pragmatic about it and assuming we know what is true.

Representationalism implies something that we may never have thought of before: any organization of information, be it neural impulses, computer bits, written symbols, frozen magnetic fields, or anything else, as long as it has a systematic correlation with reality, is equally true. This idea of different but equally true ways to represent reality can show us new ways to connect with others. I never feel like I truly understand any idea or concept until I can see it as a picture in my mind's eye. One of the physics professors at my university sees the world entirely in equations. Some of the students I teach think in terms of words. Finding ways to translate between these views lends to richer, more comfortable communication with people, and I even find it to be fun.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Limit of Philosophy

Philosophy is one of the greatest strengths of humankind. It has given rise to science, ethics, political systems, and cultures. All it really is, is thinking about things and trying to figure them out. For example, if you ask, “what is a house?” you may think of a picture of a building with a door and a window, a roof, and interior walls that separate a living room from a kitchen from a bedroom from a bathroom, and consider the question answered. But philosophy recognizes that this is only part of the answer. Such an organization of matter alone does not make something a house. First, someone must imbue it with a purpose, specifically as a place to spend time in, to form a familiarity with, to store other bits of matter that we call our property in, and more.

But we can’t stop there. Philosophy digs deeper. What is familiarity? What is property? We can try to answer these, but for any answer you can ask a “but what if” question, casting the answer into doubt. Here you might start to get concerned about a problem. Since the answer must be given as another statement, you can ask another “but what if” question about the answer. And another one about the next answer, and so on. It is like when a toddler asks “why” over and over and over again.

Let's take a common sense statement: “reality exists independently of our perceptions.” We can ask, “but what if it’s reality just a projection of our minds?” In response, we can say “okay, we can't know it absolutely, but we can determine from the patterns in which our experiences fit together that the likelihood of an external reality not existing is infinitesimally small.” But we can ask, “but what if this perception of order is an illusion? Our minds might be fooled into thinking random, unrelated sensations are connected.” We can reply, “We can submit our senses and memory to the laws of logic to see that it is so.” And still we can ask, “but what the very laws of logic are one of the things our minds confuse us about, and logic does not actually exist?”

Even “I think, therefore I am” is open to “but what if your mind is only fooling you into believing existence is necessary for experience?” As far as I can tell, the only statement that begs no “but what if” question is “I experience,” because experience itself is the only thing we experience directly. Of course, “but what if you’re wrong” is a catch-all, but it is not useful because it does not present an alternative possibility.

If you are like me, these questions, like the “why” game, sound silly and annoying. Sure I can’t prove it, but like, I know I exist. And we have to assume the universe exists, and a lot of other things, if our lives are going to function. Accepting assumptions for their usefulness like this is called pragmatism. We should always be questioning things and exploring possibilities, but in order to function, we have to do things. The Ancient Greek father of western philosophy Socrates once said, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” We would be wise to adopt a similar view ourselves, understanding that everything we know is pragmatic, based on assumptions. We should keep in mind that everything, even the most common sense of facts, even the very methods we use to determine what is true, might actually be wrong. I do not mean that we should throw our hands up and abandon everything, only that we should listen to people with alternative views, and be open to well-reasoned arguments.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Delight of Waiting

It’s that time of the year again. The world's big video game companies have just gotten together at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, E3, to announce new games and release dates. It is a time of excitement, and the internet is full of hype, talking about all the trailers and teasers. But there is a bittersweet side to all this: we will have to wait for months before we can get our hands on those shiny games. In this era of instant gratification, when we have an unfathomable reservoir of entertainment to amuse ourselves with, it can be frustrating to have something withheld from us.

Sometimes what we want is not available. Perhaps we cannot afford it, like a house big enough for a family, or it has not been released yet, like the next generation of video games we just got an avalanche of trailers for, or you have not been able to find it, like the intimate connection of a romantic relationship. It may seem like the things we desire most are always those which are out of reach. This is not just confirmation bias; the grass on the other side of the river always looks greener. When something catches our eye and it is available right now, we can just order it up with a few clicks, and within a couple of days it is ours. We enjoy it for a little while, and then lose interest, finding ourselves back where we were before, wanting something new again.

Does this mean that we are stuck with an absurd hand of cards, plagued with desires that burn white hot within us but can never be sated? Before we despair, let's try looking at things from another perspective. What if it is not things that we truly crave, but the well-earned payoff of a struggle? We find that the more we have wait, look forward to, or work hard for something, the sweeter it is when it finally comes to us. Waiting a year or two after seeing the trailer for a movie or video game lets it stew and simmer, the aroma readying our appetite for the moment it is ready.

So when the antsy feeling of anticipation comes, we should not look for ways to distract ourselves from it, but embrace it as an essential part of the greater experience of our desire. The longing, looking forward, imagining what it will be like, is the heat of the cooking fire that makes it fulfilling. Once we adopt this view, we may even find that things which are available now might be better if we wait for another time. The new episode of your favorite show can wait until some evening when you are tired and in the mood to sit back and enjoy something. As for now, I am going to patiently wait for the games we saw at E3, soak in the anticipation so that I am ready to fully enjoy each game when it is released, and in the meantime be happy and work on projects that will pay off in the future.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Power of the Algorithm

Toolbelt of Understanding:

We all know what it is like to find better ways to get things done, or to be shown a better way by someone else. Usually, this is due to trial and error. We drive the same route to the grocery store every time until we are hit with a flash of inspiration, and try a different one. If it works better, we make it the new norm. If it does not work as well, we go back to the old way. This is knowledge; we are blind, flailing about in the darkness, and when something works, we repeat it. But there is a Pool of Bethesda, an elixir that gives us sight, that elevates us from mere knowledge to the heights of mind beyond knowledge, which is understanding. This elixir is the algorithm.

An algorithm is a set of exact instructions. We don't normally use algorithms when talking to each other. If you are thirsty, you might say, "would you please bring me a glass of water?" and this is enough for the other person to know what you mean. To instruct someone to bring you a glass of water with an algorithm, you would say:

Stand up, turn toward the water pitcher, take steps until you are within an arm's reach of the pitcher, grab a glass, grab the pitcher, pour water from the pitcher into the glass until the glass is 85% full, put the pitcher down, turn toward me, take steps until you are within arm's reach of me, extend the arm holding the glass toward me, let go when I have the glass securely in my hand.

This algorithm looks obnoxious. It is not clear from this example why algorithms are useful. So let's look at another one:

If the ground beneath you is slanted, accelerate in the direction of steepest descent.

This is a simple algorithm that tells a ball what to do when it is on the ground, with nothing but gravity pushing or pulling on it.

It is said that math is the language of the Universe. Mathematical equations can be solved with algorithms, even the ones whose solutions cannot be written. Algorithms are the link between the abstract, logical world of mathematics and the concrete, physical world of reality. They are the only things that computers understand, instructions for storing and loading data, and performing tasks based on the data. Even the software that recognizes voices follows algorithms to figure out which algorithm you are trying to tell it to follow.

This is where the real potential of algorithms comes into view. Imagine you have a list of numbers and you want to know which is the biggest. Consider the following algorithm:

Start by writing the first number in the list as “biggest number so far.” Look at the next number in the list. If it is bigger than the biggest number so far, replace the current biggest number so far with the new number. Repeat this for every number in the list.

When this algorithm finishes, we can be completely certain that the number in “biggest number so far” is the largest number in the list. If there were a larger number in the list, it would have replaced the one in “biggest number so far.” This is a relatively simple example, but algorithms can be applied to much more complex questions. We could easily find the largest number on a small list just by looking at it, but this algorithm will just as easily find the largest number on a list with a million entries, even though it would take a human a long time, and he or she might make a mistake. Now we start to see the awesome power of algorithms. Whereas normal human trial and error always leaves uncertainty, where improvement could lie, a properly constructed algorithm can bring you answers with absolute certainty, or as much certainty that is logically possible with the data you have so far.

Going back to the grocery store example, human guessing always leaves the possibility for a faster route to be found. But there are only a finite number of routes, so one of them must be the fastest. If you use the right algorithm, you can find it with certainty, leaving no possibility for a faster way to be found. A crude version of this algorithm might go something like this:

Given the time it takes to drive down each street and your currently known fastest time, compare the times for every possible route. If the time passes the currently known fastest time, move on to the next route. If you reach the grocery store and your time is less than the currently known fastest time, save the route as the new fastest route, and save the time as the new currently known fastest time.

After all routes have been tested, you will know the fastest route, leaving no possibility for a faster one to be found.

image credit
But reality is more complicated than that. What about traffic, or weather? Well, we can add those as parameters into an updated version of the algorithm. A parameter is something that can change, and when it does, the result of the algorithm will be different. Every time we think of something new to worry about, we can add a parameter to the algorithm to take care of it. This algorithm is also extremely inefficient. For instance, it includes routes where you just drive in loops until the time runs out. But there are ways to make the algorithm more efficient. It could say to stop if it reaches an intersection it has already been to on this route. It can backtrack when it runs out of time instead of starting completely over. Slow segments can be remembered and excluded from future iterations. Modern GPS software has advanced, streamlined algorithms that update on the fly, which is how they can tell you the best way to get across the country, and still work even if you take a wrong turn.

But there is more. Not only can algorithms tell us the best ways to do things, but they can show us how nature works as well. Everything that exists has a way that it behaves, a nature. If it sometimes acts one way and sometimes acts another way, then there must be a reason why, a more basic nature that it follows all the time, which tells it when to behave this way and when that. Sometimes a ball rolls to the left and sometimes it rolls to the right, but this can be understood by knowing it is always pulled in the most downhill direction. Sometimes it does not roll at all, but bounces or floats. But this too can be understood by knowing that it is pulled on by gravity, among other properties and interactions. Every time we think of an exception to an object’s behavior, the exception can be understood by a deeper knowledge of its nature. The most basic levels of nature, where all behaviors can be understood, are called the laws of physics.

Since everything in reality has a nature, a way that it exists, algorithms are a perfect tool for science. Given a set of assumptions, algorithms can prove a result. There are even algorithms, such as Bayes' Theorem, which show us which assumptions are most likely to be valid given the data that we have collected!

You may think that there are surely some things that algorithms don't apply to. Take human behavior, for example. Humans are notoriously unpredictable. You would imagine there is no way you could ever find an algorithm that will predict what humans will do. But humans exist, so we must have some way that we exist, some nature. And having a nature means our behavior can be understood by an algorithm, if an extremely complicated one. If you are still skeptical, then let me not only give you a logical argument, but proof—we have already found it: our DNA. DNA tells life what it will do, including millions of parameters. DNA tells our cells how to make a brain, which can adapt to all kinds of circumstances. Everything you could ever possibly do is allowed by your DNA.

Algorithms, sets of detailed and precise instructions, can bring us to another level of understanding. When properly constructed, they can show us the best ways to do things and what is most likely to be true with mathematical certainty. They are the Universe’s gift bestowed upon us mortals, so that we may understand the reality we find ourselves in. Though we may still need to use trial and error to find the correct algorithms to use, once we have them they validate themselves. As I sit here at my computer, I marvel at the circuits and switches that make it possible for the taps of my fingers to produce letters on the screen—proof of algorithms’ power. As a scientist and a scholar, I owe most of what I know to these abstract formulaic methods. What wonderful things.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Try Different Self-Motivation Strategies

There is little that is more satisfying in life than sitting back and taking a long look at the fruits of your hard work. Knowing that the discomfort and sometimes pain you put yourself through payed off, and was all worth it. Having a job sometimes does this for you, and sometimes does not, depending on whether or not your work is meaningful to you, among other things. In my experience, the best way to find meaningful work is to start your own project, such as a hobby. This is more meaningful because the motivation to do it is internal, rather than imposed upon you by someone else.

If you're like me, you sometimes find your self-motivation running low. and you've searched for advice. The advice you find on the internet almost always will say something like, “write every day and keep to a strict schedule.” Everywhere you look, it is the same advice. While this may be good for some people, whenever I try to get into a routine, I inevitably fail. I can usually get through a few days fine, but after that it gets harder and harder, and eventually I succumb to the fatigue.

I have found through experience that the creative part of my brain is subject to forces outside of my knowledge. Some days I am on top of the world, running at full throttle. On one of these days I might write an entire blog post draft, brainstorm three others, and make progress in one of my stories. On other days, I can't form a coherent sentence. If I try to force myself to write on these days, my work ends up looking like Lightning mcQueen's first attempt at building a road in Pixar’s first Cars movie.

My writing on a bad day.
A daily schedule does not work for me. What I need is to recognize when I am in the writing spirit and take advantage of it, so that when the low periods kick in I am covered. That is why right now I am writing this even though it is an hour later than I usually go to bed.

I would guess that the reason the advice you find tells you to have a schedule is because the people giving the advice looked at the lives of successful people and found that they keep to schedules. But I suspect many of them did not start out that way, but formed habits and fell into a routine. The advice-givers only look at people after they are successful, and not while they are starting out just like everyone else.

In my own writing quest, I have come up with several strategies of my own to push my boundaries and get the most out of my abilities.

  • I always publish SciFic on Fridays, but allow myself to miss one or two weeks here and there without feeling guilty. Sticking to a specific day of the week keeps me from the danger of putting it off till “some other day,” while letting myself off gets rid of the paralyzing effect that the pressure of deadlines has on me and keeps the quality of my work up to my current standards.
  • I keep a journal of daily micro-achievements, where I write everything I did that day that will have a lasting impact. Things like making progress on a story or blog post or my research go on this list, while household chores do not. If I don't do anything on a given day, I write “Rested” rather than leaving it blank. This journal has shown me that I do a lot more work with lasting value than I feel like I do.
  • I think in terms of cans instead of shoulds. I tell myself that I can write, rather than that I should write. I tell myself that I have the opportunity to work to make a positive impact, rather than the obligation to do so. This mindset cultivates feelings of optimism and energy rather than the paralysis of guilt.
  • Keep the goal in mind. Rather than sticking to the rules and myopically scrambling to keep SciFic updated on time, I remember that all my writing is for a purpose. I want to publish science fiction novels, and touch people with my characters and worlds and themes. It is that purpose that matters, so it is all right for me to relax a little along the way rather than trying to sprint the whole marathon.

Feel free to try these out, and don't worry if they don't work for you. You may need to find your own strategies, as I did. Searching for the right strategy doesn't just apply to writing, but everything that involves self-motivation. Try out expert advice that you find, but don't count yourself beat if it doesn't work for you. Try something else. Learn how your body and mind work, and figure out a strategy to get the most out of your strengths that you can.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Where Will The Legend of Zelda Go Next?

With the release of the Nintendo Switch this March came the company's new masterwork, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This game achieved its goal of reinventing the franchise, with its giant world, open exploration, and the ability to do anything and go anywhere in whatever order you want. Link can climb up almost any vertical surface, can glide through the air using a piece of cloth and some sticks, and gets all of his tools in the opening area of the game. And of course, we cannot forget the most shocking feature Breath of the Wild brought to the series: a jump button.

The Legend of Zelda follows a simple yet powerful formula. Link, the hero, has to fight Ganon, the evil demon, with the support of Zelda, the princess. The three of them are represented by a set of three golden triangles, the Triforce, bound together in an eternally recurring struggle. Link must search the land of Hyrule for dungeons, where he can find tools which help him reach new places, and artifacts that will open new ways forward.

25 years ago, after a few early Zelda games, the series was defined by A Link to the Past. It was the first to bring out the full potential of all the elements of the formula, which all Zelda games since have followed. A Link to the Past struck the video game scene at the perfect time, when the industry was just seeing its first signs of maturity and developers had started to learn what types of features make games good and what just make them frustrating. The first really good Zelda game, A Link to the Past became the gold standard by which all future games were measured.

Since then, the games have gotten more and more linear. No longer could you choose which order to brave the dungeons, and Link had a companion character constantly nagging him to stop exploring and move on to the next story-related target. While helpful for those who wanted to casually experience the story, it took away some of the joy of exploring a strange new world by following whatever took your fancy.

Then came Breath of the Wild, redefining the formula while at the same time going back to the series' roots. Once again, the world was open for you to explore to your heart's content. If you wanted, you could pick a direction and just run for hours on end. But you would not want to, because something would catch your eye, and you would investigate and find a camp of goblins or a stone puzzle or a beautiful forest glade. If you saw a mountain peak in the distance, you could run there and climb to the top, and then hop off and glide half a mile high above the world.

It seems like this is the culmination of all Zelda games. Where else is there to go, besides making a Breath of the Wild 2, with an even bigger and more diverse world? Well, I don't think that is going to happen, because it is not Nintendo's style. Nintendo is all about innovation, taking the best parts of what it has done before and making something new. Instead, I can see them taking the new ideas they brought to the table and expanding on them. Breakable weapons, choosing whether to upgrade your health or your stamina, and being able to climb most walls are all features that worked really well, and I think we can expect to see them return in future games.

Also, it is worth noting that there are some aspects of Breath of the Wild that leave me disappointed. Sure it's nice to be able to go anywhere, even across mountain ranges, but at the same time the tops of those mountains are often barren, as if they are unfinished. Being able to come to towns and other interesting places from any direction instead of just following the road is a neat idea, but it makes it feel like I'm running around a map instead of a world. In addition, I'm a completionist. When I play a video game, I have to find everything the game has to offer. For Breath of the Wild, which was not designed to be completed but to always offer something new to find no matter how much you have explored before, this took a long time and a whole lot of patience.

Looks like the graphics team messed around in a 3D modeling program
and forgot to do anything else.
Though it may be tempting to see Breath of the Wild as the ultimate pinnacle of the series, I see it as bringing plenty to the table that can be expanded and improved upon. As video games reach a new stage of maturity, I think Breath of the Wild will be the new gold standard for Zelda games, as A Link to the Past was before. It will be the nostalgia game that everyone looks back to and says, “remember how awesome it was? That's what The Legend of Zelda is supposed to be.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Do We Have Free Will?

What career do you choose? How many children do you decide to have? Will you mow the lawn now or some other day? Every waking moment of every day we make hundreds of decisions about what to do and what not to do. But are they really our decisions, or are they made for us by our environment, our society, and our genes? Do we get to choose our futures, or is everything already set? This is the question of free will, and for most people the way we think about the answer has a huge impact on our senses of self-worth, autonomy, security, and many other things. For some, believing that things are decided, that all will turn out well in the end, is a huge comfort. For others, including myself, believing that our choices can have life-altering consequences motivates us to work hard and push for the best possible future.

With one’s belief about choice and fate being a major source of motivation in their life, we might ask whether it is wise to search for the truth about this topic. After all, there can only be one true answer, and whatever it turns out to be, it looks like some number of people will be left feeling helpless, either at the overwhelming freedom and responsibility they have, or as a prisoner inside their mind, held by the strings of fate. The things I talk about in this discussion might be upsetting to some people, so I won’t hold it against you if you stop reading now. Still, to me, the search for truth is always more valueable than the answer, and I have found that the process of learning to accept and live with the truth no matter what it turns out to be, or even uncertainty if the truth is beyond our grasp, is worth it.

Traditionally, there are two philosophical options: free will, the idea that through our choices we can make the future or change it from what it would have been; and determinism, the idea that the entire future of the universe is already set down to the smallest particle. There is also a third option, called compatibilism, which suggests that even if determinism is true, we still have free will. Compatibilism may seem contradictory, but as we will see, the topic is a lot more complex than it looks at first glance.

It certainly feels like we have free will. Everyone has decisions that they have had to face over and over again, and sometimes they choose differently than before. For instance, we have each woken up thousands of times, and sometimes stayed in bed longer than others. But even though the circumstances might seem exactly the same, they are really different. For starters, every air molecule in your room is in a different place morning to morning, mixed with air from outside and around the world. More importantly, your brain has changed. If you truly were in the exact same situation twice, an exact copy of the scene down to the last molecule, the last neuron firing in your brain, then suddenly it seems much less likely that you really could make a different choice after all.

According to classical physics, the study of the motion of everything larger than small molecules, everything goes according to cause and effect. Every object, every particle, every piece of anything, has a present state, which means it has properties like position, velocity, and energy. When it interacts with something, they will exchange properties in a predictable way, resulting in a new state. In other words, time goes by and things happen. In this view, if we know the state of everything right now, we can calculate what the state of everything will be one second from now, one minute from now, and on and on until the end of time. We can also work backwards and figure out what happened in the past one second ago, one minute ago, and on and on until the beginning of time.

In a classical universe, then, everything is determined. But you may have noticed that I said classical physics only applies to things larger than small molecules. For smaller things, classical physics no longer works, and we have to turn to quantum physics. Now there is a myth that quantum physics is the study of consciousness. That is false. Quantum physics is merely the study of the motion of everything smaller than large molecules. At this level, things happen that seem unrealistic, which our classically-adapted brains struggle to comprehend. One aspect of this is that two systems that are set up exactly the same—same particle, same energy, same position, etc.—can lead to different outcomes. But we can still calculate the probability of any specific outcome. To many experts, this suggests that quantum physics is probabilistic rather than deterministic, but there is still debate, and the question is far from settled.

There is also debate about whether the brain uses quantum physics in its processing, or if the mechanisms of the brain are completely classical. But even if our decisions are made partially by quantum processes, and even if quantum physics is fundamentally probabilistic rather than deterministic, that still does not allow for complete free agency. After all, we want to make our own decisions; determination by mechanism or determination by roll of the dice, it is still determinism. In fact, any way you look at decision making, there is going to be a set of causal chain mail you can follow backwards until the big bang. The only alternative left would be spontaneity, things happening literally for no reason, and even that does not sound like free will to me.

Right now, it doesn’t look good for free will. But maybe we are forgetting something. So far, I have presented a case that determinism is almost definitely true, but I have actually said very little about free will. Let’s go back and examine what we mean by “free will.” What do we really want when we ask the question? Free will would allow us to make our own choices because of reasons, ideally good reasons. We also want to be able to choose our reasons. But the decisions to choose our reasons must be based on deeper reasons, which in turn must be based on deeper reasons. Here we run into a problem: if we want to choose our reasons for choosing, we find an infinite regress. It would seem that the very idea of free will is logically incoherent.

But perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps free will doesn’t have anything to do with how events happen in the universe. Let’s go back and examine why we are asking the question in the first place. Why do we want to know whether we have free will? For me, it is because I want to know that what I do affects the world. That if I push myself, I can accomplish more and affect more people, and can leave a mark on society. I don’t mean that I want to be able to push myself for no reason; the reason just doesn’t matter to me, except in so far as I can cultivate it to push myself more. My efforts playing a part in the causal chain would be enough for me.

Let me introduce the idea of effort. “Effort” is a common word, so all English speakers have an intuitive understanding of what it means. But when I talk about it I have a particular meaning in mind. As intelligent animals, we have behavioral systems put in place by our DNA, including instincts, gut reactions, and the ability to form habits. But we also have the ability to break from these things. When we do, we get an uncomfortable feeling that leaves us tired. This specific feeling is what I mean when I talk about effort.

For an example, let’s walk through the beginning of a hypothetical daily routine. You wake up, and get up either because you feel like it or because you know you have to in order to get to work on time. You brush your teeth, eat breakfast, drink coffee, and all the things you always do in the morning. Then you go out the door and start walking to work. Actually you probably drive, but I walk, so imagine you’re walking. Your legs are set on autopilot, taking you down the sidewalk. You wait for clear intersections and turn corners, your mind thinking about whatever your stream of consciousness takes it to, your body taking you where you need to go. In every part of this routine so far, it has been as if you were an observer, passively watching as the environment guided your body and mind through the motions of life. But then, ahead of you you see someone else coming toward you, right in your path. Your autopilot wants to keep going straight, but if you do, you will run into this person. Your mind goes into problem solving mode, projecting possible futures. What will happen if I step this way, or that? And then you break from your pre-established program and step to the side so that you will pass the other person without touching.

That step, that subtle adjustment of direction, is one of the most difficult things you have done all day. It was harder than stopping for cars, harder than taking 90 degree turns, even though it took less physical work. It may have even been harder than getting out of bed. It was harder because everything else was taken care of by your pre-programmed routine, and this time you had to think and act at a higher level. That feeling of “this is hard, and I’m bringing it upon myself,” is what effort feels like.

Effort is not only possible as a reaction to unexpected events, but you can inject it into your behavior at any time. You might choose one day to say no to coffee, or get up on a weekend even though you are still tired. While writing this, I got up and went to the refrigerator to pour myself a glass of water, my body and mind set on autopilot. When it was full, I took a step toward my computer before realizing I had left the pitcher on the counter instead of in the fridge. The natural course would have been to walk out to my desk and set the cup down before walking back, putting the pitcher in the fridge, and then pacing the width of the room a third time to get back to my laptop. Instead, I chose to expend effort, and retracted my step and put the pitcher in the fridge before taking my cup to my desk. By taking the “harder” option, I saved time.

When we talk about using effort with a goal in mind, it ties back to free will. When I wonder if I have free will, what I am really asking is if my efforts make a difference to the outcome of what I am trying to do. To me, the opposite of free will is not determinism, but fate. Are events set in stone, that no matter how hard we struggle, how much effort we give, whatever choices we make, there is nothing we can do or fail to do that will change where we end up in a year from now? I think not. Experiments and statistics show us that our actions really do have consequences, and that we have at least some control over those consequences by the things we do. Sure, perhaps the reason we are motivated to make effort because we have thought about the topic, and we thought about the topic because we read and heard people speak about it here and there throughout our lives, but to me that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the results are different from what they would have been if we hadn’t made effort. Whether the universe is deterministic or not, this gives me everything I want from free will. When I expend effort, it makes a difference, and that is compatabilism enough for me.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Nostalgia – Glimpses and Memories

When I was growing up, there was a tree outside the back door of my family’s house. Old Jack, we called it. The trunk split into three about a foot off the ground, each perfect for climbing, and my brothers and I and our friends spent a lot of time sitting among its leaves. One of the great branches was so thick that if two of us stood on opposite sides and reached around it, we could barely touch each other’s hands. Small two-by-four blocks nailed to this trunk made steps up to a place where the branches forked into a perfect seat.

As time passed, we saw sad signs. Old Jack was dying. One day, a bough broke in the wind and fell onto our car while we were inside it. It only made a dent, but we knew Old Jack had to go, and soon after, he was just a stump. Of course there were other trees to climb, but gone were the days when we could dash out the door and up Jack’s steps to sit around in that place where the branches spread out.

Nostalgia is the fond memory of times once enjoyed. The good old days. It can strike us at any time, any age, from many things. The steps of the house you grew up in, an old favorite movie, or that song you and your friends and family used to listen to all the time, but now you only hear a few times a year. For me, it is “The Answer Lies Within” by Dream Theater.

Even as a child I remember a feeling I had when I saw the grass swaying a certain way in the summer breeze. It was as if there was something wonderful, home-like, and perfect that I had forgotten, but could never experience again, and all I could glimpse of it was a shadow of a feeling.

There is a time when we are children, that I call the “golden zone,” when we are especially open to nostalgia-forming experiences. That is why your favorite books and movies are probably the ones you saw and read when you were young. This is why every popular movie from the last 50 years is getting remade, and why I walked out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens upset that the writers completely ignored what the prequels brought to the table, and why I have not gone more than a year without playing through Super Mario 64 or one of its many full game hacks since 1997.

Still gives me the chills just looking at it.

When thinking about nostalgia, it is easy to get caught up in the past, and feel as if life will never be the same. On the one hand, this is correct; you will never have that exact same tree in your backyard. On the other hand, though, you still have the trees that you have now. And your home, and your friends, and your family. For the past two years I have walked the two miles between my apartment and the university twice a day. Most of the time I don’t notice the trip, but I can imagine that some day I will look back and remember fondly passing the Lutheran church, the bridge over Capitol, the high school, the bank with its flowing modern art metal mesh sculpture, and the cupcake shop with the jokes on its blackboard floor sign.

Times go up and down, but we don’t need to be lost in the past. If we open our eyes and see the wonderful things around us, we will realize that the good old days are not something lost forever to the past; the good old days are now. And the more we live in the moment, the more vivid the memories we will make to look back upon in the future.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Consciousness: the Most Baffling Mystery of All

The Great Mysteries:
Fermi Paradox

Recommended Pre-Reading:
Cosmoid: A Definition
Cosmoids In Our Image
What is Science?
The Scientific Jigsaw Puzzle
Realism and Idealism

Science is the best tool we have for understanding reality. It has taught us about matter at the fundamental level, the relationship between space and time, how complex systems function, how humans and animals behave, and innumerable other things. But there is one thing that science has been uncomfortably quiet about, something that is closer to home and more obvious than anything else: consciousness.

Consciousness is the experience of subjectivity, the awareness we have about our senses. Consciousness is what it is like to be something. It is experience itself. It is what we have while we are awake or dreaming, and what we do not have when we are in a dreamless sleep or not alive. It is the difference between a purely mechanical universe and a universe full of color and music and meaning.

We say we know many things, but all ideas and experiences are brought to us in our consciousnesses. Everything else is, at some level, open to question. 400 years ago, the philosopher Rene Descartes famously said, "I think, therefore I am," meaning that the only thing one can be fundamentally certain of is one's own consciousness, and thereby one's existence. Similarly, less than 400 days ago, neuroscientist Sam Harris said, “Consciousness is the one thing we can absolutely know is not an illusion.”

A crucial factor in the nature of reality and how we know things, consciousness is what we in the philosophy fan club call "a big deal." Yet science is deafeningly silent when it comes to the subject. Some would say that it cannot be studied. But it exists, and we know it interacts with the rest of the universe by the fact that we can have conversations about it, so there must be some way that it interacts, which can be studied. After Isaac Newton discovered his three laws of motion, it was said that no law would be found for a blade of grass. Yet we now have the huge, booming science of biology. Now it is said there will never be such a law for consciousness and subjectivity. I believe it is the same now as it was for the blade of grass. We may not know how at the moment, but I believe it is a cosmoid barrier, not a physical barrier.

The problem with studying consciousness is that it is hard to find a place to start. We can hook people up to an MRI and correlate the sounds, tastes, and colors they describe with which neurons are firing, but without knowing more, that is about it. And right now we are woefully restricted to our fellow humans; we cannot ask and animal or a bug or a rock about its conscious experiences. It is almost as if we need to know the answer before we begin. Modern-day philosopher David Chalmers has called this the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

There are a few things we do know about consciousness. We can be reasonably justified in assuming that all living human beings have it, because we can talk about it with them, and it would be very strange if someone knew what consciousness was without having it themself. We can guess that animals also have consciousness, at least the ones whose brains are most like ours. We know consciousness can be divided, from experiments with patients of split brain surgery. But just about everything we know is by subjective observation and self-report.

Some people have suggested ideas to consider regarding consciousness. Some like to say the mind cannot comprehend itself. It is poetic and feels satisfyingly bittersweet, but it is also bogus. No one has ever offered any supporting evidence or argument, other than it feels like it might be true. Some say consciousness is epiphenomenal—that is, it exists, but it merely observes not interacting with the rest of existence. But this cannot be true. We can think about and talk about consciousness, which means our brains must have information about it, which means consciousness must affect our brains. Some people—scientists mostly, to my surprise—suggest that consciousness might not actually exist, and instead just be an illusion. To them, I say, “speak for yourself.”

A panel of science celebrities had an amusing discussion 4 years ago about how little we know about consciousness.

Still, just because we do not know how to begin studying consciousness yet does not mean we never will. There is one attempt at a description of the physical systems in which consciousness as we know it can exist, called Integrated Information Theory. It posits three main axioms, the information, the integration, and the exclusion axioms.

Information: Consciousness is defined by states that could be different. The experience of seeing a blank TV screen is recognized as a blank TV screen because it could have been a scene from anything—Indiana Jones, Star Trek, or a documentary on jellyfish—instead. Blind people do not see black; sight in itself is not a part of their conscious experience because there is no other possible state their visual experience could have.

Integration: Conscious experiences cannot be broken down into individual parts. A momentary experience is like a frame of a movie, impossible to cut into pieces. Each mechanism contributing to consciousness affects and is affected by every other one.

Exclusion: Conscious experiences are individual phenomena. They have what they have, and nothing more. Perhaps I don't fully understand this one, because it seems to me like the Reflexive Property, which is so trivial that it goes without saying for basically everything.

Integrated Information Theory attempts to describe consciousness as we experience it, and the systems in which it makes sense. The brain is a bunch of interconnected switches (neurons), which function as a whole, taking in a vast number of sensory inputs and capable of producing a vast number of responses. On the other hand, if a stone statue were to become conscious we could not recognize it, because stone is just a jumble of molecules. It would have no way of taking in information from the world, and no way to respond to that information. Integrated Information theory explains this, but does not solve the Hard Problem. It does not explain the nature of consciousness or how and in what capacity it exists, nor how we can know about it and talk about it.

The first question that comes to my mind with regards to consciousness is, is it a thing in itself, or is it a property? It may be interesting to explore what it might mean if it were a thing in itself, but it makes more sense for me to think of it as a property, and every idea I have ever heard treats it like a property. The question is, of what? There are two main paradigms that people have held in their cosmoids, though no attempt that I know of has been made to build scientific models of either. Be wary of googling these terms; you will get pseudoscience.

The Soul Hypothesis. This posits that consciousness is a property of a heretofore unknown substance that comes in indivisible packets called souls. Souls inhabit living bodies, and leave when they die.

Panpsychism. Perhaps consciousness is a universal feature of reality, present everywhere, brought into more organized states by complex structures such as the brain. Panpsychism suggests that consciousness, or perhaps an underlying potential for consciousness called protoconsciousness, is an inherent property of all things, known and unknown.

Or the answer might lie somewhere in between. Consciousness or protoconsciousness might be a property of some forms of matter but not others, like electric charge. With what little data we have now, any one of these is as good a guess as any other. This might even be the wrong avenue to explore, and the answer may be something else entirely.

Some say that, since we can mimic the functions of neurons using transistors, we can create consciousness using computer programs. This is an assumption that I find dubious. Mimicking the function of a machine does not mean you also mimic all of its physical properties. For instance, we can mimic the behavior of a computer using a wooden abacus, but we cannot get it to conduct electricity. Similarly, we may be able to mimic all the functions of a human brain using transistors and bit storage, but that is no guarantee that we get consciousness in a computer.

In contemplating consciousness, a few questions arise in my curious mind. These questions cannot be answered yet, as they depend on the nature of consciousness. But perhaps one day they may be tested.

I wonder if qualia are linked directly to the physical processes they are associated with, or if they are only definable in relation to their alternatives. We know that raw experiences are caused by physical events in the brain. Consider a process that causes the experience of pleasure. If the same physical process happened without a brain, would there be a fleeting sense of pleasure in the universe, instantly forgotten because there is no way to store the memory?

Are conscious experiences themselves pleasant and unpleasant, or is it the physiological reactions our DNA has coded within us that decide? Imagine a hypothetical human-like being exactly the same as us, except the physical triggers for the experience of pleasure and pain have been swapped. Suppose this person would react to pleasure the same way as we do, describing it as pleasant and being biologically driven to have it again, but his conscious experience is the same as what we call pain. Is he then really experiencing pain and unable to express it, or does the reaction of the body determine whether qualia are seen as good or bad, and he truly is experiencing pleasure?

These questions and a thousand more like them keep me thinking, wondering, and marveling at the mysteries of the cosmos. There are many possibilities, each as reasonable as any other. But what excites me even more is that for each question, only one answer is true, and it will not only be true after it is discovered, but even now as we ponder.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Reaching for the Far Future

As I turn 25 years old today, I am struck by how young I am. I know most people tend to think about how old they are when their birthdays come around, but my case might be a side-effect of thinking in astrophysical time scales. But I am also aware that someday I will wake up and no longer be young anymore. Still a babe in the grand stream, but frail and worn. When this happens, I assume I am going to be upset, not because of my body, but because it will remind me that I am going to die soon.

Right now, I don’t want to live for a mere 80-100 years. I want to see the future history of the world. Where will science take us? What wonderful new stories will be written? What new philosophical ideas will we come up with? Will we become wise explorers like in Star Trek, or destroy ourselves in World War III? I want to know.

There are many reasons people die—car accidents, disease—but no one can escape old age. And one day, that decrepit figure in the dark hood with the scythe will come knocking on your door. But is death really a fixed thing that we go invariably toward, or could there be a way to stave it off?

If other life forms are anything to go by, the answer is yes. There is a creature called the hydra, which, according to research, does not age. Biological immortality is possible, and it is observed. And if it is possible for something, then we have every reason to consider the possibility that we can engineer it for ourselves.

The immortal hydra

Though we often talk about dying of old age, age itself is not a direct cause of death. It merely increases the risks of deadly conditions, like heart disease, cancer, and strokes. It also brings with it a collection of aches and pains that make life ever less pleasant. So in the short term, the better medical technologies we have, the longer we can increase the human lifespan. In the last 300 years, we have more than doubled the life expectancy for a first-world citizen. The conventional method for doing this is to treat the conditions that arise due to aging, so we may be near a limit on this front. However, what if we go for the root causes, the mechanisms that drive the aging process on the microscopic level?

The science of aging is still not very well understood. That is why institutions like the SENS Research Foundation are pursuing the subject. As of now, there are several factors that are suspected to have something to do with the process.

Free radical accumulation:
The name sounds a fringe political group. Free radicals are atoms or molecules with empty spots in their outer electron shells. They are highly reactive, and will take electrons from other atoms and molecules. In cells, this causes damage. Free radicals build up from normal metabolism, but can be increased by unhealthy habits like smoking.

Telomere shortening:
At the end of each DNA strand is a sequence that repeats over and over. This is called a telomere, and it is kind of like the end of a zipper. Each time the cell divides and copies its DNA, it misses a tiny bit at the end. In the next generation of cells, the telomeres are shorter. This imposes a limit on how many times our cells can divide.

General damage:
Some injuries just don’t heal. Ligaments and tendons can remain damaged for a long time, perhaps indefinitely. Severed digits and limbs don’t grow back. Scars, both external and internal, sometimes don't go away. The brain loses gray matter. However, I would bet that these large-scale problems are the results of small-scale problems, such as the previous two discussed.

I assume there are more; I am no expert in cellular biology. There is a long road ahead of us, strewn with unknowns, but that is why it is called research. Aging is not magical; it can be understood, and once it is, it can be fought with technology and eventually defeated.

The idea of living for centuries, millennia, and even eons might be frightening, conjuring up images of someone bored and sick and tired of life, yet unable to lie down to rest. If given the choice tomorrow to live a normal lifespan or a million years, I imagine the thought of spending day after day, year after year, millennium after millennium waking up, going through the day, and going to sleep, and the fear of the crushing depressive boredom that it could bring with it, might cause many people to choose the normal limitation. But just as aging is not magical, immortality will not be either. We will still be able to die from accident, homicide, disease, or poor lifestyle habits. And if we do get bored, there will always be the option of going off the treatment. Sure, the idea of a million year lifespan may be daunting, but if I were offered the chance to live one more day for a million years, I can see myself taking it every time.

"He's thousands of years old. Some people say millions, although that's impossible."
We have only scratched the surface of the possibilities and consequences of an ageless life. Imagine the skills we could master, and the entrepreneurial feats that could be accomplished if time were not a limit. We could build cities the size of planets. We could forge interstellar trading routes at normal speeds. We could put a trillion solar panel satellites around the sun, capturing 100% of its energy.

Aging has always been a natural part of life, and it still is. But it does not have to be. Look at how technology advances; fifty years took us from the transistor to the internet, and it seems like every other day some new material, machine, or procedure is invented. So despite how little aging is understood right now, it is not unthinkable that it might be reversed within the next 60 years—my projected lifetime. It may still be too far off, but we can hope. As Isaac Arthur says on his video on the subject, "Live forever or die trying."

Friday, April 21, 2017

Quasi-Realism: The Patch on a Leaking Cosmoid

Part of a series on the nature of reality:
Realism and Idealism

Recommended Pre-Reading:
Cosmoid: A Definition
What is Science?
What is Not Science?

Back in February, I argued that reality exists independently of our perceptions, beliefs, and understanding. We live in an objective world, brought to us through our senses and translated into something we can experience. The universe is just too regular, too mathematical, too consistent to be otherwise. To most people, this seems like common sense, so they would agree. However, the human being is a complicated creature; we often believe things in our brains, but act as if they are not true. Rarely is this as evident as with the nature of reality.

When we open our eyes for the first time, we are assaulted with sensory information. Lights and colors, sounds, pressures and motion. As time goes on, we find patterns in these sensations, and slowly build up a model of the world, making connections and learning about how the world works. I have a memory from when I was very young—younger than seven. I was watching an episode of Veggie Tales, where Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber were on a cruise boat. Larry was at the wheel, and Bob came up to him and said “we’re making snow cones back here. Do you want peach or strawberry?” I remember noticing at the time that the boat they were in was little bigger than a bathtub, and I had not seen any snow cone equipment in the scenes before. Had the veggies decided they wanted snow cones and then, because of their decision, the equipment was suddenly there? I thought about myself sitting on the couch in the living room, and what I would do if I wanted a soup ladle. Could I just have it in my hand, or would I have to get up and walk into the kitchen to get it? I tried the first way, but no ladle materialized. I stopped thinking about it, getting absorbed in the movie again, but the memory has stuck with me as one of the defining moments of my development.

When we begin to comprehend logic, we have already formed habits of thought. The blank slate has already been written upon, and it is very hard to erase. Think of all the people who, as adults, are still nervous in the dark. Whether we tell ourselves it is nothing and that the place is the same in the dark as in the light, or rationalize our fear in terms of ghosts and spiritual energy, there is an anxiety that lingers in us from a time when we did not understand, when we believed that, if darkness covered something, then it did not truly exist. We believed the fuzziness in our perception was fuzziness in reality, and that anything at all might emerge.

There is an idea out there called the “Law of Attraction,” which says that if you think about something enough, it will come to you. Although there may be some truth to this from a certain point of view—if you are thinking about something you will notice happenings and opportunities that you would otherwise be oblivious to, but which would have been there all the same—it is explained as some kind of subconscious influence over the events of reality. However, everything that happens has a mechanism behind how it works. Everything has a chain of causality, regardless of whether you are there to see it or not. Essentially, the Law of Attraction is the same idea as the manifestation of the soup ladle or the snow cone machine, but pushed back beyond the boundaries of what we know and perceive. Metaphysical fuzziness.

As we go about our lives, we have experiences. Things happen, and we react or ignore them. When we notice our experiences, we might wonder why it happens, and then either try to find its scientific explanation or shrug our shoulders and accept it. Because we have to expend extra thought effort to understand how a phenomenon comes to be, and phenomena are all we experience with our bare senses, there arises an unconscious leaning toward the idea that phenomena are fundamental to reality, and they cause their explanations. In fact, it is the explanations that are fundamental to reality, existing and happening outside of perception, but completely real nonetheless, and that cause the phenomena we experience.

You might think, okay, this is obvious. Who in their right mind wouldn’t understand that physical explanations cause our experiences? Well one place you can find signs of the reverse is in advertising. Every so often I will see ads or headlines or video titles that say something like, “7 Spooky Phenomena Science Cannot Explain.” It does not say that scientists have not yet explained them, but implies that science is incapable of explaining them. And they must attract attention, or else they would not be used. If you have read my post, “What is Science?” you will know that I defined science as the most systematic way to go about studying something. Therefore, if science cannot explain something, there must be no explanation. In my post, “What is Not Science?” I argued that this is the definition of magic, and in “What if Nothing is Real?” (Realism and Idealism), I argued that magic cannot exist unless the fabric of reality is fundamentally Ideal.

So are all the people who click on these sensational headlines Idealists? Not necessarily, because they probably have not taken the time to parse the details of their metaphysical beliefs. That is why I am defining the term, Quasi-Realism: the state of expressing belief in Realism while subconsciously making choices and treating the world in one or more ways as if it were Ideal. Quasi-Realism is logically incoherent, and exemplifies the irrationality of human beings.

There is a bright side, though. Stories play perfectly into our sense of Quasi-Realism. That is why they can have magic, and faster than light travel, and even get known science wrong, and we still remain absorbed in them as if they could actually be happening. As a scientist writer, I constantly feel overwhelmed by behind-the-scenes questions. What about this? How can this be true? What is the pigment molecule that makes these plants from another planet slightly bluish? What kind of wood are the houses sided with? What do the main characters eat if they live in an environment very different from northern midwest United States of America? I get bogged down with these questions, and find my hands hovering over the keyboard, unable to make any strokes. But I have to remember that it really does not matter; if I explain only what is relevant to the story, then the readers can fill in the blanks on their own. Fiction, being a mere illusion in the mind, has no restraints against the fuzziness of Quasi-Reality.

Quasi-Realism is incompatible with Realism. The only way it could logically be true would be if the fabric of the universe were Ideal. It is what we fill in the gaps of our Cosmoids with. We want to feel like we know a large percentage of all that can be known, so in those places we don’t understand, we act as though there is no answer until we find out. If we want to learn and grow, we have to learn to spot the places where we have patched our cosmoids with Quasi-Realism, and with humility pull off those patches and admit we simply do not know what goes there. Only then can we explore the empty space and find the the answers and rich new mysteries beyond.