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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
Quasi-Realism
Representationalism

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.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Legendary Villains

Bad guys. We are supposed to hate them, right? They are the ones who get in the way of the heroes, and mess everything up. But sometimes the villains grab our attention and take it in a choke-hold. We cry at their horrible deeds, yet stand in awe of their power. And sometimes the villains make such an impact that they transcend the stories they come from and live as legends in the common culture. Today, I am going to talk about a few villains that have achieved legendary status. These bad boys have made such a name for themselves that they are known far and wide, even by people who have never heard one of their stories. They are icons of power and destruction, and look really cool too.

Fair warning: there will be spoilers.

Darth Vader
Taken from Epic Rap Battles of History: Adolf Hitler vs Darth Vader
Whenever the phrase “dark lord” is mentioned, this dude comes to everyone’s mind. His black mask and cape capture a visual image of evil, and you know just by looking at him that he is going to do whatever is best for him and whatever is worst for you. His name literally translates to “Dark Father,” foreshadowing the trilogy’s world-famous twist. And he has the most dominating theme song ever, which might even be more well-known than the man-machine himself, the Imperial March.

The Joker

Don’t let his smile fool you; this prankster might be messing around, but there is a very real chance he will kill you. Sometimes that gun has a bullet, and sometimes just a flag that says “bang.” The Joker is the ultimate sadist, throwing off all social constraints and taking amusement solely in fear, anger, pain, and death. He is the opposite, the perfect foil of his nemesis, Batman. While the cloaked vigilante stalks the streets from the shadows of night, the attention-gluttonous clown flourishes terror for all to see. He crafts nightmares and makes them real, jerking his victims’ emotions this way and that, leading them close to hope and snatching it away again, and just when they think it might be over, strikes in the place where it hurts most.
Why so serious?

Satan

That’s right, the next villain on my list is none other than the devil himself. Satan is the enemy of God, the one who molded the world of humans out of Chaos. Satan is ruler of Hell, a place of torment and gnashing of teeth on the edge of Chaos. Though myths of Satan go back thousands of years, the most widely-known version is found in the epic poem, Paradise Lost. Having once been angels, only he out of the Fallen retains his glorified form. Because of this, he can masquerade as an angel of light and fool even the highest of archangels, his deceptions breakable only by God himself. Being the enemy of an all-powerful, all-knowing being is tough; there is no possibility of overthrowing such an opponent, so Satan makes it his goal only to frustrate his enemy’s plans as much as possible, howling defiance toward the skies till the end and his inevitable demise.

Sephiroth

This silver-haired sword master might not be as well known by the general public, but among video game players he is the icon of power, destruction, and tragedy. Where some villains reflect the darker side of the hero in a metaphorical sense, for Sephiroth and his enemy Cloud, this connection is literal. Half human, half Lovecraftian horror, Sephiroth has a visage of divinity to rivals the devil's, completed by his single demonic wing. But perhaps the most distinguishing thing about him is his theme song, “One-Winged Angel,” with its killer Latin-chant chorus. Sephiroth's fame is about to have new fire blown into it, as his game of origin, Final Fantasy VII, is getting remade for Playstation 4!

This is the completed list so far, but I think it would be worth mentioning a contender I see rising through the ranks, who might find a place among them in the future.

Ganon

The demon king of The Legend of Zelda series does not measure up to the requirements of Legendary Villain at the moment, but with the way the series is going, he may achieve a position before long. For most of the series's history, Ganon was a mere antagonist for the hero and the princess. However, a few years ago Nintendo decided to string all the games together in a timeline, and began developing story elements that run through the entire series. The land of Hyrule is caught up in an eternal cycle of calamity, where Link, the Hero of Courage and Zelda, the Princess of Wisdom fight Ganon, the Demon of Power. Though Link and Zelda are mortal and thus different people each time, Ganon is the same person every time. In the most recent games, Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild, the story has been explicitly linked to the rest of the timeline, and the character of Ganon has been developed. If this continues, then it may not be long before Ganon rises to the ranks of Legendary Villain.

You may be wondering why the list is so short. After all, there have been quite a lot of villains in literary history. I did consider a few others, and perhaps I missed some, but there are very few who make it to legendary status. Sauron is awe-inspiring, but he does not have much of a personality. Voldemort and Magneto come close, but fall short of just about every condition. And I avoided anyone real, because real villains are just bad and not worthy of the honor. Still, it is not unlikely that other legends will rise to the title as stories and culture evolve through the next century and beyond.