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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.